Fats Waller knew which end was up. The mark of mate-ability, he infallibly sang, was to be had by looking down. Shakespeare agreed: he wrote, “Farewell Love and all thy laws for ever, Thy Birkenstocks shall tangle me no more.”
Virgil said, “A fault is fostered by concealment in poor footwear.” And Molière observed, “All the ills of mankind, all the tragic misfortunes that fill the history books, all the political blunders, all the failures of the great leaders have arisen merely from a lack of taste in shoes.” Even St Paul himself said, “Love is patient, love is kind, love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. But love insists that one never wear Crocs.”
With these timeless insights in mind, look at the picture in the upper-right corner of this post. What kind of person would you say wears this shoe? The answer is below, but don’t cheat. Test your powers of observation first.
The wearer is a man, obviously. A man’s man, at that. Somebody bold, brash; yet wise, kind to strangers. Discriminating. A fellow who reeks of good taste. A success.
Your list was doubtless filled with these and similar words. And that’s because it’s easy to tell (nearly) everything you need to know about a fellow by fixing an eye on his footwear. As seen above, this was common wisdom even in the Bard’s day. And it is truer today because the number of ways to err increaseth daily. Even yesterday I spied a business-suited man who legs disappeared into black-cotton espadrilles—and this was far from any sanitarium!
Now while it might have always been known that a man’s shoes reveal more about him than the contents of his bookshelves, we did not until yesterday know that we knew this with a certain level of statistical significance. That remiss has been remedied by Omri Gillath and his four-minus-one fast friends in their peer-reviewed paper “Shoes as a source of first impressions” in the Journal of Research in Personality.
Our scientific quartet “investigated people’s precision in judging characteristics of an unknown person, based solely on the shoes he or she wears most often.” They discovered, or rather rediscovered, that folks “accurately judged the age, gender, income, and attachment anxiety of shoe owners based solely on the pictures.”
If you agree with the sentiment “I want to get close to my partner, but I keep pulling back” or “I am nervous when partners get too close to me” or even “I try to avoid getting too close to my partner” then you have the psychological affliction known as “attachment anxiety” which you wear on your feet like a martyr wears his heart on his sleeve.
“Shoes,” the authors inform us, “serve a practical purpose,” a finding which shows why we instinctively trust scientists. Yet shoes also, our researchers insist, “serve as nonverbal cues with symbolic messages.” They are even guides to the “dogmatism and creativity” of their owners. For example, “People who are extraverted…tend to wear more colorful shoes” while, somewhat surprisingly, the rich opt for “high-end brands”.
The experimenters gathered “208 undergraduate students enrolled in an introductory Psychology course” and had them fill out questionnaires and take pictures of their shoes. They then showed these pictures to “63 [new] undergraduate students”. The pics were used to rate the wearers’ “personality, attachment style, political ideology, and demographic dimensions.”
Do you know what happened? The raters’ judgments of the shoe owners’ self-assessed personality traits were barely to crudely correlated. But the important thing is that many of these small correlations were attached to wee, publishable p-values. Which closes the case and officially provides the proof so desperately needed for the commonsense wisdom that shoes make the man.
Not that shoes give the entire game away. For instance, it was found “people could accurately detect attachment anxiety,” from glancing at footwear, “but not attachment avoidance.” This follows from the theoretical considerations:
People with avoidant attachment…are aloof and repressive in regulating their emotions and relationships with others. Given that they generally do not care about how others perceive them, it is less likely that their shoes would reveal something about who they are (Banai, Mikulincer, & Shaver, 2005).
Nevertheless, “unless a shoe owner purposefully generates a deceptive image, shoes can be a reliable source of information.” The authors leave us with this caution: “Do people buy and wear shoes strategically to portray an image, and can observers detect the ‘acquired image?’ These are fundamental questions in personality and social psychology, and they play out in many domains—shoes are merely one attractive alternative to research.”
Thanks to Eric Anderson who suggested this topic.