Unconscious Trait Inferences

Friday I attended social psychologist James Uleman‘s talk at the CUNY Cogsci Speaker Series. His topic was unconscious trait inferences. A trait inference is exemplified by the following. Subjects are presented with a sentence, for instance, “she solved the mystery half-way through” which reliably produces subjects to infer a trait. In this case the trait is something like clever or smart. Combining his interest in trait inference with a generally accepted paradigm in social psych that contrasts traits with actions as being more abstract Uleman designed an experiment to test whether or not people make unconscious trait inferences. His experimental setup is as follows. He presents subjects with a picture of someone engaged in an activity (say reading a book) and underneath has a sentence like the one previously mentioned, though in some of the trials he includes the trait explicitly (i.e. “she was so clever she solved the mystery halfway through”). He lets subjects look at the picture and the sentence for up to 8 seconds. Then they are presented with the picture and asked whether or not the trait was explicitly mentioned in the sentence which described that picture. So, to take our earlier example, if a subject is presented with a picture of a women reading a book described by the sentence “she solved the mystery halfway through” and then later presented only with the picture and asked if the trait term appeared explicitly or not. The interesting thing is that he is able to show that people falsely remember the trait being explicitly stated in sentences where it did not explicitly appear. This is taken as evidence that the inference to the trait is made unconsciously.

Even more interestingly, Uleman was able to show that if one simply varies the geographical distance one is able to show that people make less trait inferences about people who are near to them than they do about people who are distant from them. To show this he presented subjects with the same pictures of the same women reading the same book. The only difference is that before the picture was presented subjects either saw a picture of Washington Square Park (these are NYU students so this is the near condition) or a picture of something in Florence Italy (with ‘Florence’ explicitly stated in the picture. Subjects in the distant condition made a statistically significant higher number of false recognitions (i.e. they said that the trait term explicitly occurred in the description when it actually did not more times) than did those in the near condition. What this is taken to show is that people make more unconscious trait inferences about more distant people than they do about near people.

But why? The explanation offered went as follows. When a person is distant it is not a good strategy to focus on what they are doing at the moment as that can change. Rather what one wants to do is to focus on central, relatively stable attributes of the person. On the other hand when a person is near it is important to focus on what they are currently doing rather than on abstract stable traits. This is a curious finding (many people resisted it) but it makes sense to me. These inferences are ‘unconscious’ because subjects are not instructed to make them. They are not given a rating task (i.e. rate the following pictures on how clever they are) which requires them explicitly to make the inference.

Perhaps even more interestingly Uleman was able to show that the notion of distance in play is not simply geographical. You get the same results when the distance is social (i.e. class related) or even in terms of power. People who are asked to remember a time when they had power over someone else (defined as ability to give or deny something to someone) make more unconscious trait inferences than people who were asked to remember a time when someone else had power over them. The idea here is that when one feels powerful one feels “above it all” and when one is powerless one has the issues “hanging over them”.

In the second half of the talk Uleman presented data on the issue of whether or not people treat traits as causes or descriptions. That is, do people treat, say cleverness, as a cause of the women solving the mystery halfway through. I did not really follow this half of the talk, but I did pick up on one interesting tidbit. He seemed to be suggesting that people who are asked to make these kinds of trait inferences explicitly are more likely to stereotype and scapegoat an out group than those that make these kinds of inferences unconsciously…this is interesting, though I am not sure what to make of it…in fact I may be misremembering it….

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