Chapter 5. Perceiving Others

5.4 Individual Differences in Person Perception

Learning Objectives

  1. Outline some important individual differences factors that influence people’s causal attributions.
  2. Explain the ways that attributions can influence mental health and the ways that mental health can affect attributions.
  3. Explore how and why people engage in self-handicapping attributions and behaviors.

To this point, we have focused on how the appearance, behaviors, and traits of the people we encounter influence our understanding of them. It makes sense that this would be our focus because of the emphasis within social psychology on the social situation—in this case, the people we are judging. But the person is also important, so let’s consider some of the person variables that influence how we judge other people.

Perceiver Characteristics

So far, we have assumed that different perceivers will all form pretty much the same impression of the same person. For instance, if two people are both thinking about their mutual friend Janetta, or describing her to someone else, they should each think about or describe her in pretty much the same way. After all, Janetta is Janetta, and she should have a personality that they can both see. But this is not always the case; they may form different impressions of Janetta for a variety of reasons. For one, the two people’s experiences with Janetta may be somewhat different. If one sees her in different places and talks to her about different things than the other, then they will each have a different sample of behavior on which to base their impressions.

But they might even form different impressions of Janetta if they see her performing exactly the same behavior. To every experience, each of us brings our own schemas, attitudes, and expectations. In fact, the process of interpretation guarantees that we will not all form exactly the same impression of the people that we see. This, of course, reflects a basic principle that we have discussed throughout this book—our prior experiences color our current perceptions.

One factor that influences how we perceive others is the current cognitive accessibility of a given person characteristic—that is, the extent to which a person characteristic quickly and easily comes to mind for the perceiver. Differences in accessibility will lead different people to attend to different aspects of the other person. Some people first notice how attractive someone is because they care a lot about physical appearance—for them, appearance is a highly accessible characteristic. Others pay more attention to a person’s race or religion, and still others attend to a person’s height or weight. If you are interested in style and fashion, you would probably first notice a person’s clothes, whereas another person might be more likely to notice a person’s athletic skills.

You can see that these differences in accessibility will influence the kinds of impressions that we form about others because they influence what we focus on and how we think about them. In fact, when people are asked to describe others, there is often more overlap in the descriptions provided by the same perceiver about different people than there is in those provided by different perceivers about the same target person (Dornbusch, Hastorf, Richardson, Muzzy, & Vreeland, 1965; Park, 1986). If someone cares a lot about fashion, that person will describe friends on that dimension, whereas if someone else cares about athletic skills, he or she will tend to describe friends on the basis of those qualities. These differences reflect the emphasis that we as observers place on the characteristics of others rather than the real differences between those people. Our view of others may sometimes be more informative about us than it is about them.

People also differ in terms of how carefully they process information about others. Some people have a strong need to think about and understand others. I’m sure you know people like this—they want to know why something went wrong or right, or just to know more about anyone with whom they interact. Need for cognition refers to the tendency to think carefully and fully about our experiences, including the social situations we encounter (Cacioppo & Petty, 1982). People with a strong need for cognition tend to process information more thoughtfully and therefore may make more causal attributions overall. In contrast, people without a strong need for cognition tend to be more impulsive and impatient and may make attributions more quickly and spontaneously (Sargent, 2004). In terms of attributional differences, there is some evidence that people higher in need for cognition may take more situational factors into account when considering the behaviors of others. Consequently, they tend to make more tolerant rather than punitive attributions about people in stigmatized groups (Van Hiel, Pandelaere, & Duriez, 2004).

Although the need for cognition refers to a tendency to think carefully and fully about any topic, there are also individual differences in the tendency to be interested in people more specifically. For instance, Fletcher, Danilovics, Fernandez, Peterson, and Reeder (1986) found that psychology majors were more curious about people than were natural science majors. In turn, the types of attributions they tend to make about behavior may be different.

Individual differences exist not only in the depth of our attributions but also in the types of attributions we tend to make about both ourselves and others (Plaks, Levy, & Dweck, 2009). Some people are entity theorists who tend to believe that people’s traits are fundamentally stable and incapable of change. Entity theorists tend to focus on the traits of other people and tend to make a lot of personal attributions. On the other hand, incremental theorists are those who believe that personalities change a lot over time and who therefore are more likely to make situational attributions for events. Incremental theorists are more focused on the dynamic psychological processes that arise from individuals’ changing mental states in different situations.

In one relevant study, Molden, Plaks, and Dweck (2006) found that when forced to make judgments quickly, people who had been classified as entity theorists were nevertheless still able to make personal attributions about others but were not able to easily encode the situational causes of a behavior. On the other hand, when forced to make judgments quickly, the people who were classified as incremental theorists were better able to make use of the situational aspects of the scene than the personalities of the actors.

Individual differences in attributional styles can also influence our own behavior. Entity theorists are more likely to have difficulty when they move on to new tasks because they don’t think that they will be able to adapt to the new challenges. Incremental theorists, on the other hand, are more optimistic and do better in such challenging environments because they believe that their personality can adapt to the new situation. You can see that these differences in how people make attributions can help us understand both how we think about ourselves and others and how we respond to our own social contexts (Malle, Knobe, O’Laughlin, Pearce, & Nelson, 2000).

Research Focus

How Our Attributions Can Influence Our School Performance

Carol Dweck and her colleagues (Blackwell, Trzesniewski, & Dweck, 2007) tested whether the type of attributions students make about their own characteristics might influence their school performance. They assessed the attributional tendencies and the math performance of 373 junior high school students at a public school in New York City. When they first entered seventh grade, the students all completed a measure of attributional styles. Those who tended to agree with statements such as “You have a certain amount of intelligence, and you really can’t do much to change it” were classified as entity theorists, whereas those who agreed more with statements such as “You can always greatly change how intelligent you are” were classified as incremental theorists. Then the researchers measured the students’ math grades at the end of the fall and spring terms in seventh and eighth grades.

As you can see in the following figure, the researchers found that the students who were classified as incremental theorists improved their math scores significantly more than did the entity students. It seems that the incremental theorists really believed that they could improve their skills and were then actually able to do it. These findings confirm that how we think about traits can have a substantial impact on our own behavior.

ncremental theorists' math grades increase from fall 7th grade to spring 8th grade, whereas entity theorists' grades remain nearly the same.
Figure 5.10 Students who believed that their intelligence was more malleable (incremental styles) were more likely to improve their math skills than were students who believed that intelligence was difficult to change (entity styles). Data are from Blackwell et al. (2007). Blackwell, L. S., Trzesniewski, K. H., & Dweck, C. S. (2007). Implicit theories of intelligence predict achievement across an adolescent transition: A longitudinal study and an intervention. Child Development, 78(1), 246–263.

Attributional Styles and Mental Health

As we have seen in this chapter, how we make attributions about other people has a big influence on our reactions to them. But we also make attributions for our own behaviors. Social psychologists have discovered that there are important individual differences in the attributions that people make to the negative events that they experience and that these attributions can have a big influence on how they feel about and respond to them. The same negative event can create anxiety and depression in one individual but have virtually no effect on someone else. And still another person may see the negative event as a challenge and try even harder to overcome the difficulty (Blascovich & Mendes, 2000).

A major determinant of how we react to perceived threats is the type of attribution that we make to them. Attributional style refers to the type of attributions that we tend to make for the events that occur to us. These attributions can be to our own characteristics (internal) or to the situation (external), but attributions can also be made on other dimensions, including stable versus unstable, and global versus specific. Stable attributions are those that we think will be relatively permanent, whereas unstable attributions are expected to change over time. Global attributions are those that we feel apply broadly, whereas specific attributions are those causes that we see as more unique to particular events.

You may know some people who tend to make negative or pessimistic attributions to negative events that they experience. We say that these people have a negative attributional style. This is the tendency to explain negative events by referring to their own internal, stable, and global qualities. People with a negative attributional style say things such as the following:

  • “I failed because I am no good” (an internal attribution).
  • “I always fail” (a stable attribution).
  • “I fail in everything” (a global attribution).

You might well imagine that the result of these negative attributional styles is a sense of hopelessness and despair (Metalsky, Joiner, Hardin, & Abramson, 1993). Indeed, Alloy, Abramson, and Francis (1999) found that college students who indicated that they had negative attributional styles when they first came to college were more likely than those who had a more positive style to experience an episode of depression within the next few months.

People who have an extremely negative attributional style, in which they continually make external, stable, and global attributions for their behavior, are said to be experiencing learned helplessness (Abramson, Seligman, & Teasdale, 1978; Seligman, 1975). Learned helplessness was first demonstrated in research that found that some dogs that were strapped into a harness and exposed to painful electric shocks became passive and gave up trying to escape from the shock, even in new situations in which the harness had been removed and escape was therefore possible. Similarly, some people who were exposed to bursts of noise later failed to stop the noise when they were actually able to do so. Those who experience learned helplessness do not feel that they have any control over their own outcomes and are more likely to have a variety of negative health outcomes, including anxiety and depression (Henry, 2005; Peterson & Seligman, 1984).

Most people tend to have a more positive attributional style —ways of explaining events that are related to high self-esteem and a tendency to explain the negative events they experience by referring to external, unstable, and specific qualities. Thus people with a positive attributional style are likely to say things such as the following:

  • “I failed because the task is very difficult” (an external attribution).
  • “I will do better next time” (an unstable attribution).
  • “I failed in this domain, but I’m good in other things” (a specific attribution).

In sum, we can say that people who make more positive attributions toward the negative events that they experience will persist longer at tasks and that this persistence can help them. These attributions can also contribute to everything from academic success (Boyer, 2006) to better mental health (Vines & Nixon, 2009). There are limits to the effectiveness of these strategies, however. We cannot control everything, and trying to do so can be stressful. We can change some things but not others; thus sometimes the important thing is to know when it’s better to give up, stop worrying, and just let things happen. Having a positive, mildly optimistic outlook is healthy, as we explored in Chapter 2, but we cannot be unrealistic about what we can and cannot do. Unrealistic optimism is the tendency to be overly positive about the likelihood that negative things will occur to us and that we will be able to effectively cope with them if they do. When we are too optimistic, we may set ourselves up for failure and depression when things do not work out as we had hoped (Weinstein & Klein, 1996). We may think that we are immune to the potential negative outcomes of driving while intoxicated or practicing unsafe sex, but these optimistic beliefs can be risky.

The findings here linking attributional style to mental health lead to the interesting prediction that people’s well-being could be improved by moving from a negative to a (mildly) positive or optimistic attributional style. Attributional retraining interventions have been developed based on this idea. These types of psychotherapy have indeed been shown to assist people in developing a more positive attributional style and have met with some success in alleviating symptoms of depression, anxiety, and obsessive compulsive disorders (Wang, Zhang, Y., Zhang, N., & Zhang, J., 2011). Dysfunctional attributions can also be at the heart of relationship difficulties, including abuse, where partners consistently make negative attributions about each other’s behaviors. Again, retraining couples to make more balanced attributions about each other can be useful, helping to promote more positive communication patterns and to increase relationship satisfaction (Hrapczynski, Epstein, Werlinich, LaTaillade, 2012).

Attributions also play an important part in the quality of the working relationships between clients and therapists in mental health settings. If a client and therapist both make similar attributions about the causes of the client’s challenges, this can help to promote mutual understanding, empathy, and respect (Duncan & Moynihan, 1994). Also, clients generally rate their therapists as more credible when their attributions are more similar to their own (Atkinson, Worthington, Dana, & Good, 1991). In turn, therapists tend to report being able to work more positively with clients who make similar attributions to them (O’Brien & Murdock, 1993).

As well as developing a more positive attributional style, another technique that people sometimes use here to help them feel better about themselves is known as self-handicapping. Self-handicapping occurs when we make statements or engage in behaviors that help us create a convenient external attribution for potential failure. There are two main ways that we can self-handicap. One is to engage in a form of preemptive self-serving attributional bias, where we claim an external factor that may reduce our performance, ahead of time, which we can use if things go badly. For example, in a job interview or before giving a presentation at work, Veronica might say she is not feeling well and ask the audience not to expect too much from her because of this.

Another method of self-handicapping is to behave in ways that make success less likely, which can be an effective way of coping with failure, particularly in circumstances where we feel the task may ordinarily be too difficult. For instance, in research by Berglas and Jones (1978), participants first performed an intelligence test on which they did very well. It was then explained to them that the researchers were testing the effects of different drugs on performance and that they would be asked to take a similar but potentially more difficult intelligence test while they were under the influence of one of two different drugs.

The participants were then given a choice—they could take a pill that was supposed to facilitate performance on the intelligence task (making it easier for them to perform) or a pill that was supposed to inhibit performance on the intelligence task, thereby making the task harder to perform (no drugs were actually administered). Berglas found that men—but not women—engaged in self-handicapping: they preferred to take the performance-inhibiting rather than the performance-enhancing drug, choosing the drug that provided a convenient external attribution for potential failure. Although women may also self-handicap, particularly by indicating that they are unable to perform well due to stress or time constraints (Hirt, Deppe, & Gordon, 1991), men seem to do it more frequently. This finding is consistent with the general gender differences we have talked about in many places in this book: on average, men are more concerned than women about using this type of self-enhancement to boost their self-esteem and social status in the eyes of themselves and others.

You can see that there are some benefits (but also, of course, some costs) of self-handicapping. If we fail after we self-handicap, we simply blame the failure on the external factor. But if we succeed despite the handicap that we have created for ourselves, we can make clear internal attributions for our success. “Look at how well I did in my presentation at work, even though I wasn’t feeling well!”

Engaging in behaviors that create self-handicapping can be costly because doing so makes it harder for us to succeed. In fact, research has found that people who report that they self-handicap regularly show lower life satisfaction, less competence, poorer moods, less interest in their jobs, and greater substance abuse (Zuckerman & Tsai, 2005). Meta-analytic evidence shows that increased self-handicapping also relates to more negative academic outcomes (Schwinger, Wirthwein, Lemmer, & Steinmayr, 2014). Although self-handicapping would seem to be useful for insulating our feelings from failure, it is not a good tack to take in the long run.

Fortunately, most people have a reasonable balance between optimism and realism in the attributions that they make (Taylor & Armor, 1996) and do not often rely on self-handicapping. They also tend to set goals that they believe they can attain, and to regularly make some progress toward reaching them. Research has found that setting reasonable goals and feeling that we are moving toward them makes us happy, even if we may not in fact attain the goals themselves (Lawrence, Carver, & Scheier, 2002). As the saying goes, being on the journey is often more important than reaching the destination.

Key Takeaways

  • Because we each use our own expectations in judgment, people may form different impressions of the same person performing the same behavior.
  • Individual differences in the cognitive accessibility of a given personal characteristic may lead to more overlap in the descriptions provided by the same perceiver about different people than there is in those provided by different perceivers about the same target person.
  • People with a strong need for cognition make more causal attributions overall. Entity theorists tend to focus on the traits of other people and tend to make a lot of personal attributions, whereas incremental theorists tend to believe that personalities change a lot over time and therefore are more likely to make situational attributions for events.
  • Individual differences in attributional styles can influence how we respond to the negative events that we experience.
  • People who have extremely negative attributional styles, in which they continually make external, stable, and global attributions for their behavior, are said to be experiencing learned helplessness.
  • Self-handicapping is an attributional technique that prevents us from making ability attributions for our own failures.
  • Having a positive outlook is healthy, but it must be tempered. We cannot be unrealistic about what we can and cannot do.

Exercises and Critical Thinking

  1. Think of a time when your own expectations influenced your attributions about another person. What type of expectations did you have and what type of attributions did you end up making? In hindsight, how accurate do you think that these attributions were?
  2. Which constructs are more cognitively accessible for you? How do these constructs influence the types of attributions that you make about other people?
  3. Consider a time when you or someone you knew engaged in self-handicapping. Why do you think that they did this? What was the outcome of doing so?
  4. Do you think that you have a more positive or a more negative attributional style? How do you think this style influences your judgments about your own successes and failures? What do you see as the advantages and disadvantages for you of your attributional style?


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Media Attributions

  • “Figure 5.10 Students who believed that their intelligence…” is based on data from Blackwell et al. (2007). Blackwell, L. S., Trzesniewski, K. H., & Dweck, C. S. (2007). Implicit theories of intelligence predict achievement across an adolescent transition: A longitudinal study and an intervention. Child Development, 78(1), 246–263.


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