Impression formation and stereotypes

Impression Formation

What is an impression formation?

Impression formation in social psychology refers to the process by which individual pieces of information about another person are integrated to form a global impression of the individual (i.e. how one person perceives another person).

The process through which we develop our beliefs and evaluations of other people.


People spend an enormous amount of time thinking about other people. We form impres-sions of the people we meet, have described to us or encounter in the media. We communicate these impressions to others, and we use them as bases for deciding how we will feel and act. Impression formation and person perception are important aspects of social cognition


What first impressions are based on?

Impression accuracy varies depending on the observer and the target (person, object, scene, etc.) being observed. First impressions are based on a wide range of characteristics: age, race, culture, language, gender, physical appearance, accent, posture, voice, number of people present, and time allowed to process.

Asch’s Theory of Impressions

Solomon Eliot Asch (1907-1996) was a pioneer of social psychology. He is also the author of the classic impressions theory. According to his Holistic (or Gestalt) model, impression formation is a dynamic process which involves all the different sources of perceptual information that is available for us. Thus, our interpretation of one’s traits affect the way we perceive one’s other traits too.
However, not all of the traits have this ability to affect our perception of other traits. Asch divided human traits into central and peripheral traits.
a) Central traits are the traits which impact our interpretation of other traits. They create the so-called ‘Halo’ effect – when the positive (central only!) traits elicit other positive impressions (for example, we tend to perceive attractive people as ‘good’); same is true for negative (central) traits. Example of a central trait is being ‘cold’ or ‘warm’.

One of Asch’s classic experiments was designed as follows: participants were given two sets of traits (for two imaginary people). These sets were identical (included traits such as ‘determent’, ‘intelligent’ etc.), however set A had ‘cold’ listed as one of the traits, while set B  had ‘warm’ instead. Later, participants were asked to rate these individuals’ generosity, happiness, wisdom etc. What he found was that those who read a set B rated the person as wiser, happier, more generous etc. – in general, they had much more positive impression than those who had to rate a person A.

  1. b) Peripheral traits are the traits which do not have an impact on interpretation of other traits. An example could be ‘polite’ or ‘blunt’. Indeed, when a similar experiment to the one discussed above was conducted with these words in the set, there was not much difference between the groups when they were asked to rate individuals A and B.

Anderson’s Algebraic Model

According to Anderson’s model (1962, 1965), we form impressions in two stages.
1) During the first stage, we assign numeric values to each trait that we encounter in a person. These values can be either negative or positive. Thus, if we meet a person who appears to be attractive, intelligent and arrogant, in our mind we assign certain values to his/her traits: for example, +5 for attractiveness, +9 for intelligence and -8 for arrogance.
2) In the second stage, we decide on the person’s overall likability based on their combined ‘score’. So, for this person it would equal +5 + 9 – 8 = +6. However, as you might have noticed, some traits might be given more weight than others; therefore, we base our final impression not on the sum of the individual traits’ values, but rather on their weighed average. In this case, 6/3 = +2 – so, the overall impression is positive but not far from neutral (zero).

Brewer’s Dual Process Model

There has been a lot of criticism of the classical models of both Asch and Anderson. Firstly, the studies  seemed to be too artificial: in real life, we don’t really encounter a person in a form of a list of traits. Another problem is that these models fail to account for such intuitively important factors in impression formation as stereotyping, motivation of a perceiver to form an accurate impression and cognitive resources of information.
Brewer’s Dual Process Model does account for these factors. It looks as follows:

in which:
Identification is automatic assessment of basic features such as gender, age, race, perhaps occupation, etc. If a perceiver is not motivated to learn more about a person, the perception stops here. If, however, a person is relevant to a perceiver, the impression formation continues consciously.
Personalisation is evaluating a person as unique, such as their category membership is subordinate to their individual traits. It happens if a perceiver is motivated to form an accurate impression of a person, often if being involved on a personal level.
Categorisation is finding an appropriate category which would fit the person’s observable traits; these could be ‘feminist’, ‘student’, etc. Stereotyping falls under this process. In most of other theories categorisation is an unconscious process, however Brewer suggests it is controlled.
Individuation is seeing a person as a special kind or subtype of their category in case they do not fit any ‘default’ categories that we might have (‘She is one of those feminists who look feminine!’).

The left part of the model (categorisation and individuation) is guided by top-down processing, in which we simply apply categories which are already formed to special cases; its right part (personalisation) however is guided by bottom-up processing, which means we form new category/impression based on new pieces of information.


Impressions as self fullfiling

  • Our impressions of people influence our behavior toward them
  • May cause them to react in ways that confirm our original impressions

Self-fulfilling prophecy

This phenomena is a powerful and quite striking one in social psychology, at least to me it is. It shows how our wrong expectations or earlier formed impressions of a person can alter this person’s behaviour, making these expectations/impressions become true.
Sounds confusing? Then consider the following example. You are going to meet a person for the first time, after having heard from someone that he is a very disagreeable person. Going to the meeting with such expectation, it is likely that you will be behaving accordingly: being cold, ready for the person to contradict you any time; frowning perhaps. This person will sense such attitude and is very likely to react appropriately by adjusting their behaviour – in this case, starting being confrontational. In this case you will probably think something like ‘Aha! I was right, he is an unpleasant person indeed!’

Intuitively, it makes sense, but is there any real evidence?
Indeed, there is: an experiment conducted by Snyder, Tanke and Berscheid (1977). Two groups of male participants were given a picture of a woman they were about to have a phone conversation with. Group A got a picture of a very attractive woman, and group B – of a rather unattractive one. Then, independent listeners listened to phone conversations without knowing which men had which picture – and rated a woman’s behaviour. What was found was that when men believed a woman to be attractive, BOTH them and listeners believed she was warmer, more confident etc.

It happens due to the mentioned earlier Halo effect. Attractive people are believed to have better social skills; also, people want to be liked by attractive people and therefore treat them in a warmer and more attentive way – which in turns alters these people’s behaviour making them indeed more confident, animated, etc.


Two Types Of Effects

Recency and Primacy effects

Obviously, our impressions of others are based on the information that we know about them – in other words, on their traits. But is the timing of learning these traits also important, and is it the order in which we discover one’s traits makes any difference to our impression of a person?
There are two concepts associated with this problem.
1) Primacy effect states that the information that we learn first stays sway; in other words, the first impression is the strongest and is hard to change.
2) Recency effect states that the most recent information stays sway; that is, our impression about a person is guided by our most recent interaction with them, or the trait which we learnt most recently.

So which one is really at work?
Luchins (1957) conducted an experiment with 4 groups of participants in order to find out which effect is stronger. 1st group read about extraversion; 2nd – about introversion. These were the control groups. Group 3 read information about extraversion first, and then – about introversion; group 4 – vice versa: about introversion first, and only then – about extraversion. Then, they were asked to judge a target on introversion/extraversion.
Luchins found a strong primacy effect; those who read about extraversion first tended to perceive a target as more extraverted – and vice versa. Later research, however, suggested that recency effect is apparent if there is a delay between the first and the second sets of information.

Overall, primacy effect is much more common. It has been explained in two different ways:
a) Asch suggested that accommodating any new information about a person always means simply updating the first impression – which always stays there.



Definition: A stereotype is “…a fixed, over generalized belief about a particular group or class of people.” (Cardwell, 1996).

Stereotypes are beliefs about people based on their membership in a particular group. Stereotypes can be positive, negative, or neutral. Stereotypes based on gender, ethnicity, or occupation are common in many societies.

For example, a “hells angel” biker dresses in leather.

One advantage of a stereotype is that it enables us to respond rapidly to situations because we may have had a similar experience before.

One disadvantage is that it makes us ignore differences between individuals; therefore we think things about people that might not be true (i.e. make generalizations).

Predict behavior with minimal information , Limit access to social roles


The use of stereotypes is a major way in which we simplify our social world; since they reduce the amount of processing (i.e. thinking) we have to do when we meet a new person.

By stereotyping we infer that a person has a whole range of characteristics and abilities that we assume all members of that group have. Stereotypes lead to social categorization, which is one of the reasons for prejudice attitudes (i.e. “them” and “us” mentality) which leads to in-groups and out-groups.

Most stereotypes probably tend to convey a negative impression.  Positive examples would include judges (the phrase “sober as a judge” would suggest this is a stereotype with a very respectable set of characteristics), overweight people (who are often seen as “jolly”) and television news readers (usually seen as highly dependable, respectable and impartial).  Negative stereotypes seem far more common, however.


The Stability of Stereotypes

Stereotypes are not easily changed, for the following reasons:

  • When people encounter instances that disconfirm their stereotypes of a particular group, they tend to assume that those instances are atypical subtypes of the group.

Example: Ben stereotypes gay men as being unathletic. When he meets Al, an athletic gay man, he assumes that Al is not a typical representative of gay people.

  • People’s perceptions are influenced by their expectations.

Example: Liz has a stereotype of elderly people as mentally unstable. When she sees an elderly woman sitting on a park bench alone, talking out loud, she thinks that the woman is talking to herself because she is unstable. Liz fails to notice that the woman is actually talking on a cell phone.

  • People selectively recall instances that confirm their stereotypes and forget about disconfirming instances.

Example: Paul has a stereotype of Latin Americans as academically unmotivated. As evidence for his belief, he cites instances when some of his Latin American classmates failed to read required class material. He fails to recall all the times his Latin American classmates did complete their assignments.



Functions of stereotypes

Stereotypes have several important functions:

  • They allow people to quickly process new information about an event or person.
  • They organize people’s past experiences.
  • They help people to meaningfully assess differences between individuals and groups.
  • They help people to make predictions about other people’s behavior.



Racial Stereotypes

Researchers have found that stereotypes exist of different races, cultures or ethnic groups. Although the terms race, culture and ethnic groups have different meanings, we shall take them to mean roughly the same thing at the moment.

The most famous study of racial stereotyping was published by Katz and Braly in 1933 when they reported the results of a questionnaire completed by students at Princeton University in the USA.

They found that students held clear, negative stereotypes – few students expressed any difficulty in responding to the questionnaire.

Most students at that time would have been white Americans and the pictures of other ethnic groups included Jews as shrewd and mercenary, Japanese as shrewd and sly, Negroes as lazy and happy-go-lucky and Americans as industrious and intelligent.

Not surprisingly, racial stereotypes always seem to favor the race of the holder and belittle other races. It is probably true to say that every ethnic group has racial stereotypes of other groups.

Some psychologists argue that it is a “natural” aspect of human behavior, which can be seen to benefit each group because it helps in the long-run to identify with one’s own ethnic group and so find protection and promote the safety and success of the group. There is no evidence for this view, however, and many writers argue that it is merely a way of justifying racist attitudes and behaviors.

Katz and Braly (1933) – Racial Stereotyping

Aim: To investigate stereotypical attitudes of Americans towards different races.

MethodQuestionnaire method was used to investigate stereotypes. American university students were given a list of nationalities and ethic groups (e.g. Irish, Germans etc.), and a list of 84 personality traits. They were asked to pick out five or six traits which they thought were typical of each group.

Results: There was considerable agreement in the traits selected. White Americans, for example, were seen as industrious, progressive and ambitious. African Americans were seen as lazy, ignorant and musical. Participants were quite ready to rate ethnic groups with whom they had no personal contact.

Conclusion: Ethnic stereotypes are widespread, and shared by members of a particular social group.

Stereotypes of Gender Just about everyone holds stereotypes of women and men—some positive, some negative: Women are more empathic and talkative, men are more competent and aggressive (Kite, Deaux, & Haines, 2008; Matlin, 2012). But, as usual, the stereotypes exaggerate differences between the sexes, ignore differences in personality traits and abilities within each gender, and oversimplify (Fine, 2010). Are women really “more empathic” than men? Which women? Empathic toward whom? When women’s and men’s actual behavior is observed systematically under a variety of conditions, the sexes do not differ in having feelings of empathy or in its expression (Fine, 2010). Some supposed differences disappear on closer inspection. Consider the pop-psych stereotype that women are “more talkative” than men. To test this assumption, psychologists wired up a sample of men and women with voice recorders that tracked their conversations while they went about their daily lives. There was no significant difference in the number of words spoken: Both sexes used about 16,000 words per day on average, with large individual differences among the participants (Mehl, Vazire, Ramírez-Esparza, & Pennebacker, 2007).

Stereotype Threat

A “stereotype threat” arises when one is in a situation where one has the fear of doing something that would inadvertently confirm a negative stereotype. It is cued by the mere recognition that a negative group stereotype could apply to you in a given situation.

It is important to understand that the person may experience a threat even if he or she does not believe the stereotype. Simply, in the context, the person perceives that the stereotype is a plausible characterization of himself or herself by others (Steele & Aronson, 1995).

Steele and Aronson (1995) conducted an experiment involving African American and White college students who took a difficult test using items from an aptitude test (American GRE Verbal exam) under one of two conditions.

In the stereotype threat condition, students were told that their performance on the test would be a good indicator of their underlying intellectual abilities. In the non-threat condition, they were told that the test was simply a problem solving an exercise and was not diagnostic of ability.

The performance was compared to the two conditions and results showed that African American participants performed less well than their white counterparts in the stereotype threat condition, but in the non-threat condition their performance equaled that of their white counterparts.

In another study (Shih, Pittinsky, and Ambady, 1999) Asian women were subtly reminded (with a questionnaire) of either their Asian identity or their female identity prior to taking a difficult math test. Results showed that women reminded of their ‘Asianness’ performed better than the control group and women reminded of their female identity performed worse than the control group.

According to Steele, stereotype threat generates “spotlight anxiety” (Steele & Aronson, 1995, p. 809), which causes emotional distress and “vigilant worry” that may undermine performance. Students worry that their future may be compromised by society’s perception and treatment of their group so they do not focus their full attention on the test questions.

Students taking the test under stereotype threat might also become inefficient on the test by rereading the questions and the answer choices, as well as rechecking their answers, more than when not under stereotype threat. It also can induce “attributional ambiguity” —a person gets a low grade and asks, “Is it something about me or because of my race?”

Evolutionary Perspective

Evolutionary psychologists have speculated that humans evolved the tendency to stereotype because it gave their ancestors an adaptive advantage. Being able to decide quickly which group a person belonged to may have had survival value, since this enabled people to distinguish between friends and enemies




















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