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Hard and Soft: Stereotypes of Politicians and Scientists

June 21, 2013

By Michael L. Slepian (Tufts University) and Nalini Ambady (Stanford University)

How do political stereotypes affect judgments? In American politics, Republicans are commonly seen as being stereotypically “harder” than Democrats. Republicans are said to show greater support for capital punishment and aggressive military action, political stances associated with being “hard” or “tough.” In contrast, Democrats are seen as being more likely to support policies regarded as “softer,” such as universal healthcare and affirmative action (American National Election Studies, 2005).

The use of hardness and softness to distinguish social categories shows up in other domains too. For instance, a physicist is often stereotyped as a “hard scientist,” whereas a sociologist is stereotyped as a “soft scientist.”   In a series of studies recently published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin (Slepian, Rule, & Ambady, 2012), we investigated how political stereotypes influence thought and behavior.

In the first study, participants described what “hard” politicians, “soft” politicians, “hard” scientists, and “soft” scientists were like. People effortlessly were able to describe these social categories, and the words used to describe the “hard” politicians and scientists were rated as “harder” than the words used to describe the “soft” politicians and scientists, according to another set of participants. Hard politicians were described as tough and unwavering, and hard scientists were described as rigorous and precise. Conversely, soft politicians were described as agreeable and tender, and soft scientists were described as imprecise and flexible.

The second study examined the relationship between physical sensations and the evocation of stereotypes. Do experiences with hard and soft sensations evoke stereotypes of Republicans and Democrats?  For example, when handling a hard object, its sensory qualities of being firm and unyielding might be metaphorically related to stereotypically firm and unyielding Republicans, compared to stereotypically tender Democrats. To test this idea, participants were asked to squeeze either a hard or a soft ball while categorizing men and women’s faces as either Democrat or Republican. Squeezing a hard ball made those faces more likely to be judged as Republicans, and squeezing a soft ball made those faces more likely to be judged as Democrats. Thus, brief sensations of hardness and softness influenced whether people saw another person as a Republican or a Democrat.

The third study examined “hard” and “soft” scientists.  Participants were asked to squeeze either a hard or a soft ball while categorizing male professor faces as physicists or historians. Squeezing a hard ball made those faces more likely to be judged as physicists (“hard” scientists), and squeezing a soft ball made those faces more likely to be judged as historians (“soft” scientists). Hard and soft sensations changed how people perceived faces as physicists or as historians.

Why do physical sensations influence the perception and categorization of faces? This work is part of the emerging field of embodied cognition. Cognition might not be based only in the brain, operating the way a computer does, but instead might be embodied, involving physical sensations and bodily movement. People associate a variety of sensations with concepts such as time, importance, morality and more (for reviews see Landau, Meier, & Keefer, 2010; Meier, Schnall, Schwarz, & Bargh, 2012). Thus, even social categories that have no actual relation to physical properties might be metaphorically associated with physical sensations (see also Slepian, Weisbuch, Rule, & Ambady, 2011; Slepian, Young, Rule, Weisbuch, & Ambady, 2012). And these associations seem particularly strong. In the fourth and final study, people thought about Republicans, or Democrats, and then decided how hard or soft a ball was. After thinking about Republicans, participants thought a ball felt harder, and after thinking about Democrats, participants thought the same ball felt softer. Thus, physical sensation can influence how we think about people, and thoughts about people can influence physical sensations.

Author Information

slepianMichael Slepian is a PhD candidate in the Social Psychology program at Tufts University. His research examines how social perception and cognition are grounded in bodily states, and conversely the role the body plays in perceiving and understanding others. His research on the interplay between sensation and cognition focuses on categorization, creativity, secrecy, and impression formation.

ambadyNalini Ambady is a Professor of Psychology at Stanford University. Her research interests focus on the accuracy of social, emotional, and perceptual judgments, how personal and social identities affect cognition and performance, nonverbal and cross-cultural communication, and social and cultural neuroscience. She examines these phenomena from multiple perspectives ranging from the biological to the sociocultural.


American National Election Studies. (2005). ANES cumulative data file, October 31, 2005 [Data file]. Available from

Landau, M. J., Meier, B. P., & Keefer, L. A. (2010). A metaphor-enriched social cognition. Psychological Bulletin, 136, 1045-1067.

Meier, B. P., Schnall, S., Schwarz, N., & Bargh, J. A. (2012). Embodiment in social psychology. Topics in Cognitive Science, 4, 705-716.

Slepian, M. L., Weisbuch, M., Rule, N. O., & Ambady, N. (2011). Tough and tender: Embodied categorization of gender. Psychological Science, 22, 26-28.

Slepian, M.L., Rule, N.O., & Ambady, N. (2012). Proprioception and person perception: Politicians and professors. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 38, 1621-1628.

Slepian, M. L., Young, S. G., Rule, N. O., Weisbuch, M., & Ambady, N. (2012). Embodied impression formation: Social judgments and motor cues to approach and avoidance. Social Cognition, 30, 232-240.

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