• It seems "so real" (inter-planetary abduction perhaps?) but coincidences, biases interfere with perceiving "reality"
  • Guide 3 deals with cognition (Guide 4 will examine affect and attitude-action correspondence)
  • This Guide presents a short synopsis of the recent history of the process of social perception
  • "Heuristics" are perceptual rules of thumb--helpful but they can lead to stereotypes and other biases
    • Cognitive consistency is a major type of heuristic ("what is beautiful is good", stigmas, etc.)
  • The "information processing" approach and attribution (including the "naive scientist" perspective) are major areas of social perception
  • Weiner's attribution research is very useful but the attribution field is much wider than this perspective
  • Self-presentation can influence how we perceive others (including ingratiation)
  • Self perception follows some (but not all) of the cognitive rules we use to perceive others
  • Research on brain plasticity indicates that experiences and perception can alter physical brain structure (as well as vice versa)


SYP 5105-01           FALL 2017





On the first year anniversary in 2002 of the September 11 attack on the World Trade Centers in New York City, the New York Lottery drew its three digit number . What was it? 911. That Lottery made headlines nationwide in 2002.

A few months after "911" 2001, airplane Flight 587 experienced mechanical difficulties and crashed in the Queens borough of New York City on November 12 of 2001. The New York Lottery's pick that day? 587. (These are  real, I couldn't make stuff like these up.)

Significant numbers of Americans truly believe that they have been abducted by aliens and then returned to "home base" (nearly one-fifth of the adult U.S. public!) or that they have had "out of body experiences" (astral projection). In 2009, one-quarter of American adults with at least two years of college believed they had communicated with a dead person.* Lest you think these are peculiarities of Western civilizations, consider a tape of the late Osama Bin Laden, released in late 2001, in which he and his associates called upon dreams of soccer players and pilots, and omens, to explain why Jihad would triumph. There is both an Asian Zodiac (based on birth year) and a Western Zodiac (based on birth date).When it comes to "why people believe wierd things," it is clear that the playing field is ecumenical and lots of people have crowded to play upon it.

*OPTIONAL: For more on pseudoscience beliefs among the American general public--and education majors--see Losh & Nzekwe, "Creatures in the Classroom: Preservice Teacher Beliefs About Fantastic Beasts, Magic, Extraterrestrials, Evolution and Creationism." Science & Education, 2011, 20 (No. 5-6:) 473-489.

Enough people appear to cite the "alien abduction" stories and believe in out of body experiences that cognitive scientists doubt that these are deliberate hoaxes. Rather the belief is that common human proclivities for social perception, combined with neurological anomalies on occasion, are responsible. In author Michael Shermer's online "E-Skeptic" column, Paul M. Amore writes

"The human mind has a remarkable capacity for pattern recognition. In his book Why People Believe Weird Things, arch-skeptic Michael Shermer speculates very reasonably--that pattern recognition improved our evolutionary ancestors' survivability. A Homo Erectus, for example, who associated sudden loud noises with imminent danger was more likely to add his pattern recognition genes to subsequent Homo Erectus generations. Of course, not every sudden loud noise is accompanied by a charging mastodon or a falling boulder. But in an environment where false negatives may be deadly and false positives are usually costless, the evolutionary pressure on the human mind to overcompensate is unavoidable. As a result, humanity is hardwired to spot images of Jesus in burnt tortillas and messages from God in lottery drawings."
On a more mundane level, we draw conclusions about others that turn out to be unwarranted, misidentify supposed criminals in front of juries, and attribute sterling personal qualities to individuals who were accidentally blessed by faces and bodies that conform to their cultural standards of beauty--or even who are taller than average.

Welcome to the world of social perception! Where paranormal beliefs are "normal" and misperceptions abound. We are the "original reconstructionists," if you like (although most of us DO believe an objective reality exists out there--somewhere).

None of us, of course, is immune, so consider how patterns of social perception might influence how you might form conclusions about clients, formerly incarcerated women, students, potential employers or employees, and others.

The field of social perception is enormous. To render it more manageable, let's divide these topics into more cognitive (beliefs and impression formation, including self-perception); affective (feelings, emotions, evaluation--the universal core of attitudes, Guide 4) and conative (action oriented, see Guide 4). That way, we can address perception separate from affect (although the two interrelate), and both separately from what has been called the "attitude-action" dilemma.

For example, cognitive components would include your estimates (how risky is playing the Florida Lottery?) and reasoning (what makes for a better scientific study?) Affective dimensions would address attitudes (how do you really feel about jury duty?). And conative components address what you should or will do about the topic (show up at the Juror Assembly room or buy a Lottery ticket).

Cognitive and affective dimensions intertwine. For example, the more accurate the information that people hold about elementary science phenomena (does the earth go around the sun--or vice versa?), the more favorable they are toward science and scientists. And, as we will see later, people attempt to make attitudes and actions consistent, when the circumstances allow, which is a critical component of such consistency.

The cognitive approach became preeminent in the social and behavioral sciences during the mid to late twentieth century. It surpassed the earlier strict behaviorist or reinforcement oriented approaches that dominated the early twentieth century to about the mid-1950s. Strict behaviorists sidestepped cognitive aspects, partly because they felt cognitions were unobservable and unmeasurable, and partly because they felt cognitions were unnecessary, i.e., given that rewards and punishments primarily governed behavior, the "ghosts in the machine" of affect and cognition might be "interesting" but were unnecessary to study. More recently, we are taking a closer look at emotions (this edition of DeLamater et al has an entire chapter.)

Three psychologists working in the 1940s and 1950s significantly influenced behavioral science to change these perspectives. Edward Tolman saw people (and animals) operating through "mental maps." He saw cognitive plans for action  as explaining the initiative and originality that strict reinforcement theorists still have difficulty explaining. (I will add that Tolman was vilified by more reinforcement-oriented psychologists for years but now has buildings named after him at University California-Berkeley.)  Gestalt phenomonologist  Fritz Heider was fascinated by how people attribute causality for events  and the importance of causal attributions for people's plans for social action. Kurt Lewin, working in the fledgling field of group dynamics, saw people "navigating" in a planned way from one "field of forces" to another. His perspective of "person-in-situation" is one that dominates the field of social psychology to this day.

Meanwhile, in sociology, the school of symbolic interactionism had been industriously working since the early days of the twentieth century. Although he considered himself a "social behaviorist," philosopher George Herbert Mead felt that humans were creatures of symbol, communication and meaning. Charles Horton Cooley emphasized social cognition in forming the self-concept. Thomas and Znaniecki, in their classic (around 1917) The Polish Peasant in Europe and America introduced the idea that things that "appeared real" to perceivers were real in their consequences. These perspectives laid the groundwork for Social Identity Theory in the late 20th century.

By the 1950s, the strict reinforcement approach was "running out of steam." One of its then most famous practitioners, Clark Hull, had originally created a formula that behavior was a multiplicative product of "drive" and "habit strength." As newer and more cognitive models arose, Hull kept trying to graft constructs from these models into his simple formula. This resulted in a piecemeal mosaic of imprecisely measured mathematical terms and no increased rigor in explanation. Remember that conceptual simplicity is considered a real plus in  constructing a good theory.  Newer learning theorists, such as Albert Bandura's work in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s or Vygotsky's social approach to learning, made cognitive aspects (plans, imitation, reasoning) an integral part of their behavioral and learning models.

Expectancy-value theories of motivation (which began in earnest in the 1950s) also have key cognitive elements.


The information processing model or "naive scientist" approach has dominated social perception research, replacing earlier, less fruitful attempts to characterize "accurate perceivers". The few remnants of research related to the “accurate perceiver” approach creatively include detecting lies, eyewitness identification, “flashbulb memories”, and “false memory syndrome”. Unfortunately study results from all of these areas indicate that most of us perceive inaccurately.

However, we do a better job detecting lies over the telephone where there are fewer distracting clues than we do in-person. Trying to ascertain the honesty of your favorite politician? Try closing your eyes and listening to voice pitch, inflection, flatness, vocal strength, etc. It's a good thing, too, since even more recent research indicates that people try to lie more over the telephone than in person. However, when actors "believe" the "lies" they tell (for example, often in delusions), they often sound convincing.

The "naive scientist" approach portrays people as somewhat curious yet simultaneously cognitively lazy, using short-cuts in information processing (heuristics) to categorize others and social events. One example is Susan Fiske's model of impression formation. Laypeople are less systematic than 'scientists'. For example, naive perceivers are "agenda scholars" with confirmatory biases who typically gather selective information to "prove", affirm or confirm our prior beliefs (just like journalists or lawyers). That's one reason why so many laypersons have problems with the way scientists use the term "theories"--we are probably more used to and comfortable with notions of "proof" and "theories" that follow the rules for lawyers, journalists and pastors, i.e., confirmatory bias.

As laypeople, we rely more heavily than scientists do on primacy effects (first impressions), schema and prototypes, implicit personality theories, consistency, social scripts, or second-hand information  from others to draw conclusions. Implicit in all of these terms is the assumption that certain characteristics cluster or "hang together." For example, we typically believe that those who are intelligent are also logical and objective or that people who are physically attractive are also more successful. These ideas relate to cognitive consistency theories (see below).

Stereotypes are a special rigid prototype applied to large social groups. Stereotypes rank a target group in a social hierarchy or stratification system compared with other groups. It is this stratification or ranking of an entire group that makes stereotypes more suspect than other kinds of social categorizing systems.

Cognitive consistency approaches are prominent in the stereotype area. Cognitive consistency is culturally specific, i.e., it refers to what members of a culture or subculture consider logically related, not what may truly be the case. Affect plays a large role in cognitive consistency, because entities that have the same affective valence (both strongly positive, for example) tend to cluster together. Thus, we are addressing a "psychologic" when we examine cognitive consistency.

Issues in cognitive consistency are a recurring theme in social psychology and collectively are one of the largest "mid-range" theories we have. For example, cognitive consistency appears in "exchange theories," largely reinforcement driven, to determine when people are satisfied with a social situation and when they seek to change it.

One example of a cognitive consistency subfield that has generated several thousand studies is the impact of physical appearance on impression formation. Findings reflect cognitive consistency ("what is beautiful is good") and sampling information (physical appearance provides a primacy effect anchor  to interpret and assimilate later information--from Social Judgement Theory). We probably combine information using some kind of weighted averaging process to form impressions. Worse yet, physically attractive people may, in fact, be more successful and even nicer too, because life has generally been kinder to them than to individuals who are less attractive. This implies the creation of a self-fulfilling prophecy. By treating individuals better who conform more closely to a society's norms of beauty, we create more successful and nicer individuals, therefore confirming the original stereotype. Unfortunately, the reverse is true for individuals who become stigmatized, whether due to diability, apearance or perceived deviance. Their every move, their appearance, or their utterances, are interpreted in a manner consistent with the stigma. A "speed dating" study in 2007, one of the first physical attractiveness studies in years, confirmed that these cognitive perspectives are still in place.

Many of us express dismay about the results of studies that examine the effects of physical attractiveness on evaluations. After all, we are not entertainers or celebrities, and it can be disconcerting to realize that our height, our weight, our hair styles or type of dress can all influence how others see us. Even in child abuse, there is a tendency for the least attractive child in the family to receive the most abuse.

But there actually are a few positive assertions in this literature. The first is that there isn't that much difference between how "the average person" and the movie star handsome or gorgeous supermodel person is evaluated. The biggest differences are between individuals judged significantly below "average" and those perceived as "average." Second, most of us can do something about our appearance if we choose--we can exercise more or get a good haircut. And almost by definition, few of us are in the sparse "below average" category in the first place.

Of course, self-fulfilling prophecies occur in plenty of other situations. Picture the child who is the younger sibling of the town dunce. Teachers expect little of this child, assuming that he or she is "stupid in the family tradition." They don't call upon the child or offer any extra help. As a result--guess what? The child ends up performing poorly and confirming the original stereotypes. Conversely, consider the "office wunderkind," who because of his or her alleged superior ability, receives released time, special favors, extra travel money, etc. To no one's surprise, this individual will often perform better than her or his peers. Here we have elements of a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Rosenthal and Jacobson's classic study and publication: Pygmalion in the Classroom is one example how telling elementary school teachers at the beginning of the academic year that certain students were "late bloomers" influenced student scores on standardized tests. This was so even though teachers could no longer tell researchers by the middle of the academic year the names of these false "late blooming" students.


Distal or "veridical" reality is the objective world that no one actually perceives directly. An easy example is our physical limitations. Variations in eyesight, hearing, touch or smell influence what we perceive. But social forces have an impact too. By the time we "see" or "hear" (proximal reality), social encoding particular to our culture or subculture has already occurred. Eyewitness identification research demonstrates the many inaccuracies that occur at this stage.  We also impute meaning and interpretation to reality (this is called the percept).

Because we are so sure of what we "have seen" or "heard," it is hard to convince people that "the evidence of their senses" has a strong constructive component.

For example, our family now suspects that my mother had hearing problems for several decades. She received hearing aids several years ago but was uncomfortable wearing them. Why? Ironically, not because they did not work, but because they worked too well. For example, there is a very slight delay after we speak when the sound of our own voice strikes our ears. Virtually all of us "have learned" to adjust for this echo delay, but when one's hearing is restored after a relatively silent period of time, we hear this delay as a distracting echo. We learn to "block out" background noise (e.g., conversation from a nearby table at a restaurant or the sound of our own chewing) so that we literally "do not hear it." When learning to hear again, we must learn which sounds to accentuate and which to ignore.

Attribution is a very special percept about assigning cause to people or events. As observers, we tend to locate the causes of behavior in actors despite attenuating circumstances  (as actors, however, we attribute cause to the environment)--this is called the fundamental attribution error. A special attribution is the correspondent inference in which we link behaviors directly to personal traits in an actor (e.g., "Gary gossips because he is cruel").

Intention (motive), ability, luck, and task difficulty are important dimensions in assigning causes of success and failure (Weiner perspective, see below). These dimensions tend to be formed by combinations of (1) stability versus volitility and (2) internal or external control.

For example, people with high self-efficacy make strong, stable attributions about internal control. Think "I think I can" (or even: "I KNOW I can.")

Another set of attributions finds causality for success or failure in social factors, such as "greedy people" or "who you know" or divine intervention. Society may provide attributions about social groups to us by ideologies or stereotypes.

Consistency is important in assigning causeWe often examine consistency across situations, time, or others' opinions when forming impressions of people or events (the Kelley covariation, cube, or ANOVA model).

Attributions are critical for social events. How would your view of the World Trade Center 911 airplane crashes have differed if you believed they had been an accident rather than deliberate (although the carnage would have been the same)? Or if the United States or Israel were seen as the responsible parties for the airline crashes into the New York towers (in a 2008 worldwide survey only a plurality named Al Quaida as the actors responsible for 911.)  Perceived motive distinguishes among "murder," "manslaughter" or even "culpable negligence" in legal systems. We do not view the event as the same if it is committed by someone "incapable" (e.g., visually handicapped) versus someone supposedly proficient.

Bernard Weiner's  attribution perspective may be widely used but that perspective is very narrow, largely to making attributions about ability and effort, especially in academic situations.

But attribution theory is much broader than Weiner's perspective as the examples above indicate. Attribution can apply to self perception and self-labels. Assigning cause is obviously critical in legal systems, too.

One aspect to consider--and as perceivers we tend to do so early  on--is whether the actor is competent, physically, cognitively or socially. If we decide the actor is not (e.g., they are a child, or perhaps very upset). we don't at that point in time tend to take the attribution process further.


Social perception is fascinating, because, just as we form impressions of others, so, too, they form impressions of us. Furthermore, we know when our person is under scrutiny and heightened awareness may cause us to self-monitor our own behavior. If our identity is threatened or otherwise made salient, we may become anxious and alter our behavior in many different ways. Thus, I think it is pertinent to include self-presentation strategies under social knowledge (the DeLamater et al text groups it differently.). (See below about the parallel with the methodological challenge called "evaluation apprehension", which occurs more often when people believe their behavior is under scrutiny.)

One of my personal favorite examples is a classic study a few decades old that was set on the holiday Halloween night. A sign on the door invited "trick or treating children" to:


(Of course, I would never allow my kid to do this and you should not either.) After entering the apparently empty front vestibule with an experimenter hiding around the corner, the child found a table holding a bowl of wrapped candy. Another sign invited the children to:


Half the time, a mirror was over the bowl of candy. The other half of the time, the mirror was missing. Children who were able to self-monitor their own behavior by seeing themselves in the mirror were significantly more likely to take only one candy than the greedy children who had no such mirror in which to observe their own behavior.

At some point, most of us try to influence the impressions others hold of us. We use self-presentation and impression management tactics to do so.

[IMPORTANT NOTE: these are not always 'phony'! Most of us use these tactics on an on-going basis, for example, taking a shower before a first date or job interview, SEE BELOW.] Usually we try to create a favorable impression.

What happens when you see photo or video representations of yourself? Are you recognizable?
How about when you listen to a recording of your own voice?

Recall the methodological literature on "reactivity," "social desirability," and "evaluation apprehension" in the methods section. Who ever said that these were only artifacts of experimental and other sitations in which people knew their behavior was being studied? This type of self-conscious self-awareness occurs in many everyday situations, particularly in introductory situations, such as "first dates," job interviews, parties where you don't know anyone, etc.

Social occasions frame our presentations. We have scripts to use for our situated identities such as "job interview participant". Smooth interaction depends on all participants sharing similar meanings and definitions of the same event. [When you hold out your hand, I shake it, I don't lick it.] People who fail to follow social scripts in common situations (introductions, for example) either invite attributions about their competence (we don't expect children to be tactful) or about their underlying motives and characteristics (mean, vain, etc.). The failure to follow social scripts may increase correspondent inferences.

Some self-presentation tactics include self-disclosure (reciprocal, just enough but not too much, and more to women than to men), using props, and ingratiation. Ingratiation tactics are almost endless. Perhaps you appear to agree with others on important issues but disagree on trivia (opinion conformity). Careful flattery--"other enhancement"--works (but do use a kernel of truth so that your flattery is believable). Selective self-enhancement (bragging) or  self-deprecation (modesty) are also tactics. In colorful dramaturgical language, Goffman distinguished front and back-stage regions (have you ever rehearsed facial expressions in your bathroom mirror?) in terms of which and how much information we disclose. Edward Jones in the 1960s wrote an entire book called Ingratiation.

We may offer accounts that explain our behavior (usually to place ourselves in a better light). Accounts are constructed histories of events from the viewpoint of participants. For example, in describing the break-up of a relationship, there are usually two distinct accounts, one from each participant. We may use justifications or disclaimers ("I just wasn't myself"). If we try to pressure others into roles, the tactic is called altercasting  (the "group flunky" or "the smart one" in a family).

When self-presentation fails, people can become embarrassed. Under most "normal conditions," everyone in the social interaction cooperates to "save face" (we may make excuses for friends or even lie ["that's O.K., I always hated that vase"]).A spoiled identity may create stigma, or a permanent label of being socially incompetent, untrustworthy or even dangerous.

I place impression management with social perception because impression management tactics directly influence our perception of others and sometimes even ourselves. We may inaccurately detect lies or ingratiation. People often try to control facial expressions but forget body movements and voice pitch so we often detect lies better by telephone or audio-tape. (Look below the neck.) Since most of us are often aware that others are perceiving us, this self-awareness may stimulate impression management efforts.

NOTE:  anxiety can produce some of the same physical and vocal cues as lying, so an actor may just be nervous. And, unfortunately, some people are just good liars!


One school in social psychology believes that we learn to perceive ourselves the way we learn to perceive others. So this perspective goes, we don't even necessarily have any "special inside information" about the self.  We take our labels about the self from "reflected appraisals" or the feedback we receive from others, sometimes called "the looking glass self." These constructs harken back to symbolic interactionists. For example, recall that people tend to treat attractive members of their culture better than unattractive ones. Probably as a partial result, the physically attractive do, in fact, tend to do well.

Symbolic interactionists, in fact, often argue that we must learn empathy towards others prior to self-knowledge. Lev Vygotsky's work on language development and private speech supports such an "outside-in" perspective. Vygotsky believed we often rehearsed adult directives as children, thus helping to internalize self-perception.

Certainly some research about pain tolerance, "hunger", or identifying our feelings supports the "outside--in" perspective and demonstrates the pervasiveness of encoding even on self-perception. For example, if I make your ethnic identity or gender salient, you can better withstand pain than if I don't do so. (Yes, that's real.)

Note, however, that people do have private information which they may not publicly express (attitudes toward your boss, a chronic illness, unrequited love). In those cases, people do, indeed, have "private knowledge." Also recall that actors see the environment as the primary cause of their behavior while observers see the actors as the primary cause of their own behavior.

Feedback from others probably contributes to self-esteem, or the overall affective valence attached to the self as "good" or "bad." People who emerge from abusive families or who are in abusive marriages often suffer from problems with low self-esteem because these individuals received relatively consistent negative feedback about their self from significant others. Baumeister's work indicates that individuals with very  high self-esteem may not be more accomplished or efficacious--instead they may be more narcissistic (seen as "conceited") with a greater sense of entitlement, and perhaps more likely to be aggressive if they perceive social disapproval toward themselves. So there is general agreement that low self-esteem is damaging. However, there is some controversy about what "high self esteem" really means or what its questionnaires really measure.

On the other hand, self-efficacy is more cognitive than affective,  an internal assessment of one's abilities in relatively specific situations or domains ("I know I can do well in math."). Individuals may have relatively high self-efficacy but at the same time, a low assessment of their social power, i.e., they feel they can accomplish a task but believe that social factors may prevent them from doing so or from being rewarded. And, although people with high self-esteem may have generally higher levels of self-efficacy, recall that self-esteem is more generalized and self-efficacy is highly domain specific. Both are probably heavily influenced by feedback from others but also by social comparison of others. One of the most common errors I find among laypersons, including teachers and psychological therapists, is confusing self-esteem and self-efficacy. Enhancing someone's self-efficacy will probably do a better job of enhancing performance, and perhaps, ultimately their self-esteem, than will attempts to directly enhance their self-esteem.

We tend to think of brain structure as "hardware" and processes such as social perception as "software." But research in neuropsychology over the past several years indicates that  many of our common assumptions are wrong.

For example, judgement regions (largely in the frontal and prefrontal cortex) in the brain actually don't mature until the middle 20s. This means that teenagers can make plans and carry them out--but lack the inhibition or judgement to WAIT before carrying out plans. This combination can cause a lot of problems.

Experiences can literally change brain structure, so that even autopsies that find brain anomalies do not definitely indicate the brain influenced behavior rather than the other way around.


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Susan Carol Losh September 13 2017.