Implicit Personality Theory

Implicit Personality Theory Definition

An implicit personality theory refers to a person’s notions about which personality characteristics tend to co-occur in people. Can one assume, for example, that a person with a sense of humor is also intelligent? Is a charming person likely to be honest or dishonest?

Is a leader someone likely to be friendly or aggressive? Implicit personality theories guide the inferences that social perceivers make of other people. For example, if a perceiver sees someone act in an energetic style and presumes that energy is linked to intelligence, then the perceiver will likely infer that the other person is intelligent.

History and Background of Implicit Personality Theory

Implicit Personality TheoryThe notion of implicit personality theories was introduced into modern psychology by Lee Cronbach in the 1950s, with his notion of “the generalized other.” This “other” cФontained the person’s beliefs about the attributes and abilities that the typical person exhibited, along with how those attributes and abilities interrelated. Importantly, Cronbach believed that people’s theories about attributes and abilities aligned those qualities into a few major dimensions of personality, and subsequent work by numerous researchers set out to discover what those dimensions were. Different researchers came to different conclusions about what the major dimensions of personality were, but some dimensions frequently uncovered were good versus bad traits, socially skilled versus unskilled, intellectually gifted versus not, active versus passive, friendly versus unfriendly, dominant versus submissive, and accepting versus rejecting of authority.

One major controversy regarding implicit personality theories is whether they reflect reality or distort it. For example, when people associate leadership with a dominant personality, are they merely reflecting the social world as it truly exists, or are they making an assumption not supported by real-world evidence—and perhaps only reflecting the fact that leadership and dominance are words that overlap in their dictionary meaning? Although any conclusion would still be contentious, one way to read the research is that implicit personality theories mirror reality somewhat but overstate it: Many people overestimate how related some traits really are in people, although those traits, in truth, are somewhat related.

It should be noted that the term implicit personality theory more recently has been used to denote another way in which theories about personality attributes may differ. According to the work by Carol Dweck, people differ according to whether they believe personal attributes, such as intelligence, can be modified or enhanced through effort versus remaining stable and immutable regardless of what the person does. This use of the term implicit personality theory is completely separate from the one defined in this entry.

Implications of Implicit Personality Theory

Implicit personality theories carry many implications for social judgment. They have been shown, for example, to influence performance evaluations in organizations— if an employee shows one trait, a person evaluating them assumes that they have other traits as well. Such theories have also been shown to influence memory for other people, in that social perceivers tend to remember traits and behaviors heavily suggested by their implicit personality theories that were actually not present.

Two specific types of implicit personality theories have received special attention in psychological research. First, the halo effect refers to the tendency to conclude that a person has a number of positive attributes if they display a few good ones (and to infer a number of negative traits if the person exhibits an undesirable one). Second, physical attractiveness tends to lead people to infer that an individual has a number of desirable traits. Physically attractive people are assumed to be warmer, more socially skilled, and even more intelligent, for example, than their peers.

One notable example of the implications of implicit personality theories centers on HIV/AIDS prevention. People assume they can tell who is HIV-positive just by looking at them—and seeing, for example, whether the person is well dressed. There is no evidence of a link between attire and health status—and so using such an implicit personality theory in this realm is, at best, worrisome.


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  3. Sedikides, C., & Anderson, C. A. (1994). Causal perceptions of inter-trait relations: The glue that holds person types together. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 20, 294-302.