Photo by Mark Barkaway
Photo by Mark Barkaway


A photograph emerged last January of a smiling Mitt Romney seated in a chair on the tarmac in front of a corporate jet, one foot raised, a man in a red jacket apparently shining his shoes.

But NPR corrected that story line, noting that a TSA agent was inspecting Romney’s black wingtips with a security wand. Before this context became clear, however, critics said the story showed how few of us could imagine what it would be like to walk in this millionaire’s shoes. Or he in ours.

Research conducted by psychologists at the University of Kansas and Wellesley College suggests another interpretation. In a study of nearly 300 undergraduate students, 63 were shown photographs of shoes that belonged to the remaining volunteers, all of whom had filled out a survey about their personality traits.

Scientists found that participants deduced the age, gender, income level, and agreeableness of others based on footwear alone, according to the article published in the Journal of Research in Personality.

“The most surprising finding,” said Angela Bahns, one of the study’s authors, “is that our participants accurately guessed attachment anxiety,” or worry about being rejected, in those who wore new and well-kept shoes. This footwear choice perhaps reflects concern about others’ approval of them (think political candidates).

Doubtless we should heed songwriter Joe South’s admonitions not to abuse, criticize, and accuse before walking a mile in his shoes. Still, we may not be able to ignore the implications of a politician’s shiny wingtips.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Jennifer Henderson is a Virginia Tech doctoral student in science and technology studies.


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