I am greedy
  If you can't say anything nice...sit with us
Posted 19 Mar 1998
A SSUME YOU KNOW NOTHING about me. If I told you Michael Jordan does 360-degree slam dunks, you'd be more likely to think me athletic. If I told you Ted Bundy had murdered dozens of people, you'd likely consider me dangerous.

I am scaryHow could my opinions about a famous b-ball player or a sociopath tell you anything about my jump shot or murderous habits?

We'll get to the explanation shortly. But these are the implications of a study just published by John Skowronski, associate professor of psychology at Ohio State University, and his colleagues.

According to these folks, this business of associating speakers with words gets even stranger. If you saw my picture alongside a statement made by somebody else, you'd still be more likely to attribute traits implied by the statement to me. You would do this even if you knew I was not associated with the statement.

Talkin' dirt
So if my picture was paired with, "Bill Gates operates a monopoly," you'd be more likely to consider me greedy.

Oddly, you would not consider me vicious for uttering such an obvious untruth. Instead, you would transfer the specific trait in the statement -- avarice -- to me.

Such "spontaneous trait inference," as Skowronski and his colleagues call it, might give pause to prosecutors and reporters alike, since people who describe negative behaviors in others seem to take on traits implied by those behaviors themselves. But those who often say good things about others may be happy to learn that positive statements are even more likely to cause inferences.

As the authors note, the phenomenon could cause a boomerang effect. "Politicians who allege corruption by their opponents may themselves be perceived as dishonest, critics who praise artists may themselves be perceived as talented, and gossips who describe others' infidelities may themselves be viewed as immoral."

Up from the ashes
That's a lot of mileage from a research project that grew from a glitch. Skowronski, Donal Carlston and their colleagues were studying how observers infer facts about others from what those people say about themselves. (To infer means to derive facts by reasoning or to judge by evidence). So they set up an experiment in which some participants observed people talking about themselves, and other participants -- a control group -- observed people talking about acquaintances.

Strangely enough, both groups evoked spontaneous trait transference. This means that subjects who saw a picture of a person we'll call "Tom" saying either "I am shy" or "Jenny is shy" both thought Tom was shy. In the jargon, they "inferred" that trait to Tom (granted, the effect was stronger in the group that talked about themselves).

In plain English, this means those who talked about somebody else weren't much of a control group. But it was an intriguing finding.

In a recent test of trait transference, the research subjects were asked to remember photos of people who'd been randomly paired with trait-implying statements about behavior. The subjects were told that no relation existed between the pictures and statements. In the authors' words, "This was accomplished with a strategy rarely used in laboratory research; namely, participants were told the truth."

And yet some of the traits implied by the statements rubbed off anyway. This weird result begs for a mechanism. In plain English:

How come?
Michael Jordan can slamIt's not news that people learn about others based on what they say. If I say, "Michael Jordan makes 10 slam dunks a game," you might infer that I like basketball, or am a complimentary person. Those inferences are both wrong, but at least they're logical.

But that is not what the research team saw. Instead, the subjects would have inferred that I was athletic.

Skowronski suspects the phenomenon is explained by a three-step associative process. People first "activate" the trait -- they think of "athleticism" from the statement about Michael Jordan. Then they associate the trait with the person whose picture is before them -- whether that association is logical or not. Finally, when they see the picture, they use the association to make a plausible guess at a trait.

In other words, Skowronski says, people "develop a passive association between the photo and the trait and use that association when making judgments later on."

These hidden associations are common, says Glenn Reeder, a social psychologist at Illinois State University at Normal. Reeder has studied the hostile reaction that greeted the efforts of Ryan White, a boy who later died of AIDS, to attend public school. AIDS was most common among gay men, Reeder notes, and "Since people had such negative reactions to gay men, anything they associated with gay men they would feel negative about." Indeed, he found that those most opposed to White's return to school were also the ones who were most upset by homosexuality.

Ignorance: not bliss
Although 75 percent to 80 percent of the subjects made misplaced inferences, Skowronski warns against over-generalizing from the results, since "What we do in the lab is tightly controlled." For one thing, the subjects had no information about the person in the picture, so the work only directly applies to relations between strangers.

Furthermore, Carlston, an associate professor of psychology at Purdue University, says the effect is relatively weak. "It's not as if somebody who's ordinarily viewed as honest is viewed as dishonest. It's more that they're viewed as a little less so."

The next step, Carlston adds, is to "tinker with things that might eliminate" the phenomenon. To date, they've not been able to do this.

So until somebody figures out how to derail this common process, our best advice might be to heed the old saw, "If you can't say anything nice, don't say anything at all."

Remember: People are watching.

-- Dave Tenenbaum.

Spontaneous. Trait Transference: Communicators Take on the Qualities They Describe in Others, John Skowronski et al, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 188, #4.

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