Leonard S. Newman
University of Illinois at Chicago
A Cornerstone for the Science of Interpersonal Behavior? Person Perception and Person Memory, Past, Present, and Future
“To discover where the action is in psychology, ” begins a recent undergraduate social psychology text, “look to social psychology” (Zimbardo, 1993). However, the typical beginning student may be surprised to learn that for many years much of the action has involved having people record their impressions of Donald—a man notable only for the ambiguity of his behavior (e.g., Higgins, Rholes, & Jones, 1977); recording how many of a hypothetical person's honest and dishonest behaviors study participants can remember (Hastie & Kumar, 1979); asking college freshmen and sophomores what they really think about the woman being interviewed on the silent videotape (Gilbert, Pelham, & Krull, 1988); figuring out whether people spontaneously inferred that the secretary who solved the mystery halfway through the book is clever or that the plumber who slipped an extra $50 into his wife's purse is generous (Winter & Uleman, 1984); and determining what leads to the inference that the businessman who tripped over his girlfriend's feet while dancing the fox-trot did so because he is clumsy (McArthur, 1972).
As the late Roger Brown (1986) observed, for “the new student” it is hard to “grasp what it is that led” the people who do this kind of research “to care about the questions they ask; the original lure is lost” (pp. 378–379). Brown need not have restricted that observation to the new student; some prominent social psychologists (e.g., Aronson, 1992; Ickes & Gonzalez, 1994; see also Neisser, 1980) have also registered their discomfort with a field dominated by such investigations (i.e., a field dominated by laboratory studies of person perception and person memory). Why have social psychologists devoted so much time and energy to observing in microscopic detail the processes involved in making sense of people's behavior? And why should they continue doing so? The remainder of this chapter is devoted to addressing these questions.
As defined by Gilbert (1998), person perception (or personology, as he prefers to call it) is the study of how “people come to know about each other's temporary states (such as emotions, intentions, and desires) and enduring dispositions (such as beliefs, traits, and abilities).” Viewed in this way, the term person perception also encompasses much of the research that falls under the categories of impression formation, social categorization, social inference, attribution, and even social construct accessibility. In other words, person perception research is concerned with how, when we are exposed to other people's behavior, we figure out what they did, why they did it, and what kind of people—including how likable—they are.
Classic studies in this area include those by Higgins et al. (1977), Jones and Harris (1967), and Anderson (1965a, 1965b). The priming research of Higgins et al. shed light on the processes involved in categorizing other people's behavior. Participants in their studies were asked to form impressions of people based on descriptions of their behavior that could be construed and evaluated in different ways (e.g., engaging in high-risk sporting activities). In a previous (and bogus) perception study, they had been exposed to trait terms that could be used to disambiguate the behaviors (e.g., adventurous, a favorable trait, or reckless, an unfavorable one). Higgins et al. found that interpretations of the behaviors tended to be consistent with the primed traits. These findings indicate that the sheer accessibility of trait concepts—regardless of whether the accessibility stems from an irrelevant source—significantly affects how social information is categorized. Jones and Harris (1967) focused instead on how people explain behaviors that they have already categorized. They asked participants to guess the true attitudes of people who had delivered