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 others' 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. A real world example of social perception would be understanding that someone disagrees with what you said when you see them roll their eyes. Closely related to and affected by this is the idea of self-concept, a collection of one’s perceptions and beliefs about oneself.

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, from his/her personality to 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 regarding social perception[edit]

Attribution theory[edit]

A large component of Social Perception is attribution. Attribution is the use of information gathered by observation to help individuals understand and rationalize the behavior of others. 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. Attribution theory is the study of what systems and models people use to make attributions about the behavior of others. It attempts to explain how we use information about the social environment to understand others' behavior.

One common bias people exhibit in attribution is called Fundamental Attribution Error. Fundamental Attribution Error is the tendency for people to attribute others' actions to internal traits as opposed to external circumstances.[1] An example of how this may manifest in the real world as pointed out in research by Furnham and Gunter is how one’s view of the justness of poverty may be affected by his/her financial status: one who has not experienced poverty may see it as being more or less deserved than might someone who has been impoverished at some point.[2] In this way, fundamental attribution error can be a barrier to empathizing with others, as one does not consider all the circumstances involved in the actions of others.

Implicit personality theory[edit]

A person’s implicit personality theory consists of the system of beliefs and biases the person uses to form impressions and make attributions about the personalities of others, based on what information is available.[3] Put another way, implicit personality theories describe the way in which an observer uses the traits displayed by another person to form impressions about that other person. People pay attention to a variety of cues, including visual, auditory, and verbal cues to predict and understand the personalities of others, in order to fill in the gap of the unknown information about a person, which assists with social interactions.

Certain traits are seen as especially influential in the formation of an overall impression of an individual; these are called central traits. Other traits are less influential in impression formation, and are called peripheral traits. Which traits are central or peripheral varies is not fixed, but can vary based on context. For instance, saying that a person is warm vs. cold may have a central impact on impression formation when paired with traits such as “industrious” and “determined”, but have a more peripheral impact when paired with traits such as “shallow” or “vain”.[4]

Kim and Rosenberg[3] demonstrate that when forming impressions of others, individuals assess others on an evaluative dimension. Which is to say that, when asked to describe personality traits of others, individuals will rate others on a “good-bad” dimension. People’s implicit personality theories also include a number of other dimensions, such as a “strong-weak” dimension, an “active-passive” dimension, an “attractive-unattractive” dimension, and so on. However, the evaluative “good-bad” dimension was the only one that universally appeared in people’s descriptions of others, while the other dimensions appeared in many but not all people’s assessments. Thus the dimensions included in implicit personality theories on which others are rated vary from person to person, but the “good-bad” dimension appears to be part of all people’s implicit personality theories.


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.[5] 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.[5]


Encountering various cultures often promotes diversity.[6] However, for some, the opposite occurs. Preconceived prejudices, stereotypes, and discrimination otherwise known as social biases fit this mold.[7]

  • Dunning–Kruger effect – an effect by which test takers fail to understand their poor performance because they suffer a double fault: A.) Shortfall of knowledge prevents them from producing correct responses & B.) Shortfall of knowledge prevents them from recognizing their lesser responses when compared to those of others.[8]
  • Overconfidence bias – When one's confidence is greater than one's ability.[8]
  • Egocentric bias – The tendency within a group to accept more responsibility than attributed by others [9]
  • Defensive attribution hypothesis - The tendency of people to attribute more blame to the perpetrator of an accident as the consequences become more severe.[10] However, if people perceive themselves to be more similar to the perpetrator characteristically or circumstantially they will rate the perpetrator as less culpable for the accident as the severity of consequences increase. If people perceive themselves as less similar they will rate the perpetrator as more culpable.[10]
  • Forer effect (Barnum effect) – Placing high belief in a general, vague description thinking it was meant specifically for an individual. For instance, people interpret horoscopes as applying to their specific situation, when in actuality the horoscope was written to apply to a wide range of people's experiences.[11]
  • 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, even if it is unlikely to be true.
  • 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. ^ Ross, L. (1977). "The intuitive psychologist and his shortcomings: Distortions in the attribution process". Advances in Experimental Psychology 10: 174–214. 
  2. ^ Furnham, A.F.; Gunter, B. (1984). "Just world beliefs and attitudes towards the poor". British Journal of Social Psychology 23: 265–269. 
  3. ^ a b Kim, M. P.; Rosenberg, S. (1980). "Comparison of two structural models of implicit personality theory". Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 38 (3): 375–389. 
  4. ^ Nauts, S.; Langner, O.; Huijsmans, I.; Vonk, R.; Wigboldus, D. H. J. (2014). "Forming impressions of personality: A replication and review of Asch’s (1946) evidence for a primacy-of-warmth effect in impression formation". Social Psychology 45 (3): 153–163. 
  5. ^ a b McDonald; Bornhofen; Shum; Long; Saunders; Neulinger (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. 
  6. ^ Hall, G.C.N. (2010). Multicultural Psychology (2 ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson/Prentice Hall. 
  7. ^ Sritharan, R.; Gawronski, B. (2010). "Changing implicit and explicit prejudice: Insights from the associative-propositional evaluation model". Social Psychology 41 (3): 113–123. 
  8. ^ a b Kruger, J. M.; Dunning, D. (1999). "Unskilled and unaware of it: How difficulties in recognizing one’s own incompetence lead to inflated self-assessments". Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 77: 1121–1134. 
  9. ^ Ross, M.; Sicoly, F. (1979). "Egocentric biases in availability and attribution". Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 37: 322–336. 
  10. ^ a b Burger, J.M. (1981). "Motivational biases in the attribution of responsibility for an accident: A meta-analysis of the Defensive Attribution Hypothesis". Psychological Bulletin 90 (3): 496–512. 
  11. ^ Dickson, D.; Kelly, I. (1985). "The "Barnum effect" in personality assessment: A review of the literature". Psychological Reports 57 (2): 367–382.