You are here

Making Inferences about Personality

15 February, 2016 - 10:55

It is easier to make personal attributions in some cases than in others. When a behavior is unusual or unexpected in the particular situation it occurs in, we can more easily make a personal attribution for it. Imagine that you go to a party and you are introduced to Tess. Tess shakes your hand and says, “Nice to meet you!” Can you readily conclude, on the basis of this behavior, that Tess is a friendly person? Probably not. Because the social context demands that people act in a friendly way (by shaking your hand and saying “Nice to meet you”), it is difficult to know whether Tess acted friendly because of the situation or because she is really friendly. Imagine, however, that instead of shaking your hand, Tess ignores you and walks away. In such cases, it is easier in this case to infer that Tess is unfriendly because her behavior is so contrary to what one would expect.

To test this idea, Edward Jones and his colleagues (Jones, Davis, & Gergen, 1961) conducted a classic experiment in which participants viewed one of four different videotapes of a man who was applying for a job. For half the participants, the video indicated that the man was interviewing for a job as a submariner, a position that required close contact with many people over a long period of time. It was clear to the man being interviewed, as well as to the research participants, that to be a good submariner you should be extroverted (i.e., you should enjoy being around others). The other half of the participants saw a video in which the man was interviewing for a job as an astronaut, which involved (remember, this study was conducted in 1961) being in a small capsule, alone, for days on end. In this case, it was clear to everyone that in order to be good astronaut, you should have an introverted personality.

During the videotape of the interview, a second variable was also manipulated. One half of the participants saw the man indicate that he was actually an introvert (he said things such as “I like to work on my own,” “I don’t go out much”), and the other half saw the man say that he was actually an extrovert (he said things such as “I would like to be a salesman,” “I always get ideas from others”). After viewing one of the four videotapes, participants were asked to indicate how introverted or extroverted they thought the applicant really was.

As you can see in Table 5.2, when the applicant gave responses that better matched what was required by the job (i.e., for the submariner job, the applicant said he was an extrovert, and for the astronaut job, he said he was an introvert), the participants did not think his statements were as indicative of his underlying personality as they did when the applicant said the opposite of what was expected by the job (i.e., when the job required that he be extroverted but he said he was introverted, or vice versa).

Table 5.2 Attributions to Expected and Unexpected Behaviors

The Job Applied For









We are more likely to draw personal attributions when a behavior is unexpected. The numbers represent the percentage of extraverted responses that participants believed the job applicant would actually endorse if he were telling the complete truth. Participants were more likely to believe that the applicant was more extraverted (91%) and more introverted (45%) when he said that he did not have the personality traits required by the job than when he said that he did have the personality traits required by the job. Data are from Jones, Davis, and Gergen (1961). Jones, E. E., Davis, K. E., & Gergen, K. J. (1961). Role playing variations and their informational value for person perception. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 63(2), 302–310.


The idea here is that the statements that were unusual or unexpected (on the basis of the job requirements) just seemed like they could not possibly have been caused by the situation, so the participants really thought that the interviewee was telling the truth. On the other hand, when the interviewee made statements that were consistent with what was required by the situation, it was more difficult to be sure that he was telling the truth (perhaps, thinking back to the discussion of strategic self-presentation in The Self, he was just saying these things because he wanted to get the job), and the participants made weaker personal attributions for his behavior.

We can also make personal attributions more easily when we know that the person had a choice in the behavior. If a man chooses to be friendly, even in situations in which he might not be, this probably means that he is friendly. But if we can determine that he’s been forced to be friendly, it’s more difficult to know. If, for example, you saw a man pointing a gun at another person, and then you saw that person give his watch and wallet to the gunman, you would probably not infer that the person was generous!

Jones and Harris (1967) had student participants in a study read essays that had been written by other students. Half of the participants thought the students had chosen the essay topics, whereas the other half thought the students had been assigned the topics by their professor. The participants were more likely to make a personal attribution that the students really believed in the essay they were writing when they had chosen the topics rather than been assigned topics.

Sometimes a person may try to lead others to make personal attributions for their behavior to make themselves seem more believable. For example, when a politician makes statements supporting a cause in front of an audience that does not agree with her position, she will be seen as more committed to her beliefs and may be more persuasive than if she gave the same argument in front of an audience known to support her views. Again, the idea is based on principles of attribution: if there is an obvious situational reason for making a statement (the audience supports the politician’s views), then the personal attribution (that the politician really believes what she is saying) is harder to make.