MONDAY, Sept. 8, 2008 (HealthDay News) -- A masculine walking motion is perceived by observers as coming toward them, while a feminine walk seems to be heading the other way, according to an Australian study.
This type of research is done by illuminating only the joints of walkers and asking observers to identify characteristics about the point-light figures' movements.
"It's a really interesting thing," Rick van der Zwan, of Southern Cross University, said in a Cell Press news release. "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. 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."
An earlier study that used male models noted that observers tended to perceive the point-light figures as always facing in their direction, even if that wasn't the case. In this news study, van der Zwan and colleagues took a closer look at this phenomenon by having observers view a series of point-light figures ranging from a "girly girl" to a "hulking male."
The researchers found that walking male figures did indeed appear to face toward the observers, while female figures appeared to be face away from observers. The pattern was the same regardless of the gender of the observer, which may offer an important clue about the behavior.
"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," van der Zwan and colleagues wrote.
"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," the researchers noted. "Similarly, for observers, and especially infants, the departure of females might signal also a need to act, but for different reasons."
The study, the first to show a link between perception of gender from biological motion cues and the perception of orientation, is in the Sept. 9 issue of the journal Current Biology.
For more about motion analysis, visit the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.