Module 1

Social Perception

The human infant has the longest period of dependency of any member of the animal kingdom. Because of this dependency, his early experience is primarily in social groups such as the family, by whatever form it is defined in his culture. The child's development is critically dependent upon his experiences within this group.

This module surveys the general topics that social psychologists study and reviews some important findings concerning an individual's perception of other people. As you read the text, keep the following questions in mind.


Most psychological phenomena are strongly influenced by social experience. IQ scores, for example, have been found to be consistently higher for children whose parents are at a high socioeconomic level. Perceptions in Western society are not necessarily transferable to radically different cultures. The Eskimo, who has many different words to describe snow, is able to make much finer discriminations between types of snow and snowfalls than an English American.

Social Psychology focuses on the effect of social stimuli on individual behavior

Social psychology is that branch of psychology concerned with the scientific study of the behavior of individuals as a function of social stimuli or stimuli that come from other people. Even in isolation, however, an individual's behavior may be largely determined by his experiences in the social environment. A child who is about to take a cookie, for example, may imagine the presence and response of his mother to his action. In fact, some people respond to physical stimuli in the environment as though the stimuli were people. An individual may kick the tire that has gone flat. He may slam a door that he has just walked into. Social psychology is concerned with all these behavioral effects of the social environment.

Investigations of social behavior are certainly not new but, as in other branches of psychology, only in the last half-century or so has investigation been systematic and regulated within an experimental framework. In the late 1 920's Hartshorne and May investigated dishonest behavior among children. They observed the behavior of the same children in many situations in which a dishonest act could occur. They found that honesty was a very specific, not general, trait. That is, children who were dishonest in one situation were not necessarily dishonest in another. For example, children who cheat on tests are no more likely to steal than children who do not cheat (Hartshorne and May, 1 928).

Researchers have learned to experiment with complex com b in ations of stim uli

In the mid-thirties Kurt Lewin emphasized the importance of a theoretical analysis before conducting research on social problems. Lewin, Lippitt and White (1939) arranged matched groups of children to be directed by adults playing different leadership roles. They attempted to establish particular "climates" of democracy, autocracy, or complete laissez-faire (in which children were allowed to regulate their own activities). The reactions of the children were observed systematically and detailed notes were taken on the resulting patterns of social interaction. This study stimulated others to think about controlling complex situational or social variables. Questions of behavioral relationships could be examined with a closer scrutiny than was possible through questionnaires and interviews.

Though most perception can be considered in one sense or another to be social perception, we will confine ourselves here to the discussion of perceptions of other people. An individual's perception of another person is likely to represent a complex blend of his own characteristics and those of the other person. In forming an opinion, he notes such things as physical appearance, actions, voice, expressive movements, and so forth. From such evidence he forms a concept of what the other person is like, which represents an integration of all available clues into one complete picture, rather than a collection of traits. The individual's motives for forming a total concept are not entirely clear. There is a general tendency to organize a perceptual field. In addition, however, it appears that the individual attempts to stabilize his social environment by predicting the other person's behavior. His predictions are easier if he has a total picture of what the person is like.


The formation of unified impressions is usually based on inadequate or scanty data. The social stimulus is an "ambiguous figure" in that it can be organized in a number of different ways. Individuals often attributes to fill in the gaps. S. E. Asch presented college students with a word picture of a person, using only seven descriptive terms, such as "energetic," and "talkative." He then asked the students to write their impressions of the person he had de scribed. In giving their impressions, the students had a strong tendency to invent all sorts of attributes that had no connection with any of the seven adjectives included in the original description (Asch, 1946).

A researcher must not only examine the environment, he must understand the individual's perception of that environment

The perceived person may become less ambiguous when more information is available. However, it is just as likely that more information will merely complicate the problem of maintaining a unified picture. Under some circumstances the individual will simply ignore new information that he cannot fit into a total concept.

In one experiment (Gollin, 1954) college students viewed a motion picture depicting a young woman in a number of situations. In two scenes, the woman displayed behavior that was interpretable as sexually promiscuous. In two other scenes she was shown behaving in a kindly and considerate manner. The situation was created in such a way that the student could form a unified picture of the woman as generous to a fault. However, this type of solution was reached by only 23 percent of the subjects. Forty-eight percent of the students formed an impression based on only one of the two major characteristics and ignored the other. The remaining 29 percent of the students failed to achieve integration, but they reported both of the impressions faithfully.

The individual's ability to form a total concept is affected by the way in which he obtains his information. Several studies (Asch, 1946; Kastenbaum, 1951; and Dailey, 1952) have found that when subjects were asked to combine into one impression two impressions formed at different times, they were much less successful than those subjects who had seen all the information at once.

One's perception of a total situation depends on what part of it he sees first

First impressions tend to dominate future perceptions. This is called the prima- effect. If the first impression is unfavorable, a subsequent smile may be seen as a sneer or as insincere. The primacy effect can be detected even over short periods of time. In one experiment two groups of subjects were given the same two descriptions but in a different order. The usual result was that the first description overpowered the second and dominated the overall impression (Luchins, 1957). This effect can be seen even when the order of descriptive adjectives is reversed (Anderson and Barrios, 1961). When a person was described as "smart, artistic, sentimental, reserved, awkward, and faultfind- he typically received more positive evaluations than when the same adjectives were presented in the reverse order.

The primacy effect can be reduced or even eliminated if the subject is required to give approximately equal attention to all of the adjectives. If he is required, for example, to remember or repeat all of the adjectives before he forms his impression, the primacy effect is reduced (Anderson and Hubert, 1963). In fact, the effect is reduced by merely telling the subjects not to make snap judgments (Luchins, 1957). It is difficult to account for the content of the material invented to form a total impression. To some extent the content is based on the needs and traits of the observer. In general, however, the perceiver draws upon his own private theory of personality or upon his notions of what goes with what. To a considerable extent, and especially in the same culture, certain traits do tend to go together. Hence, our theories tend to portray an actual state of affairs among the kind of people we know.

An overall perception usually includes some content invented by the observer

When an individual is faced with a person who comes from another group he tends to rely on stereotypes. Perception is influenced by what he believes about the group to which the person belongs. For example, the individual may believe that all Germans are authoritarian, or that all Latins have fiery tempers. There is considerable resistance to changing a stereotype even when the individual is presented with inconsistent data. If the individual meets someone who does not match his stereotype, he is likely to view the person as an exception to the rule. It has been found, however, that modification of national stereotypes does result from increased contact with foreigners and education (Reigrotski and Anderson, 1956).

Many psychologists are interested in the application of psychology to various minority groups within our culture. There is also interest in psychology from the perspective of these various groups. A web site is devoted to providing information on such topics as an association of African-American psychologists, Latino scholarships and journals, and other topics of multicultural interest. The site is located at the following address:
Multicultural Psychology



Now test yourself without looking back.

1. The tendency for first impressions to dominate subsequent perceptions is called the _________________

2. Suppose that subjects are asked to read seven adjectives form an impression. The first adjectives listed are quite negative. The later adjectives are quite favorable.

The overall impression will tend to be:
a. favorable.
b. unfavorable.
c. balanced.
d. positive..

3. Subjects view two film segments showing the same person's behavior. The behavior in each segment is not actually contradictory, but may appear contradictory. Subjects most frequently would:
a. report both impressions.
b. base their impression on only one of the behavior characteristics.
c. provide a well-balanced picture of the person in one statement.

4. Which is correct of stereotyping?
a. The subject tends to rely on a stereotype for a person he perceives as being a member of his own culture.
b. The subject will readily modify a stereotype when presented with a person who does not match the stereotype. The subject tends to perceive a person who does not match the stereotype as an exception to the rule.

5. Suppose that a subject is asked to recall all of the adjectives about a person before he makes his evaluation.~This is likely to:
a. reduce the primacy effect.
b. result in difficulty in integrating the information.
c. (neither)

6. When given scanty information about a person, the subject is likely to:
a. invent attributes to fill in the gaps.
b. rely on his own theory of personality.
c. confine his impression to the information he has.





The following adjectives were presented to subjects who were then asked to give an impression of the person described (Anderson and Barrios, 1961). Smart






The primacy effect is a tendency for first impressions to dominate future perceptions. The subject may even reject information that appears to contradict his first impression. Note that in the list above the first three adjectives are favorable. Since the subject sees these adjectives first, his overall impression is likely to be favorable. Suppose that an experiment is conducted in which Group A subjects are given the adjectives shown above. Three other groups of subjects are chosen. The presentation is varied for each group. Fill in the empty blocks below. For example, would you expect subjects in Group B to give a more favorable or less favorable impression than those in Group A?
Condition Effect of Change More or Less Favorable Impression Than Given bv Group A
Group B The order of the adjectives is reversed The less flattering adjectives now appear .first in the list .a.
Group C The subject is asked to form opinion from the first three adjectives. He is then asked to include the information from the last three adjectives. There is likely to be an an even stronger primacy since the second group of adjectives pears to contradict the first group.b.
Group D The subject is asked to recall all of the adjectives before making his evaluation. Reduction in the primacy effect c.


The individual tends to invent attributes to fill in the gaps for a total character. In which case below would the individual be likely to invent attributes?
a. The subject is basing his evaluation on eight adjectives.
b. The subject is basing his evaluation on a few words exchanged when he is introduced to another person.
c. (neither)

________________________________________ 2

The individual attempts to maintain a unified concept of a person. Therefore, more information:
a. might render the person less ambiguous, especially when the new information does not appear to contradict his first impression.
b. could be easily incorporated even if it contradicts an earlier impression.
c. (neither)


You know that an individual sometimes projects his own characteristics onto other people. He also tends to rely on his notions of which traits tend to go together in people. Therefore, the content of the attributes invented to fill gaps in character may be determined by the individual's own:
a. traits and personality needs.
b. theory of personality.
c. (neither)


What is the subject likely to do when new information is presented that does not fit into a unified concept?

_______________________________________________ 1


1 He is likely to ignore the new information.

2 a, b

3 a, b

4 a

5 a. less favorable
b.more favorable
c.less favorable


In forming an impression of a person he perceives as coming from another group or culture, the individual may rely on a

It appears that the individual develops a total picture or concept of a person even from scanty information That is, he sets a way of judging the other's responses before he responds. Thus, the tendency to form a total concept may result from:
a. the individual's tendency to use stereotypes.
b. a need to predict the other person's behavior.
c. (neither)

When an individual must fill in the gaps to make a complete picture of character, he often draws on his own theory of___________________________________1

The tendency for first impressions to dominate subsequent perceptions is called the__________________________________________3


1 personality

2 stereotype

3 primacy effect

4 a, b

5 a, b



1. Even with scanty information about another person, the subject will tend to integrate the information to form a___________________________________________________________

1. Pleasant
2. Smart
3. Hyperactive
4. Short
5. High-strung
6. Critical

A subject forming an impression based on the adjectives presented in the above order would be most likely to:
a. give a favorable impression.
b. give an unfavorable impression.
c. invent characteristics to fill in the gaps.
d. (none of these)

3. A subject is given a second set of adjectives after forming an impression from those given him in question
. You might expect the subject to__________________________________

4. Which is correct?
a. An individual may invent attributes that serve his own personality needs.
b. An individual tends to rely on stereotypes for people he perceives as members of his own culture or group
An individual may rely on his own theory of personality to fill in gaps in another person's character.

5. The tendency for a first impression to dominate future perceptions is called the____________________

6. A subject who is required to give approximately equal attention to all information is likely to respond with




Module 2

Unit 8 Table of Contents