Perceiving individuals - summary of chapter 3 of Social Psychology by Smith, E, R (fourth edition)

Social psychology
Chapter 3
Perceiving individuals

Forming first impressions: cues, interpretations, and inferences

Our knowledge about people’s characteristics and the ways they are related to one another is one type of mental representation.
Our stored knowledge influences virtually all of our social beliefs and behaviors.

Impressions guide our actions in ways that meet our needs for both concrete rewards and connectedness to other people.

The raw materials of first impressions

Perceptions of other people begin with visible cues including:

  • The person’s physical appearance
  • Nonverbal communication
  • Environments
  • Behavior

Familiarity affects impressions, leading to increased liking.
Cues that stand out and attract attention in the particular context in which they occur are particularly influential.

Impressions from physical appearance

Physical appearance influences our impressions of other people.
The way people look is usually our first our only cue to what they are like.

Physical beauty, particularly a beautiful face, calls up a variety of positive expectations.
We expect highly attractive people to be more interesting, warm, outgoing and socially skilled.

People from different cultures generally agree about who is physically attractive and about the traits attractiveness conveys.

Baby-faced males were viewed as more naive, honest, kind and warm.

Impressions from nonverbal communication

Nonverbal communication influences whether we like people, how we think they are feeling, and what we think they are like.

In general, we like people who express their feelings nonverbally more than less expressive individuals.

Specific nonverbal cues affect liking, even when we’re not aware of them.
Body language offers a special insight into people’s moods and emotions.

Impressions from nonverbal behavior can be formed quickly and are often quite accurate.

Detection and deception

Detecting lies is not always easy.
Paying attention instead to the diagnostic hints of deception can increase successful detection of lies from those within our own culture, as well as from those from other cultures.

Impressions form familiarity

Most of us tend to develop positive feelings about the people we encounter frequently in or everyday lives.
Mere exposure: exposure to a stimulus without any external reward, which creates familiarity with the stimulus and generally makes people feel more positively about it.

Impressions from environments

Clues to other’s personality, behavior and values can be seen in the real and virtual environments they inhabit and create.

Impressions from behavior

The most useful resource for developing an impression of another person is the individual’s behavior.

Which cues capture attention?

Characteristics that are different stand out.
Salience: the ability of a cue to attract attention in its context.

Automatic interpretations of cues

Cues have no meaning in themselves. Instead they are interpreted in light of our stored knowledge about people, behaviors, traits, and social situations. Stored knowledge that is linked to the cue itself or is easy to bring to mind is most likely to be used in interpreting cues.

The role of associations in interpretation

The strong link that exists between two mental representations.
Associations can arise from similarity in meanings between two mental representations,.

Ideas can also become associated if they are repeatedly thought about together. These learned connections depend on he culture that surround us.
Once we form an association, it links the two mental representations. If either of the linked representations comes to mind, the other will usually come to mind also.
Because of these patterns of stored associations, some cues are easier to interpret than others.

The role of accessibility in interpretation

The meaning of a behavior is not always so clear.
The accessibility of knowledge exerts a powerful influence on the interpretation of behavior or other cues.

The more accessible the knowledge, the more likely it is to come to mind automatically, without our consciously trying to retrieve it, and the more likely it is to guide our interpretation of cues.
Knowledge becomes accessible and influences how we interpret cues in three main ways:

  • It can be activated by some other cause concurrently (at the same time) as the cue occurs
  • Knowledge can be accessible because it has recently been activated
  • Knowledge can be accessible because it is frequently or chronologically activated

Accessibility from concurrent activation

Whatever thoughts are in our mind when we are interpreting cues activate related mental representations, making them highly accessible and this likely to affect our interpretations.
Sometimes already activated concepts can have very subtle influences on interpretations and therefore impressions.
Our current expectations also act as accessible knowledge that can powerfully influence our interpretations.
The effects of expectations on social perception are pervasive.
Our expectations about situations also activate related information, which we then use to help interpret behavior.

Accessibility form recent activation

A mental representation that has recently been brought to mind remains accessible for a time.
Anything that brings an idea to mind can make it accessible and influence our interpretations of behavior.

Priming: the activation of a mental representation to increase its accessibility and thus the likelihood that it will be used.
The effects of priming can be long-lasting. Concepts that have been primed have been shown to remain accessible and influence later interpretations for as long as 24 hours.

Subliminal: presentation of stimuli in such a way that perceivers are not consciously aware of them.
This can still make mental representations accessible and influence the interpretation of later information.

Accessibility from frequent activation

The frequent use of a mental representation over days, months, or years can make it chronically accessible.
When this happens, people repeatedly use the same concepts in interpreting others’ behavior.

Characterizing the behaving person: correspondent inferences

People often assume that others have inner qualities that correspond to their observable behaviors. This assumption is frequently made even when external factors could have influenced the behaviors.

Correspondent inference: the process of characterizing someone as having a personality trait that corresponds to his or her observed behavior.
When a correspondent inference follows the initial interpretation of a behavior, it completes a first impression, an initial mental representation of what the other person is like. This can occur spontaneously.

When is a correspondent inference justified?

Three conditions must hold true:

  • The individual freely chooses to perform the behavior
  • The behavior has unique effects that other behaviors do not
  • The behavior is unexpected rather than expected or typical

The correspondence bias: people are what they do

Correspondence bias: the tendency to infer an actor’s personal characteristics from observed behaviors, even when the inference is unjustified because other possible causes of the behavior exists.

Limits to the correspondence bias

Despite its power and pervasiveness, the correspondence bias does not inevitably affect our impressions of other people.
When people pay specific attention to the situation, the correspondence bias is reduced or reversed.

Culture also sets limits on the correspondence bias.
When observers pay attention to potential situational causes of behavior, they are less likely to immediately leap to an inference that the actor possesses the corresponding trait.

  • A distance in time and space.

Beyond first impressions: systematic processing

Superficial processing: relying on accessible information to make inferences or judgments, while expending little effort in processing.

Systematic processing: giving thorough effortful consideration to a wide range of information relevant to a judgment.
Requires two ingredients:

  • Motivation
  • The ability to process thoroughly (adequate time to think, freedom from distractions, and so on)

Causal attributions

To go beyond a first impression, people must engage in more extensive thought, particularly to explain others’ behaviors. People are likely to consider potential causes that are salient in context, generally accessible, or suggested by the pattern o available information. Cultural learning also influences attributions.

Causal attribution: a judgment about the cause of a behavior or other event.
Making inferences about the causes of people’s behavior is central to our perception of other people.

Sources of attribution

Attributions are more likely to be made to whatever possible cause is salient and thus draws our attention.
Causal attribution is given to the person we are directly watching.
Attributions can be based on accessible causes, those that are already activated in our minds.
Covariation information, or information about potential causal factors that are present when the event occurs and absent when it does not, may also shape attributions.

Using attributions to correct first impressions

When external factors appear to have caused behavior, people may attempt to correct an initial inference about the actor’s characteristics. This correction takes time an cognitive effort, however, so it often does not occur.

Discounting: reducing a belief in one potential cause of behavior because there is another viable cause.

Interpreting the behavior and characterizing the person, are relatively easy, and frequently occur automatically, without any conscious effort. Using causal reasoning to correct the impression is difficult unless a situational cause is quite salient or accessible.

Unless we are willing and able to process information systematically, we stick to our first impressions.

Putting it all together: forming complex impressions

Impressions usually include multiple traits or characteristics as well as liking. People may infer additional traits based on their knowledge or observations of the individual. The multiple components of an impression may become linked as people attempt to infer causal connections among them. People also integrate the good and bad qualities of others to arrive at an overall impression.

Intregrating multiple traits

We usually expect certain traits to go together.
These patterns of associations among traits, called implicit personality theories, can guide the development and elaboration of complex impressions of others.
When people rely on their implicit personality theories, they may infer that a person has many positive qualities on the basis of a single good one.
As we observe or infer more and more characteristics of an individual, we try to organize what we know and create an overall impression that is a complex and interlined whole. This reflection may cause the behaviors to become associated in your mind.
Behaviors that represent the same trait are linked into associated clusters in memory as people mentally organize their impressions of others.
We create causal links among a person’s behavior.

Integrating the good and the bad

Most people have some positive and some negative characteristics.
We tend to give negative information more weight than positive information when we integrate impressions.

The accuracy of considered impressions

Considered impressions may not be completely accurate. When people devote extra thought to forming an impression, biases may still limit their accuracy, and the extra effort may only confirm and existing positive or negative view. Unless people are aware of such biases in social perception, they are unlikely to try to correct them.

Motive for accuracy

Accuracy is one of the strongest motivations for working hard on forming an impression.
We can be particularly motivated to form accurate perceptions of people when we will have to work with them.

Suspicion about the information we obtain may also cause us to think carefully about the impressions we form.

Motives for connectedness and valuing me and mine

People care about connections with others.
We desire to see the world in a way that will result in a good outcome for ourselves.
We hunt for evidence that supports other motives like connectedness or seeing ourselves in a positive light.

Attempting to undo biases

Most of the time we remain blind to the processes that underlie our impressions, accepting the world we perceive at face value.
Sometimes an improtant motive makes us try to correct our impressions. Only when both motivation and cognitive ability are available will we attempt to counteract potential biases in how we see others.

Using impressions

Once an impression is formed, it becomes a basis for decisions and behaviors. Sometimes decisions about others rest on simple, superficial processing: at other times people engage in extensive processing, attempting to put together the implications of all relevant information.

Superficial processing: using a single attribute

Decisions based on a single accessible or salient characteristic require minimal effort and thought.
Having to make a decision quickly or without full attention might force such superficial processing even if you would prefer a more systematic approach.

When people process quickly and superficially, they generally rely on their past judgments of an individual, rather than on the underlying evidence that led to those judgments on the first place.

Systematic processing: integrating multiple factors

When people integrate multiple items of information, instead of evaluating each attribute independently, they may attempt to fit the information together into a meaningful whole.
One item may subtly change the meaning of others.

Integrating multiple characteristics often involves causal reasoning.

Defending impressions

Impressions resists change, because a first impression cal alter the interpretation of later information. As a result, impressions may survive even the discrediting of the information on which they are based. Impressions shape overt interaction as well as judgments. They often lead people to seek consistent information or even to elicit confirming actions from others.

Impressions shape interpretations

Primacy effect: a pattern in which early-encountered information has a greater impact that subsequent information.

Impressions resists rebuttal

Because our impressions shape the interpretation of later information, their effects can persist even if we find out the initial impression is false.
Perseverance bias: the tendency for information to have a persisting effect on our judgments even after it has been discredited.
The most effective way to reduce or eliminate the perseverance bias is to explicitly consider the opposite possibility.

Selectively seeking impression-consistent behavior

Creating impression-consistent behavior: the self-fulfilling prophecy

The process by which one person’s expectations about another become reality by eliciting behaviors that confirms the expectations.

Limits in the self-fulfilling prophecy

When the person being perceived has strong views about him- or herself, the self-fulfilling effects of a perceiver’s expectations become weaker.
It can also be foiled when targets are aware of the perceivers’ expectations.

It is also weaker when the targets are more concerned about conveying an accurate impression than making the interaction go smoothly and pleasantly.

Dealing with inconsistent information

People sometimes encounter information that is clearly inconsistent with an impression. They may attempt to explain it away in various ways, or they may take it into account and assume that the other person has changed. Most of the time, impressions of others’ personal characteristics are stable and difficult to change.

Reconciling inconsistencies

When we encounter inconsistent and contradictory information about someone, in challenges two central social motives:

  • Our sense of mastery and understanding
  • Our ability to maintain a relationship or social interaction with the person

When people make the effort to reconcile inconsistent and contradictory information, it has several effects on cognitive processing and impressions

  • People spend more time thinking about unexpected behaviors than expected ones
  • People try to explain unexpected behaviors
  • Extra processing improves people’s ability to recall inconsistent behaviors

Even when people make an effort at reconciliation, their impressions of others do not always change.
Extensive processing may be directed at explaining away the inconsistency.

Integrating inconsistencies

As you get to know someone well over a period of time, encounters with more and more potential inconsistencies should lead you toe develop a more complex impression of the person.
Impressions become less consistent and more complex and elaborated, featuring a large number of causal links.

The causal attributions may reflect the perceiver’s attempts to interpret an reconcile inconsistencies.
The most complex impressions are of those individuals who we encounter in a number of different contexts.

Altering impressions: is fundamental change possible?

When people are actively looking for change in an individual, they are able to perceive it.

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Social Psychology by Smith, E, R (fourth edition) a summary

Social Psychology by Smith, E, R (fourth edition) a summary


This is a summary of the book Social Psychology by Smith. It is an introduction to social psychology and is about human behaviour in relation to groups and other humans. This book is used in the course 'Social psychology' in the first year of the study Psychology at the University of Amsterdam.