Mental Representation of Persons Research Paper

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Within social psychology, a major research focus is the processes by which perceivers form impressions of other persons, and the nature of the mental representations that they construct as a result. Mental representations or impressions of persons are organized configurations including many types of information, such as physical appearance, personality characteristics, and group memberships, as well as the perceiver’s reactions to the person (e.g., like or dislike). These representations influence strongly the perceiver’s actions toward the person, such as choosing to interact with or to avoid the person, or helping or aggressing against the person.

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1. Historical Development

In the period since the 1940s that representations of persons have been studied within social psychology, shifts of emphasis afford a rough chronological division into three periods.

1.1 The 1940s and 1950s

Research on mental representations of persons first flourished in the late 1940s, when Solomon Asch (1946) investigated how people construct impressions from limited, often conflicting information. Researchers presented lists of personality traits, such as ‘honest, organized, and critical,’ to research participants as descriptions of real persons. The participants then made judgments and evaluative ratings of the target persons. Researchers assessed the relative weights of different traits in the overall impression. For example, negative traits were often found to have more impact than positive ones and certain specific traits (such as ‘warm’ vs. ‘cold’) were found to have a disproportionate impact on an overall impression.

Another important question concerned how perceivers combined multiple items of information, such as traits. Some held that traits were combined algebraically, with the evaluative implications of different traits being combined by averaging (or other similar processes) into an overall evaluative judgment. In contrast, psychologists influenced by Gestalt theories, including Asch, held that traits were combined ‘configurally,’ with specific combinations taking on new and emergent meanings. Someone described as both ‘cold’ and ‘intelligent,’ for example, might be seen as using his intelligence in a calculating way and be judged as thoroughly negative, rather than as neutral (the result of averaging one negative and one positive trait).

A third major question concerned the accuracy of people’s impressions of others. Researchers had participants rate other people (based on personal acquaintance or from limited information, such as an interview) on trait scales. These ratings could be compared to criteria such as ratings provided by the target or his or her close friends, to determine the accuracy of each rater. This line of research seemed important for both practical and theoretical reasons. What types of people could perceive others accurately, and therefore might make good counselors or personnel officers? But the line of work was dealt a near-fatal blow by Cronbach’s (1955) critique dealing with problems in selection of the accuracy criterion as well as statistical and methodological issues. The question of accuracy received little attention for a generation after that date.

Through this period, person impressions were implicitly assumed to be relatively unorganized lists of traits. This assumption was generally consistent with mainstream memory research at the time, which used paradigms such as learning lists of unrelated words.

1.2 The 1960s and 1970s

The transition to the next era of research is clearly dated by the publication of Fritz Heider’s Psychology of Interpersonal Relations (Heider 1958). Heider’s work aid the groundwork for a focus on the process (rather than content or organization) of person perception, which characterized the next two decades. Attributional inferences—inferences about a person’s inner qualities (such as traits) that cause observed behaviors—were a major focus of Heider’s thinking and remained a central theme throughout this period. The issue is clearly central in person perception: we usually learn about other people by observing their behaviors (rather than by being presented lists of traits), so if impressions are ultimately composed of traits, we must understand how behaviors are mentally translated into traits.

Theorists such as Edward Jones and Harold Kelley advanced models of attributional inference that were tested in numerous experiments. Characteristics of the actor (e.g., his or her past behaviors), the behavior itself (e.g., its desirability or undesirability), and the social context (e.g., whether other actors behave in the same or a different manner) were investigated as influences on attributional judgments and therefore person impressions. Heider, Jones, and Kelley all began with logical, rational analyses of what a reasonable perceiver would do. But researchers quickly uncovered a host of biases, reproducible ways in which actual judgments about persons departed from those predicted by rational models. Biases included actor–observer differences in attribution (people make systematically different attributions for their own behaviors than for those of others); false consensus bias (people assume that others act the same way that they themselves do); and negativity bias (people make more extreme attributions for negative than for positive behaviors). Most important was the correspondence bias: people tend to attribute traits to an actor that correspond to an observed behavior even when obvious and effective situational causes induce the behavior.

Research in this period maintained the assumption implicitly that traits constitute the core of person impressions, by investigating the processes by which perceivers infer traits based on behavioral evidence. As in the previous period, there was little attention to the organization of impressions, which were treated as unorganized lists of traits.

1.3 Late 1970s Through the 1990s

Cognitive psychology emerged in the 1960s and 1970s with the fall of behaviorism and the rise of the information-processing perspective. As it became respectable throughout psychology to consider mental representations and processes as causes of behavior, the impact on social psychology was dramatic. Pioneering ‘social cognition’ researchers borrowed from cognitive psychology both theoretical and methodological tools to apply to social psychological phenomena. Central among the borrowings were associative models of memory (embodying the assumption that mental representations were formed by linking atomic elements into larger structures), schema theories (describing how organized memory representations guide attention and interpretation of new information), and response time measurement methods (which shed light on mental representations and processes by timing people’s responses to specific types of questions). Research driven by these trends flourished, with the appearance of new journals and conferences devoted to social cognition. In a continuation of the attributional work of the earlier 1970s, a central focus of the early social cognition researchers was on person perception. This newer work had several major themes.

1.3.1 Changing conceptions of bias.

Though a concern with ‘biases’ in judgment continued, bias was no longer defined purely in operational terms as a deviation from the predictions of some rational model of judgment. Instead the focus was on identifying the underlying processes that resulted in those judgmental patterns. For example, researchers examined effects of accessibility (the ease with which mental representations can be activated and used, based on the recency and frequency of prior use) on judgments and behaviors (Higgins et al. 1977). They also investigated the types of ‘heuristic’ processing (using simple rules of thumb) that occur when people are unable or unwilling to exert much effort (Chaiken 1980). Processes like these turned out to account for many phenotypically distinct ‘biases’ that had previously been conceptualized and investigated in isolation from one another.

1.3.2 Focus on trait–behavior relations.

Workers began to examine the organization of impressions, particularly the ways behaviors and related traits were linked together in memory representations. Drawing on associative models of memory, researchers such as Reid Hastie, Thomas Srull, and David Hamilton formulated models of person memory. Hastie (1980) and Srull independently developed similar models of the associative structures created when perceivers encounter inconsistent information about a target person—say, information that an individual who performs mostly honest acts also performs a few dishonest behaviors. These models successfully accounted for several types of empirical observations, including the fact that people tend to recall a higher proportion of the unexpected behaviors than of the expected ones.

1.3.3 Role of general knowledge structures.

Researchers in this period examined the role of more general knowledge structures, particularly stereotypes (representations of social groups, such as gender, racial, or occupational groups), in the construction of person impressions. In some circumstances, a discrete impression of an individual group member is not formed at all, the person being mentally represented as simply an interchangeable member of the group. Even when an individual impression is formed, it is often greatly influenced by the perceiver’s stereotype of the group as a whole. Research by Susan Fiske, Marilynn Brewer (1988), and others investigated the informational and motivational conditions under which stereotypes have this effect. Stereotypes were found to be activated automatically, and to affect impressions of individual group members as a ‘default’ condition unless perceivers are particularly moti vated (e.g., by a conscious desire to avoid using stereotypes) and cognitively able (e.g., through freedom from time pressure or distraction) to overcome these effects.

1.3.4 Diverse information included in impressions.

Research on group stereotypes and on the role of behaviors in impressions made it clear that representations of persons typically include more than just traits. Group membership, specific behaviors, and the perceiver’s emotional reactions to the target person are often part of person impressions (Carlston 1994), and researchers are beginning to examine how these multiple forms of information are interrelated.

1.3.5 Renewed attention to accuracy.

New methodological developments in the 1980s allowed person perception researchers to revisit the questions of accuracy that had been dormant since Cronbach’s critique in the 1950s. Work by David Kenny (1994) and others showed how to separate out effects on accuracy due to theoretically irrelevant factors (such as perceivers’ tendencies to use different parts of rating scales) and focus on more meaningful questions. Research using these techniques showed, for example, that observers can be remarkably accurate in judging certain personality attributes (such as extroversion) based on extremely limited information, such as a video clip of the target person lasting just a few seconds.

2. Current Themes and Future Directions

2.1 Close Connections with Research on Memory

Through the whole half-century covered in this research paper, assumptions regarding mental representations of persons have loosely tracked assumptions regarding memory representations in general. When memory researchers studied learning lists of words, person impressions were considered to involve lists of traits. When memory researchers postulated associatively linked structures, person impressions were conceptualized as linked complexes of traits and behaviors. When memory researchers studied large-scale, organized knowledge structures such as schemas, person perception researchers invoked organized stereotypic knowledge about social groups.

Recent trends in the study of memory include (a) an emphasis on specific (episodic or exemplar) knowledge, displacing the earlier focus on general schematic knowledge, and (b) investigations of connectionist (or parallel distributed) representations as alternatives to the traditional symbolic representations. Both of these trends have been applied to representations of persons (Smith and Zarate 1992, Read and Miller 1999). Studies testing such newer models of representation have often looked very like studies from a cognitive laboratory, with stripped-down tasks, priming manipulations, and response time measurements. These methods have sparked concerns about external validity, as observers have wondered what implications tiny response-time differences, for example, might have for real-world person perception. Yet the methods have offered powerful tools for investigating underlying representations and processes, even those (often termed ‘implicit’ knowledge) that the perceivers cannot consciously access (Greenwald et al. 1998).

2.2 Likely Directions for Future Research

Ongoing and future research on person representations seems likely to place a greater emphasis on the social and interpersonal context of person perception.

2.2.1 The self.

Since the work of Daryl Bem in the 1960s, social psychologists have assumed that self-perception and perception of other people are closely related. Recent advances in models of person representations have correspondingly been applied to the self. For example, there have been studies of implicit self-esteem and of the way people organize positively and negatively valenced self-knowledge into discrete self-aspects, and their implications for the individual’s personal and social functioning.

2.2.2 Linkages of other persons and groups to the self.

Henri Tajfel demonstrated that representations of social groups to which an individual belongs become part of the person’s self-representation. Similarly, Arthur Aron argued that in a close relationship, mental representations of the partner and the self-become linked. Thus, representations of other persons and social groups can in effect become part of the self, with direct implications for self-regulatory processes (including emotional responses) and behavior including social influence, cooperation, and intergroup relations.

2.2.3 Impression change.

Remarkably little study has been given to impression change. Yet in everyday life our impressions of others do change from time to time, and Bernadette Park and other researchers are now addressing this issue rather than continuing to focus on the initial formation of impressions of strangers.

2.2.4 Beyondverbal stimuli.

In the first two decades, person impression research relied largely on lists of trait words, and since then, on written descriptions of behaviors. Researchers are now beginning to understand the limitations of verbal stimulus materials, which introduce extraneous issues such as the communicator’s intention, the specific choice of words, etc. Some studies today use photographs, audio recordings, or video materials as stimuli, though verbal materials are still the overwhelming majority due to their ease of use and the possibility of close experimental control.

The methodological and conceptual shifts over the half-century of work on mental representations of persons should not obscure an underlying continuity. The same idea that motivated Asch’s research still stands: perceivers construct representations of other people based on behaviors they observe, group memberships, and other types of information. The perceivers then draw on those representations as they make judgments about others, decide to form relationships with them or to avoid them, accept or resist social influence from them, and treat them with justice and altruism, or with prejudice and discrimination. Representations of persons thereby play a crucial mediating role in virtually all forms of social behavior.


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  2. Brewer M B 1988 A dual process model of impression formation. In: Srull T K, Wyer R S (eds.) Ad ances in Social Cognition. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Hillsdale, NJ, Vol. 1, pp. 1–36
  3. Carlston, D E 1994 Associated Systems Theory: A systematic approach to cognitive representations of persons. In: Wyer R S (ed.) Ad ances in Social Cognition. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Hillsdale, NJ, Vol. 7, pp. 1–78
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