Considered by many scholars to be a historically significant conceptual development in the study of social cognition, implicit personality theories are cognitive structures utilized during social perception and in social interaction. The knowledge contained in these structures specifies sets of personality traits perceived to be interrelated. Applied during social perception, implicit personality theories are key to impression formation, allowing a perceiver to make trait inferences, or, infer from a few, initially observed traits that a person will probably have a number of additional, implicated traits. Applied in social interaction, implicit personality theories are a source of person knowledge, a type of knowledge seen as essential to communication skills and achieving communication goals, as is knowledge of the self, roles, contexts, emotions, and how to put together one’s messages.
Gestalt psychologist Solomon Asch introduced the precedent to implicit personality theories in 1946, the year he published experiments testing his configurational model of impression formation. Asch proposed that given the observation of several initial or stimulus traits, a perceiver would configure the traits to form a gestalt impression of another’s personality. Some traits, particularly those with strong positive or negative connotations, would be more central to the configuration than others, thus dominating both the impression and a perceiver’s inferences of additional traits. A few years after Asch published his paradigmatic experiments, Bruner & Tagiuri (1954) offered an alternative to the idea of trait configuration during impression formation. They proposed that impressions and trait inferences might proceed more immediately from naïve “implicit theories of personality,” or from already developed, organized ideas of the possible interrelationships among personality traits.
Ensuing efforts to examine perceived interrelationships have, to some degree, clarified the possible content and organization of implicit personality theories. According to Sedikides & Anderson (1994), investigations of implicit personality theories usually represent one of three views: the associationistic view, the dimensional view, or the person types view.
Associationistic scholars view the interrelationships as a simple perceived co-variance among certain traits. Correlational analyses of traits perceived across different stimulus persons and by different perceivers have provided some evidence of perceived co-variation, although according to Anderson (1977) there are considerable weaknesses to using correlational measures for estimating the interrelationships.
Scholars advocating a dimensional view maintain that the perceived co-variances represent underlying dimensions of personality that may be organized hierarchically in relation to each other. Dimensions are obtained using factor analysis or other multidimensional scaling techniques on intertrait correlations. Using a multidimensional scaling procedure, for example, Rosenberg & Sedlack (1972) located two dimensions – “intellectual” and “social” – underlying study participants’ perceived co-variations among traits. The poles of each dimension reflected valued or good traits versus nonvalued or bad traits. Traits such as skillful, industrious, and intelligent, perceived by participants to be co-varying, were located dimensionally as being highly intellectual and good. Traits such as honest, modest, and tolerant were clustered closely together as social and good. Traits such as warm were perceived by participants to be good socially but bad intellectually, with the trait of cold perceived oppositely, i.e, as bad socially but good intellectually.
Scholars from the person types view generally use cluster analyses of participant ratings of others’ personalities to determine the interrelations. According to Anderson & Sedikides (1991), cluster analysis is able to detect clusters of traits not identified by either correlational analysis or multidimensional scaling techniques. In addition, these authors have provided some evidence that certain interrelationships among traits are causal and bidirectional. Study participants may perceive, for example, that being depressed creates the traits “unhappy” and “pessimistic,” while unhappiness and pessimism are, in turn, traits leading to loneliness. Of the three views, the most recent is the person types view, and to some extent implicit personality theories have been replaced conceptually by other cognitive structures such as person prototypes and stereotypes. Both person prototypes and stereotypes represent prototypical knowledge of person types and have an advantage over implicit personality theories in that they contain knowledge of typical behaviors and typical features of appearance in addition to typical traits. Unlike implicit personality theories, person prototypes and stereotypes are able to explain the initial inference of traits from a person’s behavior and appearance.
Irrespective of their view as to whether implicit personality theories are organized (1) as sets of co-varying traits, (2) as traits arranged according to dimensions, or (3) as traits organized as person types, some scholars are still debating whether the perceived interrelationships among traits are “real” or “ideal.” Realists maintain that the perceived interrelationships originate from people’s experience of actually co-occuring traits. Idealists propose that the interrelationships are affected by people’s tendencies toward illusory correlations or even semantic relationships among trait labels, as illustrated by Thorndike’s (1920) halo effect.
According to Schneider et al. (1979), research evidence primarily supports a middle ground between the realist and idealist positions. While at least one study has found that people are sensitive to and can recognize actually co-varying traits, other studies suggest that the strength of the co-variation is most likely to be exaggerated. Thus, while implicit personality theories may be an important source of person knowledge during interaction, this knowledge introduces at least some degree of bias in our perceptions and inferences of others’ personalities.
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