Social Psychology

Student Learning Program

Chapter 3: Forming first impressions: Cues, interpretations, and inferences (pp. 5772)

Ask Yourself?

In this topic

  1. The Raw Materials of first Impressions (pp. 5964)
    1. Impressions from physical appearance
    2. Physical appearance in the workplace
    3. Impressions from nonverbal communication
    4. Detection of deception
    5. Lie detection in the legal system
    6. Impressions from familiarity
    7. Impressions from environments
    8. Impressions from behavior
    9. Which cues capture attention?
  2. Interpreting Cues (pp. 6469)
    1. The role of associations in interpretation
    2. The role of accessibility in interpretation
    3. Accessibility from concurrent activation of knowledge
    4. Accessibility from recent activation
    5. Accessibility from frequent activation: Chronic accessibility
    6. Accessibility and sexism in a job interview
  3. Characterizing the behaving person: Correspondent inferences (pp. 6972)
    1. When is a correspondent inference justified?
    2. The correspondence bias: People are what they do
    3. Correspondence bias in the workplace
    4. Limits on the correspondence bias
The Raw Materials of first Impressions
Impressions from physical appearance

People assume that "what is beautiful, is good": expecting attractive people to be more interesting, warm, outgoing, and socially skilled than less attractive people.

Physical appearance is an important element is people's attraction to strangers. This is supported by Walster et al.'s (1966) research on dating (SP p. 59).

Physical beauty has been shown to have a pervasive influence on our perceptions and evaluations of other people (SP p. 60).

Facial features also influence perceptions of other people. This was demonstrated by Berry and McArthur (1985) in their research on impressions of baby-faced adults, and by Todorov et al. (2005) in their research on the influence on voting patterns of impressions of competence based on facial appearance (SP p. 60).

Physical appearance in the workplace

Liking based on physical appearance can have impact on our work lives. For instance, good-looking and tall men have higher starting salaries (SP p. 60). However Heilman and Stopeck (1985) showed reverse patterns on competence ratings for females (SP p. 61).

Impressions from nonverbal communication

People who readily express their feelings nonverbally are liked more than less expressive people. A lot of studies demonstrated that nonverbal behaviors (body orientation, posture, eye gaze, tone of voice) are important for impression formation (see SP p. 61)

In addition, body language offers a special insight into people's mood and emotions. Some researchers even concluded that emotional expression is a kind of universal language, however recent findings show that interpretations of expressions also differ among cultures.

Detection of deception

People tend to use the wrong cues in assessing whether someone is lying or telling the truth. The best cues to detect a liar are nonverbal cues like the tone of voice or movements of the hands and feet (SP p. 62).

Research showed that in some circumstances people can detect deception better when receiving less information (Zuckerman et al., 1981), or when they are distracted by a difficult task (Gilbert & Krull, 1988; SP p. 62).

Research activity: Detection of deception

Current research suggests that the "lie detector" is not precise enough to correctly detect guilty suspects. Its effectiveness may derive from confessions by suspects who anticipate that their lies will be detected.

Impressions from familiarity

We tend to develop positive feelings about people we encounter frequently. This is the mere exposure effect, as demonstrated by Zajonc (1968), Festinger et al. (1950), and Moreland and Beach (1992) (SP p. 62).

Case study: Mere exposure

Impressions from environments

Because people select and create environments that reflect and reinforce who they are, observers can quite accurately form impressions of others from environmental cues like dorm rooms and single-person offices (SP p. 63).

Impressions from behavior

Many behaviors are strongly linked to particular personality traits. People's behavior is the most genuinely useful resource for developing an impression of others.

Which cues capture attention?

Salient characteristics, characteristics that are rare or unique, capture attention.

Interpreting Cues
The role of associations in interpretation

An association between two cognitive representations arises from similarity in meanings between the cognitive representations concerned, or if two cognitive representations are repeatedly thought of together.

Once the association is formed, two cognitive representations are linked. If either of the linked representations comes to mind, the other will also be activated (SP p. 65). This is the first crucial kind of stored knowledge that helps us interpret the cues.

The role of accessibility in interpretation

The second crucial kind of stored knowledge that helps us interpret the cues is accessibility. Accessible knowledge (i.e., knowledge that comes easily to mind) guides our interpretation of cues.

Accessibility from concurrent activation of knowledge

Accessible knowledge is knowledge that is concurrently activated by other sources. Research demonstrated, for instance, that mood and expectations influence our interpretation of cues (SP p. 66).

Accessibility from recent activation

Knowledge also is accessible when a cognitive representation has recently been brought to mind. Higgins et al. (1977) showed that only cognitive representations that are both accessible and applicable influence our interpretations (SP p. 67).

Knowledge can also become accessible using priming techniques, which activate cognitive representations (SP pp. 6768).

Accessibility from frequent activation: Chronic accessibility

The final factor that influences accessibility of knowledge is frequent activation of a cognitive representation. When frequently using a cognitive representation, this representation becomes chronically accessible, and will be used when interpreting others' behavior.

Accessibility and sexism in a job interview

The concept of viewing women as sex objects can be primed by television and print advertisements, affecting men's judgments and behavior toward women. Rudman and Borgida (1995) showed its influence in job interviews (SP pp. 6869).

Characterizing the behaving person: Correspondent inferences

People often assume that others have inner qualities that correspond to their observable behaviors.

When is a correspondent inference justified?

A correspondent inference is justified when the individual freely chooses to perform the behavior, when the behavior has few effects that distinguish it from other courses of action, and when the behavior is unexpected.

The correspondence bias: People are what they do

The tendency to draw unjustified correspondent inferences, is known as the correspondence bias, or fundamental attribution error.

Jones and Harris (1967), Jones (1990b), and Gilbert (1998) provided evidence for the existence of this bias; people tend to assume that behaviors they observe must reflect the actors' inner characteristics, even though other aspects of the situation could explain those behaviors (SP pp. 7071).

Correspondence bias in the workplace

If people assume we have personal characteristics that fit with our behaviors, this has implications in the workplace, because they are shaped by behaviors we are instructed to perform. This is demonstrated by Humphrey's (1985) research on rating characteristics of people who were assigned roles.

Limits on the correspondence bias

The correspondence bias is reduced or reversed when people are specifically motivated to find out about the situation.

In Western cultures the correspondence bias is more prevalent than it is in Asian cultures. In Western cultures, people are seen as responsible for their own thoughts, feelings, and actions, whereas in Asian cultures group or social context are also considered.

So what does this mean?

Perceptions of other people are influenced by cues from physical appearance, nonverbal communication, environments, behaviors, and the frequency of encounters. Cues that are salient are particularly influential.

A cognitive representation that is associated with the cue itself or is accessible is most likely to be used in interpreting cues. Knowledge becomes accessible when it is concurrently, recently, or frequently activated.

When processing superficially, people often assume that others have inner qualities that correspond to their behaviors, i.e. they make correspondent inferences. The tendency to draw unjustified correspondent inferences when situational causes actually account for behaviors is known as the correspondence bias.

Next topic

Beyond first impressions: Systematic processing

In this chapter

  1. Chapter 3 introduction
  2. Forming first impressions: Cues, interpretations, and inferences
  3. Beyond first impressions: Systematic processing
  4. The impact of impressions: Using, defending, and changing impressions
  5. Chapter overview (PDF)
  6. Fill-in-the-blanks
  7. Multiple-choice questions