Person Perception

Person Perception Definition

Person perception refers to a general tendency to form impressions of other people. Some forms of person perception occur indirectly and require inferring information about a person based on observations of behaviors or based on second-hand information. Other forms of person perception occur more directly and require little more than seeing another person. Both of these types of person perception provide a foundation from which subsequent judgments are formed and subsequent interactions are shaped.

Person Perception History and Background

Person PerceptionIn social psychology, the phrase person perception has historically referred to the perception of others that leads to judgments of traits and dispositions. Given that Bill kicked a dog, what kind of impression is an observer likely to form? Much of the early research investigating such impressions had roots in attribution theory. Fritz Heider proposed that people can attribute the behaviors of others to factors that are internal (personality, dispositions, etc.) or external (situational constraints), but that people are prone to make internal attributions. These basic observations affected decades of research and provided an important foundation for two related theories, in particular. Harold Kelley’s covariation model, for example, described how people discern the attitudes of others based on simple factors surrounding observed behaviors. Similarly, Edward E. Jones and Keith Davis’s theory of correspondent inferences described why people infer that behaviors reveal personality. Thus, the early research in this area investigated when and how people infer traits from behaviors.

Indirect Person Perception

Many of the personal attributes that observers may want to know about another person (e.g., whether the person is loyal, honest, or contemptible) are not directly observable. Instead, these attributes or traits must be discerned—either from observing the person’s actions (actually watching the person behave in a loyal or honest manner) or from interpreting information provided by a third party (e.g., what a roommate conveys about Jill or what the experimenter reveals). In each case, the general perception of a person is the product of inference, and the attribution theories that were proposed a half a century ago remain valid in understanding how such perceptions occur.

Observers watch what people do, and they make judgments about others based on those observations. When a psychology professor is seen responding to an upset student in a dismissive way, for example, one may infer that this occurred because of some aspect of the professor’s disposition or because of unfortunate circumstances of the interaction. Classic studies in social psychology attempted to bring similar scenarios into the laboratory. Participants in these studies judged the attitude of a hypothetical person who was described in a vignette as advocating an unpopular political position. Sometimes this action was described to have been voluntary; other times, this action was described to have been compelled (e.g., an experimenter asked the person to advocate a specific position). Across all such studies, participants reported that the target’s behavior revealed his or her true attitude, even when that behavior had been coerced by the situation. Thus, observers tend to assume that behaviors convey attitudes and dispositions, and this occurs even when compelling situational grounds for that behavior are present. When perceiving the dismissive professor, therefore, observers are apt to conclude that the professor is callous, and not that the response was compelled by the situation (e.g., the next class that was already streaming into the classroom). These perceptions are called correspondent inferences, and the tendency to attribute actions to dispositional factors has been called the correspondence bias and the fundamental attribution error.

Following the initial insights, many researchers tried to understand precisely what leads to such inferences, and three factors emerged. Harold Kelley, for example, documented that dispositional inferences are especially likely when a particular behavior is (a) distinctive (most professors don’t actually respond in a dismissive manner); (b) consistent (this particular professor responds this way in and out of class); and (c) consensual (others have also observed this behavior). Jones and Davis stressed that such inferences are particularly likely when a particular behavior is unexpected (e.g., a known conservative endorsing a liberal position).

More recently, researchers have examined the psychological processes that permit these inferences. Two processes appear to be involved. The initial process is relatively reflexive and leads to dispositional inferences under most circumstances. The second process is considerably more reflective and tends to correct for the constraints imposed by a situation.

Other recent research has explored the extent to which dispositional inferences are ubiquitous. The tendency is so strong that it occurs even when people have no intention to form an impression of others and in the absence of observing actual behaviors. Indeed, much of the research in social psychology has exploited this by presenting research participants with sentences that describe a behavior. Reading about an individual who purportedly solved a mystery novel halfway through a book, for example, might lead an observer to infer that the individual is clever. These rapid judgments that imply enduring traits are typically called spontaneous trait inferences.

The attribution approach to the study of person perception revealed much about how impressions of others may emerge from observations. Yet person perception also refers to judgments that occur more directly.

Direct Person Perception

Many of the personal attributes that observers notice about another person need not be inferred because they are directly observable and are therefore noted immediately. Some of these attributes include categorical judgments about other people such as their sex, race, and age. Some researchers have argued that noticing certain personal characteristics is unavoidable, and that observers automatically categorize people according to their group membership. What sex? What race? and How old? are likely to be among the first impressions that observers form of others. Because these particular categorical judgments are made so readily and rapidly, they have been described as obligatory. Two of these obligatory categorical judgments, sex and race, have received considerable attention in social psychology.

Perceiving Sex

In general, observers have little difficulty categorizing others to be men or women. This basic categorization occurs effortlessly, partly because so many individual features differ reliably between men and women. Even apart from primary and secondary sexual characteristics, which are generally not readily visible to observers, men’s and women’s faces and bodies differ in both absolute and relative measures and in personal grooming, both of which are easily seen. Thus, categorizing individuals by their sex occurs with great facility, and such perceptions are informed by many physical cues.

Perceiving the sex of an individual affects a broad range of other social perceptions and judgments, as well. Many evaluative social judgments, for example, rely heavily on the content of gender stereotypes and role expectations. Exhibiting gender-typical traits and behaviors leads to favorable evaluations; exhibiting gender atypical traits and behaviors, in contrast, leads to unfavorable evaluations. This can pose challenges for certain individuals. Professional women, for example, frequently hold positions that demand characteristics that are stereotypically associated with men. By exhibiting such characteristics, these women are perceived to be competent, but they are not liked.

Perceiving Race

Observers also have little difficulty categorizing the race of others. Much of the research in this area has focused on how race affects observers’ recognition or memory of others. Although people are generally quite adept at recognizing the faces of others who they have seen previously, doing so is considerably more difficult for faces of other-race individuals. This tendency has been called the own-race bias.

Regardless of whether a particular individual is recognized or not, perceiving a target’s race permits racial stereotypes to affect a broad range of social perceptions and judgments, even in the absence of explicit prejudice. In some laboratory studies, for example, participants have been asked to make simple judgments—such as whether a target is holding a gun or a tool—that are objectively unrelated to the target’s race. In other studies, participants have been charged with deciding whether or not to “pull the trigger” on a target who is holding either a weapon or another object. In both cases, the race of the target affects the speed and accuracy of judgments.

The facility to perceive others accurately from visual cues alone extends beyond the perception of sex and race. Based on only brief exposures to degraded video images of an individual, observers can accurately judge a range of personal characteristics. These include social categories such as sex, race, and sexual orientation and dispositional characteristics such as teaching effectiveness. Thus, even from these thin slices, person perception can be remarkably accurate.

Whether person perception occurs by inferring traits from behaviors or by merely perceiving the physical appearance of another, this is the foundation for how people respond to and evaluate others. Given this far-reaching impact, research investigating various aspects of person perception will continue to be an important area in social psychology for years to come.


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