Person-Positivity Heuristic Definition
The person-positivity heuristic is a tendency to evaluate individual people more positively than the groups to which they belong. Psychologist David Sears coined the phrase in 1983 because he noticed that results of political polls typically show that although respondents hold political institutions such as the U.S. Congress in low regard, they often have positive impressions of the individuals (senators and representatives) who make up those institutions. The person-positivity heuristic also occurs in evaluations of other types of political figures (governors, mayors), in college students’ evaluations of their professors, and even in people’s evaluations of small groups of physically attractive and unattractive women.
Person-Positivity Heuristic Application
One explanation of the person-positivity heuristic is that people are predisposed to perceive themselves as similar to other people, and consequently, the closer something is to being a “person,” the more positively it will be evaluated. For example, student course evaluations show that courses generally are not liked as well as the professors who teach them. Courses do not exemplify the concept of personhood as well as professors do, and thus students perceive more in common between themselves and professors than between themselves and courses. Groups of individuals or an institution are less like a person than an individual person is. However, because groups and institutions are composed of individual people, they have more personhood than do objects (for example, a car), abstractions (for example, gravity), or an individual person’s possessions (for example, a professor’s office) or products (for example, the course a professor teaches). Consequently, groups and institutions are liked less than the individuals who compose them, but are liked more than inanimate objects, abstractions, or possessions. For example, Sandra Day O’Connor, who was an individual member of the U.S. Supreme Court, is higher on personhood than her decisions are, and the Court itself falls between Justice O’Connor and her decisions in personhood. The Court as an institution should therefore be liked less than Justice O’Connor, but liked more than her decisions are.
Exceptions and Importance of the Person-Positivity Heuristic
Person-positivity effects are not likely to occur when people evaluate individuals who are members of highly regarded groups. In these cases, the positivity bonus that otherwise accrues to individuals disappears. For example, the U.S. presidency is held in high regard but the U.S. Congress is not. Surveys show that individual presidents of the United States are not evaluated more positively than the office they hold, whereas individual members of Congress are evaluated more positively than Congress itself is. Physically attractive individuals also do not seem to benefit from the person-positivity heuristic as much as their less attractive counterparts do.
The person-positivity heuristic has been important in understanding political attitudes and voting behavior. People hate politicians, but have such high regard for individual politicians that it is usually difficult to unseat an incumbent office-holder. This heuristic also sheds light on how people can have negative stereotypes about a group, but at the same time have positive impressions, and sometimes even close ties with, individual members of the disliked group.
- Granberg, D., & Holmberg, S. (1990). The person positivity and principle actor hypotheses. Journal of Applied .Social Psychology, 20, 1879-1901.
- Miller, C. T., & Felicio, D. M. (1990). Person-positivity bias: Are people liked better than groups? Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 26, 408-420.
- Sears, D. O. (1983). The person-positivity bias. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 44, 233-250.