Washington, Sept 9 : While it's well-known that a person's walk reflects his or her gender, age and mood, a new study has gone a step further by revealing that an observer finds a masculine motion as coming toward them and a characteristically feminine walk looks like it's headed the other way.
The study was done by illuminating only the joints of model walkers and asking observers to identify various characteristics about the largely ambiguous figures.
"It's a really interesting thing. If you look at someone with just their joints illuminated when they aren't moving, it's difficult to tell what it is you are looking at. But as soon as they move, instantaneously, you can tell that it's a person and perceive their nature," said Rick van der Zwan of Southern Cross University in Australia.
He added: "You can tell if it's a boy or a girl, young or old, angry or happy.... You can discern all these qualities about their state, affect, and actions with no cues at all about what they look like-with no form at all, just motion."
While most of the earlier studies of biological motion perception have relied on male figures as models, one such study had noticed an interesting phenomenon: even though you can't really tell whether a so-called point-light figure is facing toward you or away, people seemed to perceive those figures always as facing in their direction.
But, in the latest study, researchers showed that this is not the case always.
In their study, people were made to observe point-light figures representing a continuum from an extremely "girly girl" to a "hulking male." In fact there was a gender-neutral walker at the halfway point in between, that observers judged as male half the time and female half the time.
The results indicated that walking male figures did indeed appear to face toward you. However, female figures looked as if they faced away.
This is the first time a link was shown between the perception of gender from biological motion cues and the perception of orientation.
The same pattern was seen despite of the gender of the person watching, which according to van der Zwan is an important clue about the behaviour.
"Our data suggest that biological motion is an important cue for social organisms trying to operate in environments where other cues as to the actions or intentions of other organisms may be ambiguous," wrote the researchers.
He added: "Whilst the precise role of local cues in mediating these effects requires further explication, it is tempting to speculate that the orientation biases reported here reflect the development of perceptual mechanisms that weigh in the probable cost of misinterpreting the actions and intentions of others. For example, a male figure that is otherwise ambiguous might best be perceived as approaching to allow the observer to prepare to flee or fight. Similarly, for observers, and especially infants, the departure of females might signal also a need to act, but for different reasons."
The study is published in the latest issue of Current Biology, a Cell Press publication.