Lecture 04 - Social Psych

Social Perception/ Attribution


(Adapted from Myers; Michener et al)

Social Perception

I. Intro.

A. In a study by Rosenhan, eight pseudopatients who were actually research investigators gained entry into mental hospitals by claiming to hear voices. During the intake interviews, the pseudopatients gave true accounts of their backgrounds, life experiences, and present (quite ordinary) psychological condition. They falsified only their names and their complaint of hearing voices. Once in the psychiatric ward, they ceased simulating any signs of abnormality. They reported that the voices had stopped, talked normally with other patients, and made observations in their notebooks. Although some of the other patients suspected that the investigators were not really ill, the staff did not. Even upon discharge, they were still diagnosed as schizophrenic, though now it was "schizophrenia in remission".

Rosenhan described his results to other mental hospitals, and their administrators said they could not be taken in by such a ruse. Rosenhan then told them that they would be visited by a pseudopatient in the next 3 months, and he challenged them to identify who it was. During the 3 month period, 193 patients were admitted, and the psychologists identified 41 they thought were pseudopatients. In reality, Rosenhan had not sent anybody!

B. In deciding how to classify the patients, the staff doctors were engaged in social perception. Social perception refers to the processes through which we use available information to form impressions of other people, to assess what they are like.

C. Social perceptions can obviously be flawed - even skilled observers can misperceive, misjudge, and reach the wrong conclusions. Once we form wrong impressions, they are likely to persist.

D. Key question: How do we form impressions of others? How do we combine the diverse info we receive about someone into a coherent overall impression?

II. Ordering the world

A. We often try to simplify the complex flow of incoming info by putting people into useful categories. These classifications help to specify how various objects or events are related or similar to each other.

B. Why do we classify people and things? Classifications help to serve the "knowledge" function of attitudes.

1. Simplify perception by grouping together similar experiences. We can pay attention to some stimuli while ignoring others.

EX: If we perceive a neighborhood as friendly, we can walk down the street without attending carefully to every look from every passerby.

2. Allow us to go beyond the info that is immediately available - can infer additional facts.

EX: When we recognize a discussion as a bargaining session, we infer that the participants represent groups with conflicting interests. We may also infer that the opening statements are merely initial bargaining positions, and that vicious verbal attacks do not necessarily signify personal animosity.

3. Help us know how to relate to people and object.

EX: In friendly neighborhoods, we can smile at strangers and don't have to hold on to our wallet so tightly.

EX: We can tell secrets to people who are trustworthy, and remain tight-lipped in the presence of gossips.

4. Allow us to predict behavior.

EX: A friend will help us to change a flat tire.

EX: A vegetarian will turn down a steak dinner.

C. How do we decide how to classify people and things?

1. Can classify people in any number of ways - male, midwesterner, tennis player, introvert. What determines which will be used?

a. Purposes of the perceiver. We use concepts to determine how people will affect the pursuit of our goals.

EX: Airport security guard must decide if rushing travelers are dangerous or safe, require a close search, or merely a cursory check. Hence, she classifies passersby as tourists or smugglers, terrorists or vacationers. She looks for traits that fit her concept of a potentially dangerous person.

EX: In contrast, travellers are more likely to look at each other in terms of ways that reveal the potential for rewarding interaction - age, sex, physical attractiveness, smoking habits - and classify people in terms of these things.

b. Social context. Refers to activities that are appropriate in a given setting, to the roles ordinarily enacted there, and to the people who are present. The social context strongly influences the ways we label people and their behavior.

EX: If we are at the beach, and somebody comes along wearing a swimsuit, spreads out a towel and lies down on it, we might label their behavior are "relaxation" and perhaps think the person is a vacationer. If a person did the same thing in a department store, we might think they are crazy.

c. Accessibility in memory. How easily can the classification be summoned from memory? Experience may make some classifications more accessible than others.

EX: Suppose a student learns that her roommate has broken both legs while mountain climbing. If she has recently been discussing with her parents or friends how foolhardy some students are, she may be more likely to perceive her friend as reckless than as adventurous.

D. Stereotypes

1. One way to simplify things is to organize people into groups. For each group, we have a stereotype, a fixed set of characteristics we tend to attribute to all group members. Stereotypes enable us to make quick judgments, but these are often wrong.

2. Ethnic stereotypes. May have changed - or they may just have gone underground. Substantial reported changes in stereotypes between 1932 and 1967. Compared with 1932 undergraduates, few 1967 undergrads characterized Americans as industrious or intelligent, Italians as artistic or impulsive, blacks as superstitious or lazy, and Jews as shrewd or mercenary. However, the idea that negative stereotyping is bigoted and socially undesirable has increased, so reports may be biased by attempts to hide bigotry.

3. Gender stereotypes. Males are considered more independent, dominant, aggressive, scientific, and stable in handling crises. Females are seen as more emotional, sensitive, gentle, helpful, and patient.

We also have stereotypes of feminists - one study showed feminists were assumed to be less attractive, even though that was not the case.

4. Origins of stereotypes.

a. Have some direct experiences, and then overgeneralize - a "kernel of truth". We might have an experience with a member of a group, and then assume that all member of a group share the characteristics that we know a few have.

b. Boost own self-esteem - can assert our own superiority by assuming others are inferior. "self-interested motivation"

c. Can enhance group solidarity by developing negative stereotypes of groups with which we compete.

5. Errors caused by stereotypes.

a. Lead us to assume all members of group have certain traits. EX: A professor might think that all football players are dumb, and grade accordingly. But, some football players are quite intelligent.

b. Lead us to assume that all the members of one group differ greatly from all the members of other groups. Assume they have nothing in common.

EX: Football players and ballet dancers may be thought to have nothing in common. But, in fact, in both groups, there are individuals who are patient, neurotic, hardworking, intelligent, and so on.

c. Assume the factors that distinguish between groups are also the causes of differences between groups.

EX: People may attribute the fact that whites obtain higher average scores on standard intelligence tests to race. By focusing on one salient feature, they ignore more likely causes such as socioeconomic opportunities, education, and cultural bias in tests.

III. Forming Impressions

A. Kelley did a study in which two different sketches of a guest lecturer were given to students. Sketches were identical, except that half the people were told the guest was cold and the rest were told he was warm. Those who had read that the guest professor was cold rated him as less considerate, sociable, popular, good natured, humorous, and humane than those who had read he was warm. Why did this happen?

B. People make assumptions about how personality traits are related - which ones go together and which do not. These assumptions are called Implicit Personality Theories. It is a special kind of stereotyping - we assume that warm people or cold people have particular attributes.

EX: Upon learning that a person is a pessimist, we also tend to assume she is humorless, irritable, and unpopular.

C. An IPT can be thought of as a "mental map" of the way we believe traits are related to each other. When we observe that a person has a particular trait, we assume they also possess traits that are close to it on our mental map.

Studies show traits are organized along 2 distinct positive-negative dimensions - a social good-bad dimension and an intellectual good-bad dimension. Warm and cold differ on the social dimension, lazy and industrious differ on the intellectual dimension

We tend to judge persons who have one good trait as generally good, and who have one bad trait as generally bad. This tendency to perceive personalities as clusters of either good or bad traits is called the halo effect.

D. Individual differences in IPTs. We don't all form our IPTs the same way. Our unique experiences direct our attention to particular trait categories when we form impressions.

EX: Some of us pay more attention to intelligence, others to friendliness or attractiveness. Peoples impressions reflect as much about their own modes of perception as they do about the characteristics of the person being perceived.

Suppose two people meet the same intelligent, friendly individual. If one attends more to intelligence, she is likely to form an impression that the individual is industrious, imaginative, and skillful - all traits associated with intelligence in most people's mental maps. If the other attends more to friendliness, she if likely to form an impression that the individual is popular, good-natured, and warm - traits associated with friendly. Both impressions may be valid, and they are not necessarily contradictory, but they are very different.

E. Resistance to change. It can be very difficult to change people's personality theories or stereotypes. Why?

1. People tend to welcome evidence that confirms their stereotypes or personality theories and to ignore or explain away disconfirming evidence.

EX: The Rosenhan study cited above.

EX: People read one week's events in the life of a woman named Jane. Equal numbers of introverted and extroverted behaviors were included. People were then asked to recall behaviors that were relevant for a job for which Jane was being considered. Those who evaluated her for a job a "research librarian" recalled twice as many instances of introverted behavior as extroverted behavior. Those evaluating her for a job as real estate salesperson recalled twice as many extroverted behaviors as introverted behaviors. Remember, both groups read about the same Jane! They were then asked how well suited Jane would be for the other job. Those who had evaluated her for the salesperson job thought she would make a lousy research librarian, whereas those who had evaluated her for the research position thought she was very well suited for the job.

MORAL: According to Mark Snyder, Even if someone doubted an erroneous idea enough to go and test it, "one would nevertheless be particularly likely to find all the evidence that one needs to confirm and retain the belief."

2. Impressions can be self-fulfilling prophesies. Because our own actions evoke appropriate reactions form others, our initial impressions are often confirmed by the reactions of others.

EX: Men were given photographs of relatively attractive or relatively unattractive women. They then had phone conversations with the woman they thought was in the picture. They tended to act differently towards the women they thought were attractive, and the women, in turn, tended to act differently towards them - the "attractive" women tended to act more poised, confident, amiable, sociable and outgoing.


I. Definitions. Attribution is the process through which we link behavior to its causes - to the intentions, dispositions and events that explain why people act the way they do.

II. Dispositional vs. situational attributions (or internal vs. external).

A. Must decide whether behavior should be attributed to characteristics of the person who performed it (dispositional) or to the surrounding situation. Put another way, are the causes of an action internal to the actor or external?

EX: Suppose neighbor is unemployed. You might judge that he is lazy, irresponsible or unable (dispositional attribution). Alternatively, you might attribute unemployment to racial discrimination, evils of capitalism, poor state of the economy (situational).

B. Social consequences

1. Dispositional attributions define suffering due to personal problems - solutions involve treating the individual

2. Situational defines suffering as a social problem - prescribes changes in the social structure.

EX: Status of women may be attributed to personal dispositions (fear of success, poorer skills). Solution is psychotherapy, assertiveness training, etc. Or, it could be due to sexual prejudice and discrimination - solution may be the ERA, adequate daycare, etc.

C. Individual consequences

1. Depressives have a different attributional style than non-depressives. They are often more realistic in their attributions, which may be why they are depressed! (See below for more detail.)

2. Successes are more likely to endure if we attribute the success to our own internal characteristics, rather than external causes.

EX: Suppose you lose weight. If you attribute your success to a diet program, once you are off the program you may regain the weight. If you think you "did it yourself," then you'll be less likely to need outside help to maintain the weight loss.

EX: So-called crummy teachers may be more effective than "good" teachers in some ways. Why did you learn the material? "Because I had a great teacher." But when that teacher is gone, how will you learn? A crummy teacher can force you to learn the material by yourself, so you know you don't need him in order to learn. Much of teaching should be teaching people to learn how to learn.

III. Making attributions - what determines whether attributions are internal or external?

A. Kelley argues that when we make causal attributions we analyze information essentially the same way that a scientist would. In other words, we assess whether the behavior occurs in the presence or absence of various potential causes. In doing so, we use the Principle of Covariation: we attribute the behavior to the potential cause that is present when the behavior occurs and absent when the behavior fails to occur - the cause that covaries with the behavior. For example, if you know that a political candidate's position shifts from pro to anti-nuclear freeze depending on the views of his audience, you are likely to attribute his behavior to the audience context (i.e. circumstances).

Kelley says we use three types of information. (NOTE: The Kelley theory is not just limited to the persuasiveness of spoken communication - it applies to attributions for any behavior.)

1. Consensus - Do all or only a few people respond to the stimulus in the same way as the target person. Consensus asks about generalization across actors.

2. Distinctiveness - does the target person respond in the same way to other stimuli as well? This asks about generalization across situations.

3. Consistency - does the target person always respond in the same way to this stimulus? This asks about generalization across time.

EXAMPLE. Mr. Brown has trouble starting his car. Why?

1. LLH - attribute to actor (internal). Mr. Brown has trouble starting most cars. (Low Distinctiveness). Few people have trouble starting this car. (Low consensus.) Conclusion: Something about Mr. Brown is keeping him from starting the car. (NOTE: The English language would probably lead us to infer consistency is high - that is, the sentence "Mr. Brown has trouble starting most cars" would be interpreted by most of us as "Mr. Brown has trouble starting most cars most of the time.")

2. HHH - Attribute to object (external). Most people have trouble starting this car. (High consensus). Mr. Brown has no trouble starting most other cars (High distinctiveness). Conclusion: Something is wrong with the car. (NOTE: High consistency is implied.)

3. LHL - Attribute to circumstances (internal/external interaction). Few people have trouble starting this car today. (Low consensus). Mr. Brown has little trouble starting other cars today (high distinctiveness). Mr. Brown rarely has trouble starting this car (low consistency). Conclusion: Something about the circumstances is keeping Mr. Brown from driving this car. Personal characteristics are affecting him in this particular situation. Perhaps he drove a different kind of car yesterday, and are doing things unsuited to his car (shifting gears improperly).

B. Attributional style can also determine the types of attributions that are made. That is, your personality may determine whether you attribute things to internal or external characteristics.

1. The theory of attributional style was developed by Seligman based on his work on depression. He said bad events can be attributed to either internal/external and stable/unstable causes.

EX: Suppose a student believes he did poorly on the math portion of the Scholastic Aptitude Test. This is a bad event. What might have caused it?

a) Lack of mathematical ability. This is an internal-stable attribution. Seligman says that depressives are disposed to this kind of attribution.

b) I was bored with the math problems. This is internal but unstable (i.e. I won't always be bored with math problems). Or, I was tired on the day of the exam.

c) Educational Testing Service gives unfair math exams. External-Stable.

d) The test was given on Friday the 13th, an unlucky day. External-Unstable.

2. Implications of each: External-Unstable is the best - the bad event isn't your fault, and there is hope for better things in the future. External-Stable leaves you with no hope for the future, but at least it isn't your fault. Internal-Unstable says it is your fault, but fortunately, you can prevent the bad thing from happening again. Internal-Stable is the worst - it is your fault, and the problem is likely to persist.

3. The Attributional Style Questionnaire asks questions like the following:

"You have been looking for a job unsuccessfully for some time.

Q. Is the cause of your unsuccessful job search due to something about you or something about other people or circumstances?

Q. In the future when looking for a job, will this cause again be present?"

The first Q measures internal/external, the second measures stable/unstable.

4. Seligman said depressed persons are characterized by a particular attributional style - specifically, they tend to make internal-stable attributions for bad events (e.g. I am bad at math). These are the most punishing of all possible attributions, the worst for self-esteem, and the one making the worst predictions for future performance.

5. Depressives may have an unrealistically dark view. On the other hand, it may be that normal people take an unrealistically bright view. There is a lot of evidence that normal people are subject to self-serving biases.

6. Sidelight: Self-serving biases are not necessarily maladaptive. For example, self-serving biases can help you to deal with adversity. A study of cancer patients showed that every woman interviewed thought she was doing as well as, or better than, other women in coping with breast cancer, and that belief seemed to sustain them in their struggle. Women tended to compare themselves to people worse off than themselves.

C. Correspondent Inferences Theory analyzes the conditions under which observers will conclude that dispositions of actors are sufficient explanations for the actor's behavior. According to the theory, factors that affect whether or not a dispositional attribution is made include:

1. The strength of environmental forces on behavior. If perceived environmental forces are strong, people are not likely to make dispositional attributions.

EX: Student always comes late to my class. If I know they have a class on the other side of campus right before this one, I'll be less likely to make a dispositional attribution.

2. Normativeness - To what extent could the behavior have been expected on the basis of roles and social norms? The greater the degree to which an action conforms to social norms, the less information it yields about the intentions and dispositions of actors. Actions which violate norms are more likely to be attributed to dispositions than to environmental forces.

EX: I don't infer much about the dispositions of those who are always on time, since I expect that. Coming late is counter-normative, though, so I am more likely to make a dispositional attribution for the latecomer.

3. Hedonic Relevance - Degree to which the action proves rewarding or punishing to the observer. The more the act affects the observer, the more likely he is to make dispositional attributions. If I feel harmed by the actor's actions, I will be more likely to make a dispositional attribution.

EX: Late student disrupts the class, which annoys me.

4. Personalism - extent to which the actor's behavior is perceived as intended to affect or influence the observer in some way. If the observer sees behavior as directed specifically toward him, he will be even more likely to make dispositional attributions.

EX: I think the student is out to get me, so I make a dispositional attribution.

IV. Choosing among possible dispositions. When we have determined whether an action is to be attributed internally or externally, we have only determined the locus of causality, not the specific cause or causes. When we make an internal attribution, how do we go about deciding what dispositions led to the action.

MODEL: Dispositions --> Intentions --> Actions --> Effects. We observe actions (and we know about possible effects) and we work backwards to figure out intentions and dispositions.

A. Try to figure out intentions - what did they intend to achieve? From their intentions, try to infer what personal dispositions would cause a person to have such intentions. For example, if we conclude that an act was intended to help, we might infer the disposition "helpful."

B. To figure out intentions, we consider what effects the person was likely to have anticipated from their actions.

EX: Suppose a student complained in class about exam grades. What effects could she have anticipated? The professor may raise her grade - or raise everyone's grade - or ignore her - or criticize her - she might impress her classmates. If we infer that her intention was to improve everyone's grade, we might conclude that she has the disposition "concerned for others." If we thought she wanted to impress others, we might infer the disposition "show-off."

C. Problem is that most acts have multiple effects - and a different disposition may correspond to each effect. Have to decide what effects the person is pursuing and which effects are merely incidental.

D. This decision is influenced by

1. Commonality - what effects are unique to the action chosen? Jones and Davis theorize that observers who are interested in attributing specific dispositions to an actor will try to identify effects that are unique to the action chosen.

EX: "Improving everyone's grade" could be accomplished by either protesting publicly or circulating a petition. "Impressing classmates with courage" is unique to protesting publicly.

2. Normativeness = extent to which we expect a person to perform a particular behavior in a particular setting. A person who seeks an effect that is socially desirable tells us only that he is "normal." It reveals nothing about his distinctive attributes. The more counter-normative actions are, the more confidence we have in attributing a disposition from the action. Nonnormative, unexpected behavior produces more confident inferences about the actor's dispositions.

EX: Few students would want to be criticized by a professor. Hence, a student who provokes criticism may be seen as "fearless but foolish."

EX: Imagine a business executive preaching capitalism at a stock holders meeting. We cannot be entirely confident whether this view represents his true personal dispositions or a role-required performance. We would be more confident in our attribution regarding his attitudes if he preached the opposite view - "share the wealth." (NOTE: this relates to earlier discussion about credibility - a businessman who argues for socialism may be more credible than one who supports capitalism.)

EX: We expect storeclerks to be polite. Hence when they are polite, we don't necessarily think they are a polite person. A storeclerk who acts rude is likely to be seen as an inherently rude person.

V. Attributional biases

A. Fundamental attribution error. When looking at the behavior of others, we tend to underestimate the impact of situational forces and overestimate the impact of dispositional forces. Most people ignore the impact of role pressures and other situational constraints on others and see behavior as caused by people's intentions, motives, and attitudes.

EX: Correspondent inference studies have demonstrated this repeatedly. Observers were told that students had been required to write pro or anti-Castro essays. Nevertheless, they attributed pro-Castro attitudes to the writers of the pro-Castro essays.

EX: Students were randomly assigned to the role of quizmaster and contestant. The quizmaster was given 15 minutes to compose ten difficult but not unfair or impossible questions. He was encouraged to talk about things he knew well. Contestants usually got 4 of 10 questions right. Quizmasters, contestants, and the audience were then asked to rate the quizmaster and the contestant on general knowledge. Contestants and observers rated quizmasters as much more knowledgeable than contestants. Quizmasters saw little difference between themselves and contestants. The tremendous advantage of the quizmaster was overlooked. (NOTE: This has some obvious implications for the classroom setting.)

By way of contrast, we tend to attribute our own behavior to situational forces. Why the differences?

1. Focus of attention - we tend to overestimate the impact of whatever our attention is focused on. Because our attention is directed more toward people who act than at the surrounding situation, we tend to attribute more causal importance to people than to situations.

When we act, our attention is focused away from ourselves. When people saw videotapes of themselves, they became more likely to make dispositional attributions for their own behavior.

2. Information - we don't know everything the actor does about the circumstances. Have more info about ourselves - we know all the circumstances. We also know how we have behaved in the past, and know that we have not always acted this way.

B. Motivational biases. When events affect one's self-interests, biased attribution is likely.

1. Defense of stereotypes. People tend to perceive actions that correspond with their stereotypes as caused by the actor's personal dispositions. Actions that contradict their stereotype are attributed to situational causes. As a result, stereotypes persist even in the light of contradictory evidence.

EX: If a female executive cries, we attribute this to her emotional instability; if she does well in a crisis, we attribute this to the calming influence of her male assistants.

2. Success and failure attributions. People tend to take personal credit for acts that yield positive outcomes, and to deflect blame for bad outcomes, attributing them to external causes. Attributing success to personal qualities and failure to external factors enables people to enhance or protect their own self-esteem.

EX: College students were asked to explain the grades they received on three examinations. Students who received A's and B's attributed their grades much more to their own effort and ability than to good luck or easy tests. However, students who received C's, D's, and F's attributed their grades largely to bad luck and the difficulty of the tests.

C. False Consensus bias - tend to overestimate the commonality of our opinions and our undesirable or unsuccessful behavior.

EX: Students were asked if they would were a banner saying "eat at Joes." 2/3 of those who said they would guessed that others would do so as well. 2/3 of those who said they wouldn't guessed that others wouldn't as well.

D. False Uniqueness bias - Underestimate how common our abilities and desirable behaviors are.

EX: People give higher evaluations of their own group leadership than others do.

EX: Think we have bright future prospects.

E. Just world - More serious the consequences of an act, more guilt we tend to assign. People want to believe they live in a just world. Want to have order - want to believe bad things don't happen to good people.

EX: Suppose a pedestrian walks out in front of a drunk driver, and is killed. The driver gets far more condemnation than the drunk who doesn't have a pedestrian walk out in front of him. Yet, it is only external factors that account for any difference between the two.

EX: Subjects read descriptions of how a driver failed to put the brake on in her car. In one case, the car rolled back harmlessly. In another, a child happened to be in the path of the car, and was killed. Far more blame was attributed in the latter case.

EX: People often blame themselves for their own misfortune. Why? Because otherwise, they would have to admit that misfortune was beyond their control, and they would be unable to avoid it in the future.