What Do Your Shoes Really Say About You? A Psychological Assessment

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What Do Your Shoes Really Say About You? A Psychological Assessment

Words by Ms Shakaila Forbes-Bell

18 September 2023

Remember when expressing your point of view was restricted to a select group of confidants? We now live in an era where, no matter the topic’s sensitivity, views mean views and engagement trumps feelings. Justifiably, there’s been a greater call for empathy. We’re implored to #bekind or to follow the century-old admonition to “walk a mile in someone else’s shoes”. Now, with any idiom, we’re not meant to take it literally, but focus on the symbolism. Still, as a fashion psychologist, I’ve always wondered why this saying felt so right. Why does something like “walking a mile carrying someone else’s bag” or “wearing someone else’s trousers” not quite hit the same? After digging through an unholy amount of research, I discovered it’s because your choice of shoes act as a type of behavioural residue. Yes, your footwear really can be an unintended manifestation of your personality.

As the physical point where our body meets the surrounding physical space, shoes have become a valuable resource for communicating our identity. Studies dating back to the early 1970s have proven that variations in colours, shapes and styles of shoes convey various messages about the wearer.

More recently, in a paper entitled “Shoes As A Source Of First Impressions”, researcher Dr Omri Gillath and colleagues revealed that by simply looking at a picture of a stranger’s most worn shoes, you can guess their age, gender, income and whether they have an anxious attachment style with significant accuracy.

The way shoes have become intertwined with our identity may explain why, despite an almost universal tightening of wallets, the global footwear market is still set to increase by four per cent between 2023 and 2028. Casual and athletic footwear, in particular, is now often viewed as a necessity.

If you’re one of the many people who see their shoes as just that, a necessity, then your shoes are not so much an expression of your innermost self, but rather, just the pair that was lying closest to the front door. But if you’re interested in the impression that you give, then understanding what your shoes are communicating is crucial.

Gillath’s study began with shoe owners completing a questionnaire. The stranger’s answers matched the shoe owner’s responses across four dimensions. However, the strangers agreed with each other across a host of personality dimensions that didn’t align with the shoe owner’s responses. Their agreements prove that our shoes often communicate messages about us that we wouldn’t necessarily agree with.

If you’ve ever been a victim of a painfully timed “What are those?” as I have – apparently, beige adidas Ozweegos give “grandad”, not “cool millennial” – then you know that perception often trumps expression. Your shoe selection will often boil down to who you’re seeing and who will be seeing you. When there’s a misalignment between how we see ourselves and the image we project, it can cause friction in social relationships. That’s why an understanding of fashion psychology is crucial.

Whether you’re Puss in Boots, Cinderella or simply my next-door neighbour putting his bins out, you can’t deny the transformative power of footwear. Every step you take communicates an aspect of your identity. So, take back some control and pick a pair that speaks your language.

As highlighted in Gillath’s study, here is how different types of shoes will influence other people’s perceptions of you.

If you frequently wear high-top sneakers, you’re perceived as having an avoidant attachment style meaning that you care little for the opinions of others and are incredibly self-reliant. People will also assume that you’re introverted, enjoy playing devil’s advocate and are known to be careless.

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Wearing worn-out shoes makes people think you have a secure attachment style, meaning that you’re confident in your relationships and appreciate your self-worth. You’re seen as being highly extroverted and having emotional stability.

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If you always rock fresh pairs of sneakers out of the box, you’re perceived as having an anxious attachment style. You’re seen as a bit needy and desire to be close to others, but are afraid of how you’ll be received. Interestingly, going down the logomania route with your shoe selection can increase your perceived emotional stability.

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Even if there’s just an inch of elevation on a pair of loafers, any shoe that increases the height of its wearer will be associated with power and emotional stability.

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Suppose you often wear shoes with a universal appeal, like those white Alexander McQueen sneakers or the Nike Dunk Low Pandas. In that case, people will see you as conscientious and emotionally secure. They’ll also assume you have high resource access and lean politically to the right.

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These shoes will have people assuming that you are extroverted, agreeable and emotionally stable. They’ll also assume that your politics are more liberal.

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