5. Perceiving Others

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.

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 Kartika, or describing her to someone else, they should each think about or describe her in pretty much the same way. After all, Kartika is Kartika, and she should have a personality that they can both see. But this is not always the case; they may form different impressions of Kartika for a variety of reasons. For one, the two people’s experiences with Kartika 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 Kartika 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 colour 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.

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. 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 dispositions, which are also seen as being stable throughout one’s lifespan, and is a global descriptor of the self. People with a negative attributional style say things such as the following:

  • “I failed because I am no good”.
  • “I always fail”.
  • “I fail in everything”.

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.

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 causes that are not stable through one’s lifetime, and do not have global impact. Thus people with a positive attributional style are likely to say things such as the following:

  • “I failed because the task is very difficult”.
  • “I will do better next time”.
  • “I failed in this domain, but I’m good in other things”.

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). 

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.
  • Individual differences in attributional styles can influence how we respond to the negative events that we experience.
  • People can have positive and negative attributional styles.

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. 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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Blascovich, J., & Mendes, W. B. (2000). Challenge and threat appraisals: The role of affective cues. In J. P. Forgas (Ed.), Feeling and thinking: The role of affect in social cognition (pp. 59–82). New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

Boyer, W. (2006). Accentuate the positive: The relationship between positive explanatory style and academic achievement of prospective elementary teachers. Journal Of Research In Childhood Education,21(1), 53-63. doi:10.1080/02568540609594578

Cacioppo, J. T., & Petty, R. E. (1982). The need for cognition. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 42, 116–131.

Dornbusch, S. M., Hastorf, A. H., Richardson, S. A., Muzzy, R. E., & Vreeland, R. S. (1965). The perceiver and the perceived: Their relative influence on the categories of interpersonal cognition. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 1(5), 434–440.

Fletcher, G. J. O., Danilovics, P., Fernandez, G., Peterson, D., & Reeder, G. D. (1986). Attributional complexity: An individual differences measure. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 51(4), 875–884.

Metalsky, G. I., Joiner, T. E., Hardin, T. S., & Abramson, L. Y. (1993). Depressive reactions to failure in a naturalistic setting: A test of the hopelessness and self-esteem theories of depression. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 102(1), 101–109.

Park, B. (1986). A method for studying the development of impressions of real people. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 51(5), 907–917.

Sargent, M. (2004). Less thought, more punishment: Need for cognition predicts support for punitive responses to crime. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 30(11), 1485–1493. doi: 10.1177/0146167204264481

Seligman, M. E. (1975). Helplessness: On depression, development, and death. San Francisco, CA: W. H. Freeman.

Van Hiel, A., Pandelaere, M., & Duriez, B. (2004). The impact of need for closure on conservative beliefs and racism: Differential mediation by authoritarian submission and authoritarian dominance. Personality And Social Psychology Bulletin30(7), 824-837. doi:10.1177/0146167204264333

Vines, L., & Nixon, R. V. (2009). Positive attributional style, life events and their effect on children’s mood: Prospective study.Australian Journal Of Psychology61(4), 211-219. doi:10.1080/00049530802579507