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Chapter 4: Perceiving Persons
• Social perception is the processes by which people come to understand one another.
• We first look at “raw data”: aspects of persons, situations, and behaviour of initial observations. Then we
examine how people make explanations, or attributions, for the behaviour of others. Then we consider
how people form integrated impressions of others. Then finally we turn to confirmation biases, the subtle
ways that initial impressions lead people to distort later information, leading to self-fulfilling prophecies.
• In the events of life, one is both a perceiver and a target of others’ perceptions.
OBSERVATION: THE ELEMENTS OF SOCIAL PERCEPTION SELF-
• Since one cannot directly observe others’ mental or emotional state, or motives or intentions, the social
perceiver must rely on indirect clues. These clues arise from an interplay of persons, situations, and
Persons: Judging a Book by Its Cover
• We make quick judgements based only on a snapshot of information:
o Willis and Todorov (2006): Subjects showed unfamiliar faces for 1/10 of a second, ½ second or 1
second gave judgements for attractiveness, likableness, competency, trustworthiness and
aggressiveness. Their ratings were highly correlated with judgements that other subjects made
without time-exposure limits.
• First impressions are influenced by subtle ways by a person’s height, weight, skin colour, hair colour,
tattoos, piercings, glasses, and other aspects of physical appearance.
o Hippocrates used facial features to make diagnoses of life and death
o Franz Gall and phrenology, claiming to assess people’s characters by the shape of their skulls
• There are also indirect telltale cues, such as the knickknacks they have in their offices and rooms, the
books on their shelves, and the music on their iPods. Those with old-fashioned names (Walter, Dorothy,
Edith) may be judged to be less popular and less intelligent than those with younger-generation names
(Kevin, Lisa, Michelle).
• Physiognomy is the art of reading character from faces:
o Baby-faced adults have large round eyes, round cheeks, large forehead, and smooth skin tend to
be seen as warm, kind, naive, honest, and submissive. Adults with mature features like small eyes,
low brows, small forehead and an angular chin are seen as stronger, more dominant, and more
o This can affect how judges favour sides, and how job applicants are recommended for
o For reading traits such as being either kind-hearted or mean-spirited, this also works the other way
around – people read traits into faces (having a rounder face) based on prior information (told man
• Humans are programmed by evolution to respond gently to infantile features, so real babies are treated
with loving care. Frontal brain region associated with love and other positive emotions is activated when
people are exposed to pictures of babies’ faces, but not to faces of other adults.
• For baby-faced adults, this response is overgeneralized. In fact, most snap judgements are
overgeneralized – faces are seen as trustworthy if they look happy and safe-to-approach (U-shaped
mouth and raised eyebrows) and untrustworthy if they look angry and thus to-be-avoided (mouth curls
down, eyebrows form a V). Page 2 of 17
Situations: The Scripts of Life
• We have preset notions about certain types of situations, scripts that allow us to anticipate the goals,
behaviours, and outcomes likely to occur in a particular setting. These are based on past experience –
the more experience, the more detailed the script.
• There are many culturally-specific scripts, especially regarding eating:
o Bolivia: Dinner guests must fully clean their plates to express they enjoyed the meal
o India: Leave some food on the plate to show the host that they had enough to eat
• Behavioural scripts can be very elaborate, such as the “first date” script involving 16 steps in total. When
the list of events was randomized and subjects were asked to set them in order, those with more dating
experience organized them in a shorter time due to their familiarity with the script.
• Knowledge of social settings provides an important context for understanding other people’s verbal and
nonverbal behaviour. Scripts influence social perceptions in two ways:
o We see what we expect to see in that particular situation: When looking at a face with an
ambiguous expression, subjects interpret it as angry if told the person was threatened by a vicious
dog, but happy if told the individual had won the lottery.
o People use what they know about social situations to explain causes of behaviour: Actions that
differ from the expected social norm offers more information about a person than when it is
• One more recognize what someone is doing at a given moment for social perception. Identifying action
from movement is easy, even allowing one to recognize familiar specific individuals strictly from
• People derive meaning from their observations by dividing the continuous stream of human behaviour
into units. Some perceivers break the stream into a large number of fine units, others into a small number
of gross units.
o The manner in which people divide the stream of behaviour can influence their perceptions – fine
units help attend to behaviour more closely, detect more meaningful actions, and remember more
details about the behaviour.
• Mind Perception: The process by which people attribute humanlike mental states to various animate
and inanimate objects, including other people.
o People who identify someone’s actions in high-level terms (painting a house = trying to make a
house look new) instead of low-level terms (= applying brush strokes) are more likely to attribute
humanizing thoughts, feelings, intentions, consciousness and other states of mind to the actor.
• Morewedge (2007): Showed subjects different animals, cartoon robots or purple blobs moving at different
speeds. Found people particularly see inner qualities of mind in objects that superficially resemble
humans in their speed of movement.
• Gray (2007): People asked by survey to rate an array of human and nonhuman characters on various
mental capacities. People perceive minds along two dimensions:
o Agency: A target’s ability to plan and execute behaviour
o Experience: The capacity to feel pleasure, pain, and other sensations
o The more “mind” people attribute to a character, the more they liked and valued it, wanted to make
it happy, and wanted to rescue it from destruction.
The Silent Language of Nonverbal Behaviour
• Nonverbal Behaviour: Behaviour that reveals a person’s feelings without words, through facial
expressions, body language, and vocal cues. Page 3 of17
• The face expresses emotion in ways that are innate and understood by people all over the world;
people can reliably understand at least six primary emotions: happiness, sadness, anger, fear, surprise,
o Are these truly universally recognized from the face, or is the link culturally specific? Meta-analysis
found support for both points of view.
o On one hand, people all over the world are able to recognize primary emotions from photos of
facial expressions. On the other hand, people are 9% more accurate at judging faces from their
own national, ethnic or regional groups than from members of less familiar groups.
• Familiarity breeds accuracy in recognizing emotions: we have an in-group advantage when it comes
to knowing feelings of those closest to us.
• There may be an evolutionary survival value for members of a species to recognize emotions in other
members, and some emotions may be more important to identify than others – recognizing anger and
thus being wary of someone prone to lash out in violence.
o Anger superiority effect: People are quicker to spot, and slower to look away from, angry faces.
Angry faces also cause us to frown even when presented subliminally.
• Disgust also has adaptive significant; people react with aversion in their facial expressions when
confronted with offensive stimuli. In the case of bad food, the accompanying nausea is used to facilitate
o It is adaptive for us to recognize disgust in the face of others, since in nature food poisoning is a
o fMRI shows that the insula in the brain is activated not only when subjects sniff a disgusting odour,
but also when they watch others sniffing it. People experience this disgust at a neural level.
• Emails were often misinterpreted since is lacked nonverbal cues that normally animate and clarify live
interactions. To fill this gap, people use emoticons (emotion icons).
• Some nonverbal cues can enable us to make quick and sometimes accurate judgements of others
based on “thin slices” of expressive behaviour.
o Subjects able to judge the intelligence of strangers based only on hearing them read short
o Students rated headshots of CEOs on key leadership traits related to power and warmful. Those
faces whom students rated as more powerful were in fact more successful, based on company’s
• Eye contact, or gaze, is a powerful form of nonverbal communication. As social beings, people are
highly attentive to eyes, often following the gaze of others.
o People who look us straight in the eye quickly draw and hold our attention, increase arousal, and
activate key social areas of the brain. This sensitivity is present at birth (Senju & Johnson, 2009).
o People tend to assume that someone who avoids eye contact is evasive, cold, fearful, shy or
indifferent (gaze disengagement). Frequent gazing signals intimacy, sincerity, self-confidence and
respect; however, staring is tense, angry, and unfriendly.
o Eye contact is also interpreted in light of a pre-existing relationship; if two people are friendly,
frequent eye contact is positive. If the relationship is not friendly, the same eye contact can be
• Touch is a powerful and primitive form of nonverbal signal. It is an expression of friendship, nurturance,
and sexual interest, but it also serves other functions.
o Touch has been believed to be an indicator of dominance and control: men, older persons, and
those of high socioeconomic status more likely to touch women, younger persons, and individuals
of lower status than the other way around.
o However, there is no behavioural support for this hypothesis. Dominant people do tend to be more
facially expressive, encroach more on others’ personal space, speak louder, and interrupt more. Page 4 of 17
• Nonverbal communication norms vary a great deal between cultures:
o Bulgaria: nodding means “no” while shaking means “yes”
o In Germany and brazil, the sign for “okay” (circle with thumb and forefinger) is an obscene gesture
o In Italy, Greece and Spain, stroking one’s cheek means you find the other person attractive.
o In Buddhist countries such as Thailand, the head is sacred and one should not touch the heads of
o Vastly different rules for greeting: different ways of shaking hands, bowing, embracing, kissing, etc.
o Some have a lengthy greeting: in Arab countries, men greet by saying salaam alaykum, shaking
hands, saying kaif halak and kissing each other on the cheek.
Distinguishing Truth from Deception
• Since people often try to hide or stretch the truth about themselves, social perception can be tricky.
• Some channels of communication are more difficult for deceivers to control, while others are relatively
o Ekman and Friesen (1974): Participants are shown either a pleasant or disgusting movie, and told
to report their honest impressions or to conceal their true feelings; they are also videotaped by
o Observers then view the tapes and are asked to judge whether the participants had been truthful or
deceptive. Accuracy was high when observers could see nonverbal cues from the body – nervous
movements of the hands and feet – than if the video focused on the face.
o This can also be tested by the observers reading transcripts or listening to audiotapes instead.
• People are only about 54% accurate in judging truth and deception, too often accepting what others say
at face value, and individual differences are small. Even professionals specially trained to make these
judgements (police, judges, psychiatrists) are also highly prone to error.
• Mismatch between behavioural cues that actually signal deception, and those we use to detect
o There are 4 channels of communication that provide potentially relevant information: spoken word,
the face, the body, and the voice.
o When people lie, their words cannot be trusted, and their face and body are also controlled – the
voice is the most telling, people often hesitate, then speed up and raise the pitch of their voice.
o However, when we try to detect deception, we look for liars averting their eyes, or squirming,
stuttering, and fidgeting. In reality these cues are not supported by research.
o People tend to assume the way to spot liars is to watch for signs of stress in their behaviour, while
actually in real-life situations, truth-tellers are more likely to exhibit signs of stress.
• Vrij (2008): Lying is harder to do and requires more thinking than simply telling the true. Therefore, we
should focus on behavioural cues that betray cognitive effort.
o Challenging interviews can expose deception, such as asking to recount events of a story in
reverse chronological order, which is much harder for deceivers.
o Strategic disclosure technique: Interviewers withhold certain details of a mock crime when
questioning suspects. Those who did commit the mock crime are caught with various
inconsistencies, such as claiming they were never present at the crime scene, unaware they had
left fingerprints – which the interviewers do not disclose until later.
ATTRIBUTION: FROM ELEMENTS TO DISPOSITIONS
• We infer the inner dispositions of others – stable characteristics like personality, traits, attitudes, and
abilities – indirectly from what they say and do. Page 5 of17
• Heider: We are all scientists motivated to understand others in order to manage our social lives; we
observe, analyze, and explain the behaviour of others.
• The explanations for behaviour we come up with are causal attributions, and attribution theories are
theories that describe how people explain the causes of behaviour (how we make attributions).
• The attributions we make can often be grouped into:
o Personal Attribution: Attribution to internal characteristics of the actor, such as ability, personality,
o Situational Attribution: Attribution to factors external to the actor, such as the task, other people,
o The task for the attribution theorist is not to determine the true causes of such an event, but to
understand people’s perceptions of causality.
Jones’s Correspondent Inference Theory
• Correspondent Inference Theory: People try to discern an individual’s personal characteristics by
observing and analyzing their behaviour; specifically, people try to infer from an action whether the act
corresponds to an enduring personal characteristic or not. These inferences are based on 3 factors:
o 1) Choice: Behaviour freely chosen is more informative about a person than coerced behaviour.
Jones & Harris, 1967: When told that a student had either freely chosen to read a speech
that either favoured or opposed Fidel Castro, or that they were assigned to read it. When
asked to judge the student’s true attitude, subjects assumed correspondence between the
essay (behaviour) and the attitude (disposition) more so when the student made the choice.
o 2) Expectedness: An action tells us more about a person when it departs from the norm of when it
is typical, part of a social role, or otherwise expected under the circumstances.
o 3) Effects: Acts that produce many desirable outcomes do not reveal a person’s specific motives
as clearly as acts that produce only a single desirable outcome.
If a person stays at a job that is enjoyable, high-paying, and in an attractive location, each of
the three outcomes is sufficient to explain their behaviour. However, if a person stays on a job
that is tedious and in an unattractive location, but high-paying – one can be more certain
about their motives.
Kelley’s Covariation Theory
• Covariation Theory: People attribute behaviour to causal factors that are present when a behaviour
occurs, and are absent when it does not. People do this by making more than one observation and
comparing behaviour in two or more settings.
• E.g., You are standing on a street corner one hot evening when a stranger comes out of the air-
conditioned movie theatre and says, “Great flick!” Was this recommendation (the behaviour) caused by
something about the stranger (the person), the film (the stimulus), or the comfortable theatre (the
circumstances?) Three types of information are particularly useful:
o 1) Consensus Information: What do most people do in this situation?
o See what different moviegoers think about this film. If others also rave about it, then this stranger’s
behaviour is high in consensus, and is attributed to the stimulus. If others are critical, this behaviour
is low in consensus and attributed to the person.
o 2) Distinctiveness Information: What has this person done in the past in this same situation?
o What does this moviegoer think about other films? If the stranger is generally critical of other films,
the behaviour is high in distinctiveness and attributed to the stimulus. If the stranger raves about
every movie, the behaviour is low in distinctiveness and attributed to the person.
o 3) Consistency Information: Does this stand out as different from other, similar situations for this
person? Page 6 of17
o How does this moviegoer feel about this film on other occasions? If the stranger raves about it
regardless of surroundings, the behaviour is high in consistency. If the stranger does not always
enjoy the film, it is low in consistency.
High consistency: Behaviour attributed to stimulus when consensus and distinctiveness are
also high. Attributed to person when they are low.
Low consistency: Attributed to circumstances.
The stranger raves about the film
Others do not rave about the film
Others also rave about the film
The stranger raves about many films
The stranger always raves about this film
The stranger does not rave about other films
The stranger always raves about this film
Something about the stranger caused this behaviour
Something about the film caused this behaviour
Consistency Page 7 of17
• People have their own attributional styles, and may disagree about what caused a particular behaviour.
o Individuals vary in the extent to which they believe that behaviours are caused by personal
characteristics that are fixed or malleable.
o Some individuals are more likely than others to process information in ways that are coloured by
Causal Schemas (Lecture Notes)
• Causal schemas are assumed patterns of how the world works, which are used when we lack complete
information. The assumed patterns and the schema can be inaccurate.
• We know that Chris passed PSYC100, and a variety of explanations are available for this event: Chris is
smart, the course was easy, Chris worked hard, etc. Without prior knowledge of Chris, but needing this to
make a decision (borrowing his notes for PSYC241), how can we decide? Two examples below.
• Multiple Necessary Causes: For events considered rare or difficult, this schema says that multiple
factors are involved, and it is necessary that every factor be favourable for the outcome to be achieved.
For example, Chris passed PSYC100 because he was both smart and hardworking. If Chris had reached
the top of Mount Everest, he is a good climber, adventurous, fit, etc. all factors necessary to accomplish
• Multiple Sufficient Causes: For events considered common or relatively easy, this schema says that
multiple factors are involved, but having one factor being favourable will be sufficient to produce the
outcome. Chris could have passed PSYC100 if he were hardworking or if he were smart, or both.
• This attribution is less certain than using a multiple necessary causes schema – Chris may be either hard
working or smart and without further information we cannot conclude which factor was facilitating the
effect. This schema is associated with two principles that can lead to a more refined attribution:
• Augmenting Principle: You think Chris could have passed PSYC100 being either hardworking or smart,
based on no other information. Then you hear that Chris was partying at the bar every night for the last
month and throughout the entire exam period. You conclude that he must be very smart, since he passed
with no effort.
• Augmenting because all but one of the potential causes of the effect have been eliminated, so the
remaining factor must be the cause; this is logical. The truth of this conclusion depends on:
o 1) Was the situation really one of multiple sufficient causes? Maybe PSYC100 is difficult and you
do need both to be hardworking and smart to pass.
o 2) Is your information that none of the other factors accounted for the effect accurate? Chris may
have bribed the instructor, or maybe he was lying that he passed.
• Discounting Principle: You hear that Chris was at the library studying every night. Now you conclude
that since Chris was hardworking, he is not very smart – if he were, this much studying would not be
necessary. You have no information that Chris did much better than pass.
• Discounting because when one potential cause is known to be present and facilitating the effect, all other
potential causes are treated as if they were not present or not important; this is illogical.
• People often make attributions and other types of social judgements using certain cognitive heuristics:
information-processing rules of thumb that enable us to think quickly and easily, but frequently lead to
• Availability Heuristic: Tendency to estimate the likelihood that an event will occur by how easily
instances of it come to mind – influenced by memory.
o People think there are more words that start with r than there are words that contain r as the third
letter, because it’s easier to bring to mind words in which r appears first. Page 8 of17
• The availability heuristic can lead to the false-consensus effect, a tendency for people to overestimate
the extent to which others share their opinions, attributes, and behaviours.
o People overestimate the percentage of others who share their personality traits.
o This is a by-product of the availability heuristic since we tend to associate with others who are like
us in important way, so we are more likely to notice and recall instances of similar over dissimilar
o People do not exhibit this bias when asked to predict behaviour of groups other than their own, or
aspects of others that they share but see as special to themselves rather than typical.
• Another consequence of the availability heuristic is the base-rate fallacy, the fact that people are
relatively insensitive to consensus information presented in the form of numerical statistics. Rather,
people are more influenced by graphic, dramatic events in one vivid anecdote.
o Leads to misperceptions of risk: Overestimate death in shootings, fires, and terrorist bombings
while underestimating deaths by heart attacks, strokes, and diabetes. These perceptions are more
affected by fear and anxiety than by objective probabilities.
o People tend to fear things that sound unfamiliar, rating fictional food additives as more hazardous
to health when the names are more difficult to pronounce.
• Counterfactual thinking: The tendency to imagine alternative events or outcomes that might have
occurred but did not. If we imagine a result better than the actual result, we experience disappointment,
regret and frustration. If the imagined result is worse, we react with relief and satisfaction.
o Domains of life which trigger the most counterfactual thinking: Education, career, and romance.
o We are more likely to think about what might have been after negative outcomes that result from
actions we take, rather than actions we don’t take.
o E.g. Changing the answer to a multiple-choice question more often yields the right answer, but
most students think it’s best to stick to one’s original answer since they are more likely to react with
regret after changing a correct answer.
o Certain situations make it especially easy for counterfactual thinking, such as being on the verge of
a better or worse outcome, just above or below some cutoff point.
o E.g. A silver medal winner may be objectively better than a bronze medal winner, but feel worse
due to counterfactual trdnking – negatithly focused on finishing 2 rather than 1 , versus positively
focused on finishing 3 rather than 4 .
The Fundamental Attribution Error
• Fundamental Attribution Error: The tendency to focus on the role of personal causes and
underestimate the impact of situations on other people’s behaviour.
o Jones & Harris 1967 study involving the Castro speech reading: Although subjects were more likely
to infer the student’s true attitude when the position had been freely chosen instead of assigned,
subjects still used the speech to infer their attitude even if the student had no choice.
o People fall prey to the error even when they are aware of the situation’s impact on behaviour:
Subjects inferred attitudes from a speech even though they had assigned the position to be taken.
• Ross (1977): Subjects are randomly assigned to play the role of either the questioner or contestant in a
o The questioner writes 10 challenging questions from their general knowledge; contestants
answered only about 40% of the questions correctly.
o Subjects all asked to rate questioner’s and contestant’s general knowledge on a scale of 0 to 100.
The questioners appeared more knowledgeable than the contestants, especially to spectators. The
contestants even rated themselves as inferior to the questioners.
o Yet it should be obvious that the situation put the questioner at a distinct advantage, there being no
differences between the two groups on a general knowledge test. Page 9 of17
• Why do we make this error? We do not survey all evidence and then decide to make a personal or
situational attribution. Instead, there is a two-step process:
o 1) We identify the behaviour and make a quick personal attribution. This step is simple and
o 2) We correct or adjust that inference to ac