Person Perception: Definition & Theory

Instructor: Emily Cummins
How do we form impressions of other people? In this lesson, we'll talk about the mechanisms that underlie person perception, or how we form impressions and explain the behaviors and actions of other people.

How Do We Form Impressions?

When we meet someone, we generally decide pretty quickly whether or not we like them. We also make judgments about them and about why they might behave in certain ways. But why is this so? What explains how we can make quick decisions about someone? Social psychologists have wondered the same thing and have spent a lot of time trying to explain this! In this lesson, we'll go over a theory known as person perception that tries to explain how we process information about other people.

Person Perception

Person perception is all about the information we gather when we meet another person. This is part of social cognition, which basically explores how people think and act and how we process information from our social world. In a way, person perception is less about perception, per se, and more a kind of information processing that happens. How does this work, exactly? Let's talk about some of the important factors social psychologists have identified that explain this.

Bias and Person Perception

Bias, or a feeling of prejudice against something or someone, is important to understanding person perception. A bias is kind of like a belief we hold that will impact how we perceive someone. The social world is extremely complicated, and sometimes we don't know what to do with all of this information that we encounter every day. This is where bias might come in, and where social psychologists see bias as functioning to help us interpret information. Let's talk about a few different kinds of bias.

Attributions are important to understanding bias. Attributions are basically the way we try and explain and understand the behavior of others. Attributions can be internal, which assumes people's behaviors are explained by something like a personality trait. Attributions can also be external, meaning we explain behaviors via something external, like the social setting. Let's talk a little more about attribution and bias.

First, there's the fundamental attribution error, which means we give too much credit to an individual's traits and not enough credit to the context or the social situation. For example, let's say you're waiting in line to order a sandwich and a person cuts in front of you. You probably assume that this person is rude and has bad manners. But what if there's more to the story? What if it's a mom on her way to pick up a child from school before a soccer game and her child won't have a chance to eat before the game if she doesn't quickly grab him a sandwich? What if the person honestly didn't notice you, and it was a genuine mistake? These are examples of the fundamental attribution error. We don't pay enough attention to what might be going on in the social situation.

The actor-observer bias is somewhat like the fundamental attribution error. It's when we assume other people's behavior is based on personality traits or dispositions, and we assume our own behavior is all about the broader situation. Or, put another way, our behavior is based on external attributes but other people's is based on internal attributes.

Let's say you get home from a long day of class and work, and your roommate hasn't cleaned out the microwave. You're tired from the day and stressed about all the studying you have to do. Your life is a lot more stressful. Your roommate is playing video games, so, clearly, he's just lazy. He could have easily cleaned the microwave. But is he stressed and playing video games to calm down because he got a poor grade on an important exam? Maybe he isn't feeling well. The actor-observer bias would suggest you explained your situation too much by external factors and your roommate's too much with internal factors.

Person perception is also related to the context effect. This all about how the environment around us influences how we perceive others. Generally, this idea is applied to marketing. So, for example, how comfortable are you while you're browsing the aisles at a store? If you're more comfortable in the environment, you'll be more likely to buy something. When we're talking about person perception, it's a little bit different.

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