Social Psychology

Student Learning Program

Chapter 3: Beyond first impressions: Systematic processing (pp. 7382)

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In this topic

  1. Causal Attributions (pp. 7377)
    1. Attributions to accessible causes
    2. Attributions to salient causes
    3. Attributions based on covariation information
    4. Cultural differences in attributions
  2. Using Attributions to Correct first impressions (pp. 7778)
  3. Putting it all together: Forming complex impressions (pp. 7880)
    1. Integrating trait information
    2. Integrating evaluations
  4. The Accuracy of Considered impressions (pp. 8082)
    1. Motivation to be accurate
    2. Motives besides accuracy
    3. Awareness of bias as a motive
Causal Attributions

To go beyond a first impression (an example of superficial processing), people must engage in systematic processing, which involves thinking more deeply and taking more information into account. This includes making causal attributions: judgments about the cause of a behavior or event.

Attributions to accessible causes

The more accessible a potential cause, the more likely it is that this cause will be considered as an explanation of behavior. This is demonstrated by Rholes and Pryor's (1982) research on priming influences on causal attributions (SP pp. 7374).

Attributions to salient causes

The more salient a potential cause, the more likely it is that this cause will be considered as an explanation of behavior. This was demonstrated by Taylor and Fiske (1975), and others. Lassiter et al. (2001) showed important implications of these results for courtroom proceedings (SP p. 75).

Case study: Attribution to salient causes and discounting

Attributions based on covariation information

In cases where observing a behavior does not immediately bring any causal attribution to mind, people can try to attribute a cause by collecting covariation information; that is, information about potential causal factors that are present when the event occurs and absent when it does not.

Kelley (1967) considered three major categories of covariation information: distinctiveness, consensus, and consistency, resulting in three possible causes of a social event: the actor, the stimulus or target, or the particular situation.

Cultural differences in attributions

People from different cultures learn to consider different types of causes for behaviors. Miller (1984) and Morris and Peng (1994) demonstrated that people in Western cultures use more trait-based explanations, whereas people in Asian cultures locate causes in social relationship roles and the larger context (SP pp. 7677).

As noted earlier, these cultural differences in attribution reflect different assumptions about the basic nature of human beings (independent vs. interdependent).

Using Attributions to Correct first impressions

Attributional thinking may lead to discounting, which is reducing the belief in one potential cause of behavior because there is another viable cause. This correction for the initial inference takes time and cognitive effort.

This was demonstrated by Gilbert et al.'s (1988) research, which showed that unless we are willing and able to process information systematically, we stick to our first impression, which often occurred automatically (SP pp. 7778).

Putting it all together: Forming complex impressions
Integrating trait information

People rely on their implicit personality theories. These theories are patterns of associations among traits, which we expect to go together. Relying on these theories means we may infer that a particular person has many positive (or negative) qualities on the basis of a single good (or bad) one.

The general patterns of these theories are shared within a culture, but particular patterns may differ individually depending on people's own experiences.

We may organize what we know by clustering behaviors that present the same trait and/or by creating causal links among behaviors and traits. This is to create an overall impression.

Integrating evaluations

When integrating all information into an overall evaluation, people tend to give negative information more weight than positive information, which is termed the negativity effect.

This is because negative information seems more extreme and informative than positive information, and can also contaminate positive information.

The Accuracy of Considered impressions
Motivation to be accurate

Being accurate is a motivation for devoting extra thought to forming an impression. Research confirmed that one might be particularly motivated to form accurate impressions of people when having to work with them, or when being suspicious about someone's ulterior motives (SP p. 81).

Motives besides accuracy

Accuracy is not always the goal of person perception, our hopes and desires influence our search for information and its interpretation. This was supported by Klein and Kunda's (1992) research on evaluating the trivia knowledge of a competitor or partner (SP p. 81).

Awareness of bias as a motive

Normally, we get along well enough relying on our biased views. But sometimes when we realize this, it may motivate us to devote extra effort to correcting our impressions when we have the time and the cognitive resources.

However, as Wegener and Petty (2001) demonstrated, our attempted correction depends on our beliefs about the nature and direction of the bias (SP p. 82).

So what does this mean?

When people engage in systematic processing, they make causal attributions for behavior. A cause is more likely to be considered as an explanation when it is accessible or salient. Collecting covariation information can also help in making attributions.

Impressions are influenced by people's implicit personality theories. To create an overall impression, knowledge is organized by clustering behaviors, and by creating causal links among characteristics. When integrating, people tend to give negative information more weight.

When people devote extra thought to forming an impression, biases may occur, and the extra efforts may only confirm our existing beliefs.

Next topic

The impact of impressions: Using, defending, and changing impressions

In this chapter

  1. Chapter 3 introduction
  2. Forming first impressions: Cues, interpretations, and inferences
  3. Beyond first impressions: Systematic processing
  4. The impact of impressions: Using, defending, and changing impressions
  5. Chapter overview (PDF)
  6. Fill-in-the-blanks
  7. Multiple-choice questions