September 2019
Volume 19, Issue 10
Open Access
Vision Sciences Society Annual Meeting Abstract  |   September 2019
Asymmetric representation of sex from body shape
Author Affiliations & Notes
  • Paul Downing
    School of Psychology, Bangor University
  • Marco Gandolfo
    School of Psychology, Bangor University
Journal of Vision September 2019, Vol.19, 229a. doi:
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      Paul Downing, Marco Gandolfo; Asymmetric representation of sex from body shape. Journal of Vision 2019;19(10):229a. doi:

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      © ARVO (1962-2015); The Authors (2016-present)

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We efficiently infer others’ states and traits from their appearance, and these inferences shape our social behaviour. One key trait is sex, which is strongly cued by body shape. We investigated the perceptual representations of the body shape of the two sexes. Specifically we tested a hypothesis, drawn from previous findings in sex-discrimination tasks, that the mental encoding of male and female body shapes is asymmetrical, such that female bodies are coded with reference to a male default. If so, following the logic of Treisman’s search asymmetry approach, then in a search task female targets should be found more efficiently amongst male distractors than vice versa. This pattern was confirmed, in participants of both sexes, for body silhouettes seen from side and frontal views, and for simplified geometric icon figures. In two control experiments, we showed that the search asymmetry favouring female bodies emerged from whole body perceptual processes and was not explained by lower level stimulus properties. These findings demonstrate an organising principle of the encoding of body shape in support of inferring a socially relevant trait.


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