Social perception

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Social perception is the study of how people form impressions of and make inferences about other people. We learn about other's feelings and emotions by picking up on information we gather from their physical appearance, and verbal and nonverbal communication. Facial expressions, tone of voice, hand gestures, and body position are just a few examples of ways people communicate without words. [1] A real world example of social perception would be understanding that someone disagrees with what you said when you see them roll their eyes.

An important term to understand when talking about Social Perception is attribution. Attribution is explaining a person’s behavior as being based in some source, whether that be something as simple as his/her personality or as volatile as the situation in which he/she is acting.

Most importantly, social perception is shaped by individual's motivation at the time, their emotions, and their cognitive load capacity. All of this combined determines how people attribute certain traits and how those traits are interpreted.

Theories studied[edit]

Attribution theory[edit]

A large component of Social Perception is attribution. Attribution helps individuals understand and rationalize the behavior of others through the use of information gathered by observation. Psychological research into attribution began with the work of Fritz Heider in the early part of the 20th century, and subsequently developed by others such as Harold Kelley and Bernard Weiner. People make attributions to understand the world around them in order to seek reasons for a particular individual’s behavior. When people make attributions they are able to make judgments as to what was the cause of a certain behavior. However, a common mistake people make is called Fundamental Attribution Error. This means that the original explanation for the behavior was misidentified. An example of this would be a mother misattributing her son's excitement to sugar from the candy he just ate, as opposed to the real cause of his excitement being that his favorite TV show is on.

How do we attach meaning to other's behavior, or our own? This is called attribution theory. “Attribution theory deals with how the social perceiver uses information to explain events. It examines what information is gathered and how it is combined to form a causal judgment” (Fiske & Taylor, 1991). Attribution theory is concerned with how and why ordinary people explain events as they do.[2]

Implicit personality theory[edit]

Implicit personality theory is commonly associated with social perception because it identifies the biases we exhibit based on the limited information we know about unfamiliar people. Every day we interact with unfamiliar people and in those brief moments of interaction we pick up on the social cues presented and opinions are formed. Implicit Personality Theory states that people divide the personality traits of others into two groups: Central/Primary traits or Peripheral/Secondary traits. Central traits are the highly influential traits that have a strong impact on the overall impression of an individual. Peripheral traits are those produced and have smaller impact on the overall impression.

Implicit personality theory helps explains social perception through the use of central and peripheral traits. When you are paying at the check out line at the grocery store and the cashier woman comes across as snappy and rude these are the central traits because we as customers want polite service. From that central trait, as you walk away with your groceries the peripheral traits, such as attractiveness or intelligence is tainted by her central trait of being rude.

Implicit Personality Theory helps people to socially perceive others by generating a broader outlook on their personality using central and peripheral traits and use these traits to categorize people to predict their behavior. Social perception refers to the initial stages in which people process information in order to determine another individual’s mind-set and intentions. According to the implicit personality theory, people pay attention to a variety of cues, including visual, auditory, and verbal cues to predict and understand the personality of others. These help in filling in the gap of the unknown information about a person, which is key for social skills and social interactions.


TASIT (The Awareness of Social Inference Test) is an audiovisual test that was created for the clinical assessment of social perception. The test is based upon several critical components of social perception that are critical to social competence using complex, dynamic, visual, and auditory cues to assess these critical components. The test assesses the ability to identify emotions, a skill that is impaired in many clinical conditions. It also assesses the ability to judge what a speaker may be thinking or what their intentions are for the other person in the conversation, also referred to as Theory of Mind. Lastly, the test was developed to assess the ability to differentiate between literal and non-literal conversational remarks. The test is divided into three parts to measure; emotion, social inference – minimal, and social inference enriched. The test is composed of scenes, or vignettes, and those being assessed are asked to identify the emotions, a, feelings, beliefs, intentions, and meanings of the interactions. They are also assessed on more complex interactions to assess ability to interpret sarcasm.[3] The results of this testing assess the level of social perception of an individual.

TASIT has adequate psychometric properties as a clinical test of social perception. It is not overly prone to practice effects and is reliable for repeat administrations. Performance on TASIT is affected by information processing speed, working memory, new learning and executive functioning, but the uniquely social material that comprises the stimuli for TASIT will provide useful insights into the particular difficulties people with clinical conditions experience when interpreting complex social phenomena.[3]

Self concept[edit]

According to Carl Rogers (1959), the self-concept is, "the organized, consistent set of perceptions and beliefs about oneself.” Each person has their own self-concept that reflects all of their personal attributes, beliefs and attitudes. In summary, a self-concept is the evaluation of one's self and the things that make up the self. The Development of the self-concept starts in early childhood. although how it develops and the distinct stages are still debated, Rogers(1959). Some of the most influential theories of the development of the self-concept come from M. Lewis, C. Rogers, E. Erikson, J. Brooks-Gunn and Jean Piaget. Furthermore, one's self perception can also be influenced by the clothes that one wears. For instance, Hajo Adam found that when participants wore what they thought was a doctor's lab coat, they gained better attention skills.[4]

Theories of the development of the self concept[edit]

M. Lewis's existential and categorical selves[edit]

Lewis (1990) believed that there were two key aspects of the self-concept; the existential self and the categorical self.

Lewis argued that the existential self is the most fundamental aspect of the self-concept. The existential self is the awareness of being your own unit separate from everything else. When children develop their existential selves they become aware of themselves as individuals, separate from all other things they can see around them. Children who have developed their existential selves can grasp the concept that they are continuous beings who will continue to exist despite changes across situations and environments. The existential self appears between two and three months of age. Lewis (1990) believes that the existential self may be present so early because of the connection the child has to the world. For example, babies might notice that the TV screens change consistently yet the rooms the televisions are in, as well as they themselves, do not change.

Lewis described the categorical self as developing post-existential self once children gather an understanding of themselves as a separate entities in the world. The development of the categorical self allows children to identify themselves as having observable qualities and assets. A child will learn to identify her- or himself as a boy or a girl, or 2 years old versus three years old, qualities that can be experienced and that have specific aspects. At first, children only link basic and tangible qualities like age and gender. But as children grow older their categorical selves begin to include evaluations from others, comparisons and internal, psychological attributes. Lewis (1990).[5]

Carl Roger's components of the self-concept[edit]

Rogers (1959) took a humanistic approach to the self-concept. He argued that the self-concept is constructed from three different components that he called self-esteem (or self-worth), self-image and the ideal self. These three components of the self-concept are always unique and specific to each person. Rogers believed that we will evaluate our self-worth higher if our self-image and ideal-self are harmonious. When an individual acts in a way that is not fitting with the self-image, Roger's believes them to be in a ‘state of incongruence'.


Self-image is a compilation of the things seen in oneself whether they be internal, external or social attributes. In simple terms, self-image is what an individual sees in his- or herself. Self-image is not based on reality but rather on the individual's perception. This is why many anorexic women believe themselves to be overweight when they are, in reality, grossly underweight. Self-image is influenced by many aspects of an individual's personal and social life including, parents, friends, anxiety, stress etc. Rogers (1959).

A study done in China attempted to see the relationship between body image depression and self regard. The results showed that self regard is negatively impacted by an overall body image depression. Girls scored lowered than boys and students who lived in the city scored lowered compared to the ones who lived in the country side.[6]

Ideal self[edit]

The ideal self is the evaluation of what an individual would like to be. In simpler terms, it is the mental model of your “perfect” self. (Rogers, 1959). Often, the ideal self is not aligned with the individuals' capabilities in their current situations. This creates incongruity between the ideal self and the self-image. It is unusual to achieve complete congruence. (Rogers, 1959).

Self-esteem and self-worth[edit]

Self-esteem is the assessment of one's own self-worth. In other words, it's the importance or value one attributes to oneself. When assessing one's own self-esteem, the evaluation can be positive, which indicates higher self-esteem, or negative, indicating low self-esteem. (Rogers, 1959)

High self-esteem has been associated with optimism, confidence and self-acceptance, whereas low-self esteem has been linked to pessimism, consistent worrying and a deficiency in confidence. (Rogers, 1959).[7]

Erik Erikson's eight developmental stages[edit]

Erik Erikson (1966)contended that the development was continuous throughout the lifespan. Erikson created the Eight Developmental Stages:

  1. Trust vs. Mistrust: Feeding Children develop a sense of trust when caregivers provide reliability, care, and affection. A lack of this will lead to mistrust. (birth–2 years)
  2. Autonomy vs. Shame and Doubt: Toilet Training Children need to develop a sense of personal control over physical skills and a sense of independence. Success leads to feelings of autonomy, failure results in feelings of shame and doubt. (2 years–4 years)
  3. Initiative vs. Guilt Exploration: Children need to begin asserting control and power over the environment. Success in this stage leads to a sense of purpose. Children who try to exert too much power experience disapproval, resulting in a sense of guilt. (4 years–5 yrs)
  4. Industry vs. Inferiority School: Children need to cope with new social and academic demands. Success leads to a sense of competence, while failure results in feelings of inferiority. Adolescence (5 years – 12 years)
  5. Identity vs. Role Confusion Social Relationships: Teens need to develop a sense of self and personal identity. Success leads to an ability to stay true to yourself, while failure leads to role confusion and a weak sense of self. Young Adulthood (13 years–19 years)
  6. Intimacy vs. Isolation Relationships: Young adults need to form intimate, loving relationships with other people. Success leads to strong relationships, while failure results in loneliness and isolation. Middle Adulthood (20 years – 40 years
  7. Generativity vs. Stagnation Work and Parenthood: Adults need to create or nurture things that will outlast them, often by having children or creating a positive change that benefits other people. Success leads to feelings of usefulness and accomplishment, while failure results in shallow involvement in the world. (40 years – 64 years)
  8. Ego Integrity vs. Despair Reflection on Life: Older adults need to look back on life and feel a sense of fulfillment. Success at this stage leads to feelings of wisdom, while failure results in regret, bitterness, and despair. (60 yrs — death).[8]


Encountering various cultures often promotes diversity [9] However for some, the opposite occurs. Preconceived prejudices, stereotypes, and discrimination otherwise known as social biases fit this mold. [10]

  • Dunning–Kruger effect – an effect by which people may perform badly at a task, but lack the mental capability to evaluate and recognize that they have done poorly (Hawes).
  • Egocentric bias – The tendency to give more credit to ourselves from positive outcomes than an observer.
  • Overconfidence bias – Overestimating one's own confidence (part of the Dunning–Kruger effect).
  • Forer effect (Barnum effect) – Placing high belief in a general description thinking it was meant specifically for an individual. One example is horoscopes.
  • Status quo bias – Tendency to favor certain circumstances because they are familiar.
  • Ingroup bias – Behaving a certain way to become more favorable in a group
  • Stereotyping – Attributing traits to people based on certain traits of the group.
  • Halo effect – Tendency to believe in the nature of a person (good/bad) based on general traits of people
  • False consensus – Assuming others agree with what we do (even though they may not).
  • Projection bias – Assuming others share the same beliefs as us.
  • Actor-observed bias – Tendency to blame our actions on the situation and blame the action of others based on their personalities

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Pearson
  2. ^ Mcleod
  3. ^ a b McDonald, Bornhofen, Shum, Long, Saunders, & Neulinger, 2006
  4. ^ Blakeslee, Sandra. "Mind Games: Sometimes a White Coat Isn’t Just a White Coat". The New York Times. Retrieved 2013-09-19. 
  5. ^ Lewis, M. (1990). Self-knowledge and social development in early life, Handbook of personality, 277–300.
  6. ^ Yabing, Gao; Wenbo, P.; Bowei, L.; Lihua, Z.; Lihong, Y. (26 Feb 2007). "A Study on the Relationship between Body Image Depression and Self-regard of High School and College Students". Psychological Science (China) 29 (4): 973–975. Retrieved 3 April 2013.  Check date values in: |year= / |date= mismatch (help)
  7. ^ Rogers, Carl. (1959). A Theory of Therapy, Personality and Interpersonal Relationships as Developed in the Client-centered Framework. Psychology: A Study of a Science; Formulations of the Person and the Social Context, 3, 235–246.
  8. ^ Erikson, E. (1966). Eight ages of men. International journal of psychiatry, 2, 281–300.
  9. ^ Hall, G.C.N. (2010). Multicultural Psychology (2nd ed.) Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson/Prentice Hall.
  10. ^ Sritharan, R., & Gawronski, B. (2010). Changing implicit and explicit prejudice: Insights from the associative-propositional evaluation model. Social Psychology, 41(3), 113-123.


• ^ E. R. Smith, D. M. Mackie (2000). Social Psychology. Psychology Press,2, 20. • ^ Delamate, John D, H. Andrew Michener and Daniel J. Myers (2003). Social Psychology; The handbook of social psychology, 5. • ^ Dunning, David (2001).What Is the Word on Self-Motives and Social Perception: Introduction to the Special Issue. Motivation and Emotion, 25. • ^ Truett, Puce, & McCarthy, 2000 • ^ a b c McDonald, Bornhofen, Shum, Long, Saunders, & Neulinger, 2006 • ^ Calarge, Andreasen, & O'Leary, 2003 • ^ Miller, 2006 • ^ Lerner, Hutchins, & Prelock, 2011 • ^ a b c John, Hattie Self-Concept ISBN 0898596297 (1992) • ^ Morse, S.J & Gergen, K.J (1970). Social Comparison, Self Consistency and the Presentation of Self. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 16, 148–159. • ^ Anderson C.M. (1952). The Self-Image: A theory of dynamics of behavior. Mental Hygiene, 36, 227-244. • ^ Lewis, M., & Brooks-Gunn, J. (1979) Social Cognition and the acquisition of self. New York Plenum

  • Behne, T., Carpenter, M., Call, J., & Tomasello, M. (2005). Unwilling versus unable: infants' understanding of intentional action. Developmental psychology, 41, 328–337. doi: 10.1037/0012-1649.41.2.328
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  • Erikson, E. (1966). Eight ages of men. International journal of psychiatry, 2, 281–300.
  • Hall, G.C.N. (2010). Multicultural Psychology (2nd ed.) Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson/Prentice Hall.
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  • Lewis, M. (1990). Self-knowledge and social development in early life, Handbook of personality, 277–300.
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  • McDonald, S., Bornhofen, C., Shum, D., Long, E., Saunders, C., & Neulinger, K. (2006) Reliability and validity of the awareness of social inference test (TASIT): A clinical test of social perception. Disability and Rehabilitation, 28(24), 1529–1542.
  • Morse, S. J. & Gergen, K. J. (1970). Social comparison, self-consistency and the concept of self. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 16, 148–156.
  • Mcleod, S. (2010). Attribution theory. Retrieved from
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  • Rogers, Carl. (1959). A Theory of Therapy, Personality and Interpersonal Relationships as Developed in the Client-centered Framework. Psychology: A Study of a Science; Formulations of the Person and the Social Context, 3, 235–246.
  • Ross, L. (1977). The intuitive psychologist and his shortcomings: Distortions in the attribution process. Advances in Experimental Psychology, 10, 174-214.
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*Sritharan, R., & Gawronski, B. (2010). Changing implicit and explicit prejudice: Insights from the associative-propositional evaluation model. Social Psychology, 41(3), 113-123.