Will a Category Cue Attract You? Motor Output Reveals Dynamic Competition Across Person Construal

Jonathan B. Freeman, Nalini Ambady, Nicholas O. Rule, Kerri L. Johnson

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


People use social categories to perceive others, extracting category cues to glean membership. Growing evidence for continuous dynamics in real-time cognition suggests, contrary to prevailing social psychological accounts, that person construal may involve dynamic competition between simultaneously active representations. To test this, the authors examined social categorization in real-time by streaming the x, y coordinates of hand movements as participants categorized typical and atypical faces by sex. Though judgments of atypical targets were largely accurate, online motor output exhibited a continuous spatial attraction toward the opposite sex category, indicating dynamic competition between multiple social category alternatives. The authors offer a dynamic continuity account of social categorization and provide converging evidence across categorizations of real male and female faces (containing a typical or an atypical sex-specifying cue) and categorizations of computer-generated male and female faces (with subtly morphed sex-typical or sex-atypical features). In 3 studies, online motor output revealed continuous dynamics underlying person construal, in which multiple simultaneously and partially active category representations gradually cascade into social categorical judgments. Such evidence is challenging for discrete stage-based accounts.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)673-690
Number of pages18
JournalJournal of Experimental Psychology: General
Issue number4
StatePublished - Nov 2008


  • categorization
  • continuity
  • dynamical systems
  • social cognition
  • social perception

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • General Psychology
  • Developmental Neuroscience


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