How Do People Form First
You are walking through a park, and you notice
a man muttering to himself. Further along, you pass a woman whistling
a happy tune. Without realizing it, you make inferences about these
behaviors. But are your inferences linked to the individuals who
are enacting the behaviors?
In their study, “The Efficiency of Binding
Spontaneous Trait Inferences to Actors’ Faces,” Princeton
psychologist Alexander Todorov and psychologist James Uleman, of
New York University, propose that unintentional inferences are made
directly about people themselves and that the inferences are automatic.
The article appeared in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology,
(2003, Vol 39).
In a series of experiments with university students,
researchers exposed participants to 60 photos of faces randomly
paired with verbal descriptions of behaviors, implying a personality
trait. The participants were then shown the same faces again, accompanied
by a trait. Participants needed to identify if the traits were “old,”
meaning they’d seen the trait in the first part of the study
or “new,” meaning the word had not been introduced before.
Although the implied traits were not actually presented, participants
misidentified these traits as being seen as part of the description
of the person.
The data consistently showed that participants linked unintentionally
inferred traits with faces. These results replicated even when participants
had visual access to the information for only two seconds or when
participants were given additional tasks so that attention to the
information was minimal. Another test showed that the links between
faces and inferred traits reflected person attributions –
inferences about the particular people involved – rather than
associations between abstract judgments about behaviors and faces.
The researchers conclude that even in cases
where our attention is brief or constrained by a secondary task,
we still make judgments about people. These judgments appear to
be automatic. “These inferences are about the person and have
specific implications for our representation of that person,”
the researchers conclude.