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Person perception has been variously assigned such labels as social perception, interpersonal perception, social inference, person cognition, and ordinary personology (Bruner and Tagiuri 1954; Gilbert 1998). Person perception refers to how people perceive and make inferences about other people. Perception differs from sensation in that sensation is the feeling that results from sensory receptors, whereas perception is the interpretation of what is sensed. Person perception also differs from object perception or nonsocial perception because human beings are not invariant and inanimate objects. As targets of our perception, people are dynamic entities endowed with emotions, motives, and complexity (Heider 1958).
Person perception is influenced by the characteristics of (1) the perceiver, (2) the situation, and (3) the target person (Jones 1990). Research on perceiver characteristics shows that perceivers are not objective observers of their social world but are active agents whose cognitive and motivational biases color their interpretations of others. Knowledge structures, such as schemas, scripts, or stereotypes, assist perceivers in processing information efficiently. Overreliance on these cognitive structures, however, may create bias and lead to errors in person perception. With knowledge structures providing convenient summary expectations and beliefs about others, perceivers may reach hasty and incorrect judgments, or they may ignore information that disconfirms their expectations (Snyder and Swann 1978). Perceivers do not search thoroughly for information to form impressions of others (Gilbert 1998). Moreover, expectations about a target person can lead perceivers to engender behaviors from the target that confirm perceivers’ initial expectation (i.e., selffulfilling prophecy) (Rosenthal and Jacobson 1968). In addition, a perceiver may be motivated to form judgments of others that protect the perceiver’s sense of self-worth (Klein and Kunda 1993).
Characteristics of the situation are often overlooked by perceivers when they form judgments of target persons. Perceivers have a tendency to underestimate the importance of situational influence and to overestimate the importance of dispositional factors when they interpret the actions of other people. This tendency is called the fundamental attribution error or correspondence bias (Ross 1977; Gilbert 1998). Perceivers also tend to see that their own failure is caused by external circumstances, while their own success is internally caused. But they are less likely to show this bias when interpreting the success or failure of others, a phenomenon known as the self-serving bias. Person perception research has also focused on the dynamic interpersonal perception between a perceiver and a target person (Kenny 1994) and the cultural influences on these interpersonal processes (Markus and Kitayama 1991).
Certain target-person traits (e.g., the central traits of warm and cold) have more impact than other traits (e.g., the peripheral traits of polite and blunt) on perceivers’ impressions of others (Asch 1946). Negative information also tends to be more heavily weighted in person perception because of information diagnosticity (Skowronski and Carlston 1989). Research has shown that perceivers have implicit personality theories about others, such that an interferential relationship is assumed by perceivers to exist, regarding which target traits seem to co-occur to form a coherent whole (Schneider 1973).
Inferences in impression formation occur not only intentionally but also unintentionally (Anderson and Glassman 1996; Bargh 1997; Uleman 1999). Person perception includes nonverbal communication as well as cognitive inference processes (attribution or social cognition). Representative nonverbal cues are facial expression, voice tone, gaze, interpersonal spacing, touch, and gesture (DePaulo and Freidman 1998). Current work on person perception is also aimed at exploring the implicit associations perceivers have between traits and stereotyped groups.
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