A hitchhiker’s guide to social perception




by Emma Ricketts

The study of social perception concerns itself with how people form perceptions about others. We have an interest to present ourselves in the best possible light, to maintain relationships, impress others, and improve our own self-esteem. Study has shown that when we use impression management we are not only influencing how others perceive us but also how we perceive ourselves.[1] (Baron and Branscombe, 2014) Particularly first impressions seem to be vital. Mr. Sachidanand Swami put forward the hypothesis that our ability to judge other’s attribution (friendly or aggressive) within a split second has basis in evolution (Swami, 2015). In life threatening situation we need to quickly determine our appropriate response; flight, fight or forfeit. Even though most of us hardly encounter life threatening situations in our daily life, it might explain why we are so quick to judge other people’s personalities and intentions. To explain Swami’s hypothesis, ingratiation, and other social perception theories, I will apply them to the example of hitchhiking. Demonstrating how social psychology can increase our chances of getting a ride. Social perception is particularly important when hitchhiking as one only has a few seconds to convince a driver to give you a ride.


When hitchhiking we want to employ impression management. How we dress is how we will be perceived, especially in the seconds drivers see us next to the road. Looking well-groomed and modest is therefore important. People are more likely to stop when they see that we are well-taken care of, not only because they assume that we will not smell bad, but also because they will make judgements about one’s personality. They might also think we are responsible and trustworthy. This relates to implicit personality theory, which suggests that if we perceive someone having one trait, we also assume other personality traits. One should avoid wearing revealing clothes as people might make wrong assumptions about our intension. Similarly when we look rouged-up they might also presume we are aggressive or unpredictable. Douglas Adam’s did not seem to be too far of when he stated in his science fiction novel: “More importantly, a towel has immense psychological value. For some reason, if a strag (a non-hitchhiker) discovers that a hitchhiker has his towel with him, he will automatically assume that he is also in possession of a toothbrush, washcloth, soap, tin of biscuits, flask, compass, map, ball of string, gnat spray, wet-weather gear, space suit etc., etc.” (Adams, 1978)

Standing at the side of the road for hours can be exhausting and make us feel angry, desperate and annoyed. Still, it is important to keep smiling. Due to the actor-observer effect people are more likely to attribute ‘moods and actions’ to personality than to external factors, when concerning others. Potential-ride-givers will therefore likely not understand our grumpiness as a result of our bad-luck with getting ride, but more as part of our personality. And as nobody wants to share a car with a grumpy person we are more likely to get rejected. On the upside, ‘faking’ a smile might actually increase our mood. The facial feedback hypothesis suggests that our facial expression do not only influence how others perceive us, it also influence how we feel internally. Faking that smile might just do the job of turning our mood around.


Hitchhiking from petrol stations or roadside restaurants seems easier as we can engage in conversation. We now have the opportunity to use verbal and non-verbal cues to convince people to give us rides. Hence we should not only employ self-enhancement (showing of our best qualities) but also other-enhancements (making others feel better). A great way to do this is through humour. An example would be to complement someone on how spacious and comfortable their car looks or their perfect driving skills, and then asking them for a ride. It is key to make the proposal in a ‘fun way’ as this will complement your own qualities while making the other feel comfortable and liked, while avoiding to come across as insincere.

One of the advices I always follow when hitchhiking is to listen to my ‘gut-feeling’. When we have a feeling something is of, there is a good chance we are right. Theory shows that first impressions have a better than chance accuracy. (Baron and Banscombe, 2014). Politely refusing a ride is easier than trying to get out of an uncomfortable situation later on.

In conclusion, social perception is a useful tool to help us navigate social life. Controlling the way we are perceived by others through engaging in impression management can better our chances of getting rides. Even though we should be warry of forming conclusions about others too quickly – as we might make mistakes – its value should not be underestimated in relation to potentially dangerous situations.



Baron, R. A., Branscombe, N. R. (2014). Social Psychology (13th edition). Pearson.

Swami, S. (n.d.). Nonverbal World – All about Nonverbal Communication: Basic responses in stressful situations. Retrieved April 11, 2016, from http://www.nonverbal-world.com/2015/12/basic-responses-in-stressful-situations.html
Adams, D. (1979). The hitchhiker guide to the galaxy. Del Rey Books.

[1] Acording to the facial feedback hypothesis

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