Many psychological terms have meanings similar to how those terms are used in everyday language. Such is the case with assimilation, which a plain old English dictionary defines as to absorb, digest, and integrate (usually into a culture), making disparate people/items similar. Its use in social psychology (across separate content domains) is similar; assimilation means that when a person observes and interprets other people, groups of others, or even the self, a variety of things are observed, and one of those observed items will draw to it, or absorb, the others, thus shaping and molding the meaning of the others.
The term was first used in social psychology by Fritz Heider in 1944 when describing interpersonal perception. When judging a person’s behavior (trying to interpret what one has observed the person do), knowledge of that person’s personality matters greatly. The personality colors one’s interpretation of that person’s behavior (so that it is absorbed by it). For example, when you observe a person cut ahead in a line, you may describe that behavior as “rude” if you know the person to be a rude type, but as “efficient” if you know that person to be a perpetually late type. The same exact act has two different meanings when assimilated by two different personality traits. Similarly, assimilation can happen in the reverse direction, when trying to infer what a person’s personality is like based on a behavior one has observed. The behavior strongly guides one’s inference about what the person is like. A cruel act will assimilate toward it the inference that the person is cruel as well. One’s impressions of people are assimilated toward their action.
Research over the past 30 years has shown that it is not only a known personality trait that can assimilate. Indeed, any trait that one has recently been exposed to can shape how he or she sees a person. Witnessing a person acting mean toward a dog while on your way to the store may momentarily trigger or prime the concept “mean” in your mind without your even realizing it consciously. Once triggered, it now has the power to assimilate toward it any relevant new behavior you observe. Thus, once entering the store, the next person you encounter may be seen by you as mean if he or she acts in a way that is even moderately unfriendly. What is important about the act of assimilation here is that (a) you would never have inferred the person to be unfriendly if “mean” had not been triggered before, and (b) it occurs without your realizing it has an impact or that you were even thinking about the quality “mean.” Importantly, this is how stereotypes operate. Detecting a person’s group membership (such as “woman”) will trigger stereotypes (such as women are emotional), even without your knowing it. This can then lead you to assimilate that person’s behavior toward this trait so that the woman is actually seen by you as emotional even if she has provided no real evidence. Assimilation provides for people the evidence by absorbing the behavior and coloring how it is seen.
The term assimilation has similar uses outside person perception. In the attitude literature, it describes a process whereby people use their own existing attitudes as a standard against which new information is judged. If the new information seems close enough to the attitudinal standard (i.e., it falls within what is called a latitude of acceptance), then the new object receives the evaluation linked to the attitude (the evaluation of the new item is assimilated toward the evaluation already existing for the standard). For example, if you have a favorable attitude toward recycling (the standard) and then hear a news report about recycling that you see as close enough to your own view (i.e., it is not antirecycling), you will come to see that report as promoting views similar to your own, and you will like it. Importantly, if you did not have initial views (a standard) that provided a strong evaluation about recycling, then the same message would not be as persuasive or be interpreted as favorably. The new message is colored by the existing attitude.
Assimilation is also shown to occur in determining one’s sense of self. Identity is partly determined by the qualities of the groups to which one belongs, with identity being drawn toward those features identified with desired ingroups. According to Marilyn Brewer’s optimal distinctiveness theory, identity is constantly trying to balance two needs of the person—the need to assimilate identity toward desired others (and to be as much like the valued members of the groups one belongs to) and the need to differentiate and have a distinct sense of self. Thus identity is, in part, a process of assimilating the sense of self toward desired and valued others.
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- Herr, P. M., Sherman, S. J., & Fazio, R. H. (1983). On the consequences of priming: Assimilation and contrast effects. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 19, 323-340.
- Higgins, E. T. (1996). Knowledge adtivation: Accessibility, applicability, and salience. In E. T. Higgins & A. W. Kruglanski (Eds.), Social psychology: Handbook of basic principles (pp. 133-168). New York: Guilford Press.