Contextual Signals


Traits, Perceptions, and the Importance of Context

This research was conducted among Sudanese (Nuer and Dinka) refugees relocated to the U.S. Midwest. As children, many of these individuals underwent a challenging dental extraction process (typically involving the removal of all lower incisors and canines). This tradition was part of a coming of age ceremony that served to signify both a transition into adulthood and an individual’s tribal identity.

However, the effects of this cultural practice hindered many refugees’ transition into US society by limiting their ability to masticate typical US foods and exposing them to the negative perceptions of those missing with teeth (Willis, Schacht and Toothaker 2005). While missing teeth in the Sudan serve as an indicator of adulthood and tribal identity, they signal something quite different in US. Through our work, we found that among college students, missing teeth were perceived to be associated with poor health, lack of education and decreased attractiveness (Willis, Willis-Esqueda & Schacht 2008). Our research highlighted that while a trait may serve as a signal of some underlying quality in one context (e.g. tribal identity), in another it may signal something entirely different (e.g. poor health), leading to negative social perceptions and outcomes for relocated individuals. This research helped to secure funding for dental implants for those most affected (through diet restriction and social avoidance; see photo) by their inability to eat, speak, and look like others in the U.S. (Langeloth Foundation).