How Person Perception Helps Us Form Impressions of Others

Crowd of people walking down busy shopping street
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In social psychology, the term "person perception" refers to the different mental processes that we use to form impressions of other people. This includes not just how we form these impressions, but the different conclusions we make about other people based on our impressions.

Consider how often you make this kind of judgment every day. When you meet with a new co-worker, you immediately begin to develop an initial impression of this person. When you visit the grocery store after work, you might draw conclusions about the cashier who checks you out, even though you know very little about them.

This allows us to make snap judgments and decisions, but it can also lead to biased or stereotyped perceptions of other people. Let's take a closer look at how person perception works and the impact it has on our day-to-day interactions with other people.

How We Form Impressions

Obviously, person perception is a very subjective process that can be affected by a number of variables. Factors that can influence the impressions you form of other people include the characteristics of the person you are observing, the context of the situation, your own personal traits, and your past experiences.

People often form impressions of others very quickly, with only minimal information. We frequently base our impressions on the roles and social norms we expect from people. For example, you might form an impression of a city bus driver based on how you would anticipate a person in that role to behave, considering individual personality characteristics only after you have formed this initial impression.

Physical cues can also play an important role. If you see a woman dressed in a professional-looking suit, you might immediately assume that she works in a formal setting, perhaps at a law firm or bank. The salience of the information we perceive is also important. Generally, we tend to focus on the most obvious points rather than noting background information.

The more novel or obvious a factor is, the more likely we are to focus on it. If you see a woman dressed in a tailored suit with her hair styled in a bright pink mohawk, you are likely to pay more attention to her unusual hairstyle than her sensible business attire.

Social Categorization

One of the mental shortcuts we use in person perception is social categorization. In this process, we mentally categorize people into different groups based on common characteristics. Sometimes this process occurs consciously, but for the most part, social categorizations happen automatically and unconsciously. Some of the most common social categories are age, gender, occupation, and race.

As with many mental shortcuts, social categorization has both positive and negative aspects. Social categorization allows you to make rapid judgments. Realistically, you simply do not have time to get to know every person you come into contact with. Using social categorization allows you to make decisions and establish expectations of how people will behave quickly, allowing you to focus on other things.

Problems with this technique include the fact that it can lead to errors, as well as to stereotyping or even prejudice. Imagine that you are getting on a bus. There are only two seats available. One is next to a petite, elderly woman; the other is next to a burly, grim-faced man. Based on your immediate impression, you sit next to the elderly woman, who unfortunately turns out to be quite skilled at picking pockets.

Because of social categorization, you immediately judged the woman as harmless and the man as threatening, leading to the loss of your wallet. While social categorization can be useful at times, it can also lead to these kinds of misjudgments.

Implicit Personality Theories

An implicit personality theory is a collection of beliefs and assumptions that we have about how certain traits are linked to other characteristics and behaviors. Once we know something about a cardinal trait, we assume that the person also exhibits other traits that are commonly linked to that key characteristic.

For example, if you observe that a new co-worker is very happy, you might immediately assume that they are also friendly, kind, and generous. As with social categorization, implicit personality theories help people make judgments quickly, but they can also contribute to stereotyping and errors.

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By Kendra Cherry, MSEd
Kendra Cherry, MS, is a psychosocial rehabilitation specialist, psychology educator, and author of the "Everything Psychology Book."