Spontaneous Trait Inferences

Spontaneous Trait Inferences Definition

The notion of spontaneous trait inferences (STIs) refers to a frequently demonstrated empirical finding. Observing behaviors or reading behavior descriptions gives rise to immediate trait inferences, beyond the actually given information. Thus, somebody who steps on a partner’s feet on the dance floor elicits the inference clumsy. Witnessing a student succeeding on a difficult task gives rise to the spontaneous inference clever. Such inferences take place even though the trait is not strictly implicated. Stepping on someone’s feet can happen to nonclumsy people, just as even a dull student can solve a task under auspicious conditions. Logically, singular behaviors do not imply general traits. STIs are called spontaneous because they can be assumed to occur in the absence of explicit task instructions and deliberate intentions to think about the traits that correspond to a given behavior. In STI experiments, researchers make serious attempts to conceal their interest in trait inferences, ruling out demand characteristics that might account for controlled trait inferences.

Measurements of Spontaneous Trait Inferences

Spontaneous Trait InferencesSeveral paradigms have been developed to investigate STI effects experimentally. In the original cued-recall paradigm, participants are exposed to a list of behavior descriptions (e.g., “Steven stepped on his partner’s feet on the dance floor”). Then, on a so-called cued-recall test, their task is to recall the previously presented behavior descriptions based on variable cue words or phrases. The specific types of cues given in the recall test are manipulated. As it turns out, trait words that represent reasonable inferences but that never appeared in the original sentences (such as clumsy) provide more effective retrieval cues than such words or phrases that actually occurred in the list, suggesting that traits must have been inferred spontaneously. In another word-fragment completion paradigm, being exposed to behavior descriptions facilitates the subsequent generation of a corresponding trait concept from an incomplete letter string. For instance, a person who has been primed with the earlier sentence takes less time to generate the word concept clumsy from the word fragment c-m-y than does somebody who was not exposed to that behavior. The faster response latency provides evidence that the trait concept has already been inferred implicitly. Unlike the cued-recall method, this method warrants trait inferences that occur immediately after the behavior has been presented, ruling out inferences during a later recall stage.

In a picture-priming paradigm, behaviors are presented in pictures or moving pictures (film clips), and participants have to identify a trait word that is first hidden behind a mask and that appears only gradually (over 3 seconds or so) as small pieces of the mask are removed in random order. Again, an STI effect is evident in response speed. When the trait to be identified constitutes a reasonable inference from the behavior presented in the preceding picture or film, the identification time is slower than on nonmatching trials. This method has been extended to control for the mental activity during behavior presentation, by inserting a verification task. Thus, participants have to verify an aspect of the picture or film (e.g., whether the presented behavior is an instance of hitting or attacking or an instance of hostile), before the trait identification task (e.g., involving the trait aggressive) starts. In this fashion, the trait inference process can be guided or tuned experimentally.

In still another method based on response latencies, the probe-recognition paradigm, the reaction time required to correctly falsify a trait word as having not appeared in a text passage is prolonged if that trait constitutes a plausible inference from a behavior read in a preceding sentence. Last but not least, the savings-in-relearning paradigm measures STI effects in terms of the reduced time required to relearn trait words when the list to be learned involves traits inferred from previously presented behaviors.

Practical and Theoretical Relevance of Spontaneous Trait Inferences

STIs have important practical and theoretical implications. Practically, drawing quick and unreflected inferences about people’s traits can lead to premature action, uncritical decisions, and serious conflicts in diverse areas, such as personnel assessment or legal decisions. STIs can contribute to social stereotypes and cultural knowledge.

Theoretically, STI research is expected to further the understanding of quick and seemingly automatic social judgments based on unintended thought and unplanned, effortless cognitive operations. However, although trait inferences can occur spontaneously, in the absence of deliberate instructions or intentions, and demand little mental resources, other evidence suggests that the process is not fully automatic in some respects. First, STIs are stronger when inferred traits are consistent with an existing stereotype of the target. Accordingly, the trait submissive is more likely to be inferred from a corresponding behavior when the target person is female than male because submissive is part of the female gender stereotype. Second, trait inferences depend on the linguistic implications of the verbs used to describe a behavior. The same aggressive behavior will more likely elicit the trait inference aggressive when an action verb (such as attack) is used to describe this behavior than when a state verb (bate) is used because action verbs imply internal causes within the actor, whereas state verbs imply external causes outside the actor. Third, trait inferences can be influenced through attentional manipulations; they are bound to persons or faces that are the focus of attention when behaviors are observed.

The STI effect provides a theoretical model for the interpretation of several intriguing phenomena. These include the correspondence bias (default tendency to attribute behavior internally to person dispositions, while neglecting situational constraints), spontaneous trait transference (blaming or praising communicators of unpleasant or pleasant messages), and perseverance effects (adhering to premature inferences that full debriefing has revealed to be wrong). Importantly, STI must not be equated with internal attributions of behaviors to person dispositions. Behaviors can also give rise to spontaneous situation inferences, implying external causes of the observed behavior in the environment.

Current Issues in Spontaneous Trait Inferences

Current research and theoretical discussions revolve around such issues as the cognitive states or mind-sets that facilitate STI tendencies, the binding of trait inferences to particular persons of faces associated with the observed behavior, and the intriguing issue of differences between cultures. Members of (Eastern) collectivist cultures have been shown to be less prone to trait inferences than are members of (Western) individualist cultures, in accordance with the assumption that collectivist cultures put less weight on personal factors in explaining the world than individualist cultures do.


  1. Newman, L. S., & Uleman, J. S. (1989). Spontaneous trait inference. In J. S. Uleman & J. A. Bargh (Eds.), Unintended thought (pp. 155-188). New York: Guilford Press.
  2. Skowronski, J. J., Carlston, D. E., Mae, L., & Crawford, M. T. (1998). Spontaneous trait transference: Communicators take on the qualities they describe in others. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 74, 837-848.
  3. Uleman, J. S., Hon, A., Roman, R., & Moskowitz, G. (1996). On-line evidence for spontaneous trait inferences at encoding. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 22, 377-394.