Does this person deserve my help? Why is she being so hostile? Should I trust that politician? Is he someone I would like to get involved with romantically? The answers to questions such as these that people ask themselves about others depend to a great extent on their beliefs about others’ personal characteristics. In other words, trait inferences—judgments made about people’s stable underlying characteristics, also referred to as stable dispositions—play an important role in interpersonal behavior. Social and personality psychologists have extensively investigated the trait inference process.
Research in the 1960s and 1970s started from the assumption that people make trait inferences both carefully and logically. Attribution theory predicted that in order to infer that a certain man is rude, one would have to gather information indicating that he is rude to people in general, is ruder than others, and has consistently behaved rudely over an extended period. Trait inferences are sometimes based on systematic thinking of this kind, but researchers recognized early on that trait inferences are messier and more biased than that. For example, people are often motivated to infer that individuals have certain traits and not others; one would probably more readily infer that a stranger is untrustworthy than that a good friend is. In addition, people are very quick to infer that others’ behaviors are reflections of stable dispositions even when other obvious explanations exist for those behaviors (the correspondence bias). To illustrate, a nervous-looking woman might be perceived as being a generally anxious person even if she is in a situation that would clearly make anyone nervous.
People infer traits from others’ behavior so readily that they often do so unintentionally and without even being aware of it. In other words, people infer traits effortlessly, spontaneously, and automatically when interacting with others. As a result, one is often unable to bring to mind any evidence to support one’s beliefs about others’ traits. Unfavorable traits (such as selfishness and unfriendliness) are inferred more quickly than favorable ones (such as generosity and friendliness). The reason for this seems to be that although favorable behaviors could reflect favorable traits, they could also have many other causes (such as a desire to make a good impression on other people). Unfavorable behaviors, it is assumed, are more likely to reflect people’s true underlying natures.
Research conducted since the 1980s, however, indicates that the heavy emphasis on traits as causes of behavior is more characteristic of people in individualistic cultures (found primarily in North America and western Europe) than of people in collectivistic cultures (found in East Asia and South America, among other places). People in collectivistic cultures are more sensitive to the social and situational pressures that affect people’s behavior.
Despite all of the biases that creep into the trait inference process, people’s impressions of others’ traits can still be very accurate. When researchers ask a number of a person’s acquaintances to make judgments about that person’s traits, they typically find high levels of agreement.
SEE ALSO Attribution; Person-Situation Debate; Trait Theory
Gilbert, Daniel T. 1998. Ordinary Personology. In The Handbook of Social Psychology, 4th ed., eds. Daniel T. Gilbert, Susan T. Fiske, and Gardner Lindzey, vol. 2, 89–150. Boston: McGraw-Hill.
Jones, Edward E. 1990. Interpersonal Perception. New York: W. H. Freeman.
Leonard S. Newman