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1/06/2010

Those people are like this, these people are like that ... our tendency to "ascribe" traits to others

It's a real common tendency,  describing certain people as being a certain way.  We all do it.  We all "ascribe traits" to others.

Sometimes it's a matter of convenience.  Sometimes it's a matter of necessity.  As we navigate the social world,  it's often necessary to make judgments and decisions based on our assumptions about the people around us.

You can imagine situations in which you might need others to provide help.  In those situations, it helps to assume that people will be helpful.  It happens all the time while you're driving.  You assume that when you need to make a merge or a lane change,  people will accommodate your needs when you turn on your turn signal.  If you are struggling with your luggage in an airport,  you want to assume that someone will be willing to help,  before you look around and express your immediate neediness.

In an article that appeared some years ago in the Journal of Research in Personality,  Professor David Funder noted that "most people have pretty definite ideas about where they and the people they know fall on a variety of trait dimensions like friendly-unfriendly,  cautious-bold,  and so on."

But in making judgments like this,  we are also prone to making errors when we assume that people have certain characteristics or tendencies,  or when we fail to take into account the particular situation in which they find themselves.

What Dr. Funder found is that  the "tendency to ascribe traits" to others is in itself a measurable psychological trait.  In other words,  some people tend to do it more than others.

When you are judging someone else (trying to say how they are,  what they are like,  or how they might act)  you can make a judgment based on what you think "those people" are like.  Instead,  you can also think to yourself:   "it depends on the situation."

If you say "it depends on the situation,"  your judgment is said to be state-related ("it's the state they're in").  If you say "that's just how that person is,"  your judgment is said to be trait-dependent ("they're always like that").

Whether you are more or less likely to make either state or trait based judgments is itself a trait that is  related to your to your personality characteristics.

In general,  people are more likely to say "it depends on the situation"  when they are making judgments about people they know well.  If someone is just an acquaintance,  rather than a close friend,  you are more likely to say that their behavior is the result of their traits.  In other words,  the better you know someone,  the more flexible and forgiving you are when you assess their behavior.

The really interesting finding is that those who are less flexible in their judgments of others also tend to be less well-adjusted themselves.  Those who tend to say that others do things because of their personality traits tend to have less adaptive personalities themselves.  Those who judge others in a rigid way are found to have less charm and appreciation of humor,  to be less considerate and sympathetic of others,  to be more sensitive to criticism,  to be fussier about small things,  and to be less warm,  cheerful and interesting as a person.  Those who tend to ascribe more traits to others also tend to be more anxious,  less confident and less capable of dealing with stress than others.

Yes,  it is important in life to make judgments about the personality traits of others.  Sometimes it helps us understand people and situations.  But,  it is often more important to understand that everyone is an individual and that anyone might react differently in different situations. 

Keep in mind that we tend to be less flexible in how we judge people we don't know.  Which tends to suggest that when we say "those people are like this,"  we are more likely to be making an error in judgment.  Keep in mind also that those who are harsh in their judgments are less likely to "have room to talk." 




Copyright, Paul G. Mattiuzzi, Ph.D.