Social psychology is the study of everyday life – the self, one’s relationships, social influence, and how people view and behave toward others. Its overarching themes center on the principles of situationism, meaning that situations have a powerful influence over behavior, subjectivism, meaning that everyone sees the world through a filtered perception, emergence, or the idea that phenomena are constructed rather than fundamental, and the fact that phenomena are multidimensional – they are the result of many factors. This 101 series examines various introductory topics in social psychology.
Social Psychology 101 is divided into the following chapters of content:
Social Psychology 101: Perceiving Others
Social Psychology 101: The Mechanisms of Social Influence
Social Psychology 101: Persuading Others
Social Psychology 101: Attraction, Love, & Relationships
Social Psychology 101: Perceiving Others
Person perception can be defined as the process of learning about others (Stagnor, 2011). When people interact with each other, they are perceiving the other person, making inferences and judgments about who they are as a person and in the context of their social situation. In most cases, people are more likely to craft perceptions based on mental averaging, rather than mental adding (Stagnor, 2011). In other words, not all the information learned about the other person becomes factored into an individual’s perception of them equally. For instance, more extreme information stands out, while added moderate information serves to dilute the extreme; negative information is more heavily weighed than positive information, and particular emphasis is placed on whether someone perceives another person to be warm or cold (Stagnor, 2011). Motivated biases and attribution effects are other cognitive phenomena that impact how people see others. The judgments people make about others lead them to make conclusions about them, and whether they are true or false, they inform how people treat others.
Figure 1: When meeting someone for the first time, people form impressions of them based on highly salient characteristics (Glosson, 2018).
Two underlying factors drive person perception: self-enhancement, or the desire to see oneself in a positive light, and affiliation, or the human need for social support networks (Stagnor, 2011). Trying to increase one’s self-esteem or understand others leads an individual to perceive others, and consequently, they make impressions of and decisions about them. This article will overview the process of impression formation, the influence of cognitive biases, and causal attribution and its effects on perceiving others.
Forming First Impressions
When an individual perceives someone for the first time, they form an impression of that person based on the stimuli present that are highly salient. These include physical characteristics, like appearance or non-verbal behaviors, and social category memberships, communicated by someone’s clothes and cues (Stagnor, 2011). Negatively-valenced stimuli also tend to be focused on. In a study conducted to understand which kinds of emotionally veiled stimuli participants would respond to more quickly, Hansen & Hansen (1988) presented participants with one of two arrays of faces: either mostly positive with one threatening face, or mostly threatening faces with a single positive one. Participants were tasked with pointing out the distinct face in the array, and they proved to be much faster and more accurate at pointing out negative faces (Hansen & Hansen, 1988). Dijksterhuis et al. (2003) further exhibited that people are quicker and more accurate at visually identifying negative words compared to positive or neutral ones (Dijksterhuis & Aarts, 2003). These studies illustrate the fact that humans have a strong negativity bias in visual perception, likely due to evolutionary needs for safety and survival in uncertain environments (Stagnor, 2011). This tendency to highlight the negative goes to show that negative information is highly salient during person perception.
Figure 2: Hansen & Hansen (1988) demonstrated how negative or threatening faces are picked out of a crowd of positive faces faster and more accurately than a positive face in a crowd of negative faces (Pinkham et al., 2010).
From perceiving highly salient characteristics, people then begin to form an impression of the other person’s mind. Depending on a person’s perception, they may attribute minds to nonhuman entities as well as deny that another human being has a person’s mind and treat them as an animal or object (Epley & Waytz, 2010). Attributing a mind to another person means that person is given moral standing - that is, they are entitled to certain human rights. Attributing mind is not all or nothing however, as people may ascribe different levels of mind to different entities, based on their perceived agency and subjective experience (Epley & Waytz, 2010). Perceiving mind plays a great role in determining how an individual will interact with the person they are attempting to understand.
Personality is also inferred during first impressions and takes a shockingly short time to be concluded. What is more is that these impressions are lasting. Researchers Ambady & Rosenthal (1993) compared students who were shown a 30-second video clip of a professor teaching to students who took the professor’s class for an entire semester. At the end of the study both groups evaluated the instructors very similarly across 15 personality traits (Ambady & Rosenthal, 1993). This finding points that a confirmation bias is present in first impressions. That is, once first impressions are made, they stick and remain stable in order to confirm one’s initial perception.
Figure 3: The primacy effect in person perception explains why information learned first tends to be more influential in the overall perception of someone (Cuncic, 2022).
The Influence of Biases
Several biases play a role when individuals are learning about another person. Confirmation bias refers to the tendency for people to seek out or interpret information that aligns with their beliefs or expectations (Marks & Fraley, 2006). Confirmation bias leads people to overweigh information that confirms their beliefs and expectations, and underweigh information that does not (Marks & Fraley, 2006). The primacy effect is another phenomenon that impacts how people perceive others. It dictates that the traits people perceive first bias their evaluation of traits they learn about later. This prior information is weighted more heavily in their evaluation of the person, and it occurs due to assimilation of the information, or reconceptualizing stimuli to align with previously-held schemas (Stagnor, 2011). When new information is learned, it is interpreted in the context of what has already been discovered. Asch (1946) discovered that when traits of an individual are presented to perceivers, the order of the listing of traits influences how that individual is seen (Asch, 1946). For example, participants would claim to like a person more with traits presented as “intelligent, hilarious, impulsive, critical, stubborn, and envious” compared to a person with traits presented as “envious, stubborn, critical, impulsive, hilarious, and intelligent” (Asch, 1946). These biases can cloud more objective interpretations during person perception.
Causal Attribution Effects
Causal attribution refers to the process of attempting to determine the cause of another person’s behavior (Stagnor, 2011). People may make personal attributions, attributing behavior to the person, or situational attributions, attributing behavior primarily to the situation at hand. According to the theory of correspondent inferences, one is more likely to make a personal attribution when they see behavior that defies the expectations of the situation, because it is perceived that the person had a choice in how they behaved in that situation (Jones & Davis, 1965). In alignment with covariation theory, one is more likely to make a situational attribution when consistency, distinctiveness, and consensus are present. In other words, when the situation always produces this type of behavior, the situation distinctively produces this behavior while other situations do not, and when other people behave similarly in the situation, people will attribute that behavior to the situation (Kelley, 1967).
Figure 4: The fundamental attribution error and actor-observer effect demonstrate how people attribute behaviors to others versus themselves (DTA, 2016).
There are several effects of attributions. For instance, the fundamental attribution error explains the tendency for people to overestimate the role of person factors and underestimate the role of situational factors when attributing behavior (Gilbert & Malone, 1993). This may occur during traffic, when someone attributes reckless driving to personal maliciousness rather than an urgent situation. The Actor-Observer effect describes how the fundamental attribution error completely references when people attribute causes to their own behaviors (Nisbett et al. 1973). For example, when a person cuts someone else off in traffic, they are likely to attribute their behavior to situational forces, rather than personal ones.
Person perception is not an objective or straightforward process; many subjective factors come to play when determining how someone will view others. It is important to be aware of the cognitive forces that construe one’s perception of others, and also to be aware that perceptions of oneself are often clouded by biases and potentially false attributions.
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Cover Image: Trudeau, M. (2014). You had me at hello: The science behind first impressions. NPR. [Digital art]. https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2014/05/05/308349318/you-had-me-at-hello-the-science-behind-first-impressions
Figure 1: Glosson, M. (2018). Why your body goes into panic mode when you meet someone new. Unwritten. [Photograph].
Figure 2: Pinkham, A., Griffin, M., Baron, R., Sasson, N., & Gur, R. (2010). The face in the crowd effect: Anger superiority when using real faces and multiple identities. Emotion (Washington, D.C.). [Photograph]. 10. 141-6. 10.1037/a0017387.
Figure 3: Cuncic, A. (2022). What is the primacy effect? Very Well Mind. [Illustration]. https://www.verywellmind.com/understanding-the-primacy-effect-4685243
Figure 4: DTA. (2016). Fundamental attribution error. DTA Innovation. [Illustration]. http://www.dtainnovation.com/amplify/fundamental-attribution-error