An implicit personality theory is a theory that people form about the traits, characteristics, behaviors, and personalities of other people. When you meet someone new, you form an impression of them, but this first impression is based on very limited information. The impressions that you form are influenced by a variety of factors including due assumptions, biases, and patterns that inform our assessments of others.
In this article, learn more about how implicit personality theory works and the different factors that influence how people form impressions of others.
What Is Implicit Personality Theory?
Definition: Implicit personality theory suggests that people have specific ideas about certain characteristics that occur together at the same time. For example, you might associate a trait like politeness with similar characteristics such as kindness and friendliness.
Because these ideas about other people are implicit, they occur automatically and without conscious awareness. When people observe another person’s behavior, they make implicit inferences about those behaviors and what they indicate about a person’s personality and character. This generally happens without direct awareness that these associations have been made.
Two of the main components of implicit personality theory are:
- How biases affect the judgments that people make about others
- How individual differences affect impression formation and person perception
History of Implicit Personality Theory
During the 1950s, psychologist Lee Chronbach introduced the concept of “the generalized other,” referring to a person’s beliefs about the characteristics and attributes that other people typically possess.
Researchers Bruner and Tagiuri suggested that people tend to form connections and associations between certain attributes. When someone seems to exhibit one attribute, they may then assume that the person also possesses the other attributes that they believe are connected to the observed characteristics. Bruner and Tagiuri suggested that implicit personality referred to the knowledge that a person has about another person and how they use that information to infer other things about the individual.
Psychologist Solomon Asch was also interested in the factors that influenced how people form impressions of others. Asch noted that some traits have a bigger impact on the impressions that people form. He referred to these as central traits. Other traits tend to have less of an impact on the overall impression that a person forms. He referred to these as peripheral traits.
Also read: Famous Psychology Experiments
Implicit Personality Theories
There are two primary approaches to the understanding of implicit personality theory.
This approach suggests that the implicit personality theories we form about other people are primarily informed by what we already know about other people. It is based on the premise that people will exhibit consistency in their personality characteristics.
So if you observe that a person has a positive trait, your impression of them may be positive overall. You will assume that their characteristics will be consistent and they will possess other positive traits linked to that primary trait that you already observed.
This approach suggests that people tend to believe that traits remain stable over time. So, once you have formed an overall impression of a person, attribution theory suggests that you will assume that they will remain the same across different times and situations.
Factors That Influence Implicit Personality Theory
There are a number of factors that influence the impressions that people form of others, including biases and prejudices.
Central vs. Peripheral Traits
Some traits tend to affect how people perceive a person’s personality more than other traits, do. Central traits are those that play a strong role in shaping our perceptions of others. Peripheral traits can still have an impact, but it tends to be weaker than the effect exerted by those central characteristics.
Characteristics of the individual can also play a role in how they see other people. For example, people who have certain traits may be more likely to see other people as also having those same characteristics. If you are an introvert, for example, you might be more likely to perceive other people as also being introverted.
Mood can play a powerful role in affecting the judgments people make and the impression that they form. Research has found that when people are in a good mood, they tend to base their assessments more on their first overall impression. They are also more likely to form a positive impression of others if they are in a positive mood.
People who are in negative moods, on the other hand, are more likely to be swayed by the things they learn later on about a person. The more they get to know someone on an individual level, the more likely their impression of them is to change. Being in a negative mood is also linked to forming a more negative overall impression of others.
The primacy effect is a phenomenon in which people give greater weight to information they learn first. As the saying goes, you only have one chance to make a first impression, and the primacy effect means that people’s first impressions matter more than what they may learn later on.
When faced with limited information to use when forming an impression, people will often fill in the gaps in their knowledge by using information about themselves. The more you perceive a certain trait in yourself and the more important you think that trait is, the more likely you are to perceive it in other people.
This phenomenon may be related to the ingroup bias, in which people perceive people who are in their social group as being more similar to them than to others outside of the group.
Effects of Implicit Personality Theory
The implicit theories we form about other people can have a variety of effects. In some ways, forming these impressions of others can often be a way to quickly make sense of others in our environment. It allows us to make judgments quickly without expending a great deal of energy.
However, it can also lead to inaccurate impressions and poor judgments. First impressions are often skewed or may be inaccurate. And because these personality theories are implicit and automatic, they can sometimes be quite difficult to change.
The halo effect is an example of how implicit personality theories can result in biases. The halo effect happens when people conclude that just because a person possesses one positive trait, the rest of their characteristics are also positive.
This is also called the “what is beautiful is also good” bias because physical appearance is one of the characteristics that can bias a person’s impressions. Good-looking people, for example, are often viewed as also being more intelligent, kind, and hard-working.
This article covered how people use implicit personality theory to form automatic impressions of other people. These perceptions are often guided by very little information, so people often rely on certain factors when making judgments. First impressions, personal characteristics, and even mood can also play a part in how you judge others. Being aware of these influences, however, may help you become more aware of the automatic perceptions you form when you meet people in your daily life.
Baumeister RF, Vohs KD. Implicit personality theory. In Encyclopedia of social psychology (Vol. 1, pp. 467-467). SAGE Publications, Inc.; 2007. doi:10.4135/9781412956253.n276
Beer A, Watson D. Personality judgment at zero acquaintance: agreement, assumed similarity, and implicit simplicity. J Pers Assess. 2008;90(3):250-60. doi:10.1080/00223890701884970
Forgas JP. Can negative affect eliminate the power of first impressions? Affective influences on primacy and recency effects in impression formation. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. 2011;47(2):425-429. doi:10.1016/j.jesp.2010.11.005
Weller J, Watson D. Friend or foe? Differential use of the self-based heuristic as a function of relationship satisfaction. J Pers. 2009 Jun;77(3):731-60. doi:10.1111/j.1467-6494.2009.00563.x