10.2 Social Perception and Behavior - Social Thinking

MCAT Behavioral Sciences Review - Kaplan Test Prep 2021–2022

10.2 Social Perception and Behavior
Social Thinking


After Chapter 10.2, you will be able to:

· Describe the primacy effect, recency effect, halo effect, fundamental attribution error, attribute substitution, just-world hypothesis, and self-serving bias

· Contrast dispositional and situational attributions, and what factors can make each one more likely

· Identify examples of attribution and attribution biases in real-world examples

Social perception is the name social psychologists give to how we form impressions about the characteristics of individuals and groups of people. We form impressions of others through observation of their behavior, past experiences, and personal beliefs and attitudes. We also feel the need to be able to explain and understand the behavior of others, a process we perform through attribution.


Social perception is highly linked to attitudes; social perception focuses on how we form attitudes about specific characteristics of individuals and groups. Attitudes are discussed in detail in Chapter 8 of MCAT Behavioral Sciences Review.


Social perception is also referred to as social cognition, and provides the tools to make judgments and impressions regarding other people. These judgments and impressions include assessments of social roles, relationships, characteristics such as trustworthiness or friendliness, and attributions, which are explanations for the causes of a person's actions.

Components of Social Perception

There are three primary components of social perception: the perceiver, the target, and the situation. The perceiver is influenced by experience, motives, and emotional state. Past experiences affect our attitudes toward current and future experiences and can lead to particular expectations of events. Our motives influence what information we deem important and what we choose to ignore. Finally, emotional state can flavor our interpretation of an event. The target refers to the person about which the perception is made. Knowledge of the target can include past experiences or specific information that affect perception. When little information is available, there is a need for greater observation and interpretation by the perceiver. Finally, the situation is also important in developing perception. A given social context can determine what information is available to the perceiver.

Impression Bias

One model of social perception focuses on our selection of cues to form interpretations of others that are consistent over time. When a perceiver comes into contact with an unfamiliar target, he or she takes in all cues from the target and environment, unfiltered. As the perceiver becomes more familiar with a given target, he or she uses these cues to categorize the target: friend vs. enemy, caring vs. standoffish, open-minded vs. bigoted, and so on. Additional time spent with the target in the situational context will lead the perceiver to confirm his or her categorization. After this point, the perception of additional cues becomes selective in order to paint a picture of the target that is consistent with the perceptions the perceiver has already made. This theory is consistent with the primacy effect, which is the idea that first impressions are often more important than subsequent impressions. Sometimes, however, it is actually the most recent information we have about an individual that is the most important in forming our impressions; this is called the recency effect.

Individuals tend to organize the perception of others based on traits and personal characteristics of the target that are most relevant to the perceiver. This idea is referred to as the reliance on central traits. People may also project their own beliefs, opinions, ideas, and actions onto others. The categories we place others in during impression formation is based on implicit personality theory. This theory states that there are sets of assumptions people make about how different types of people, their traits, and their behavior are related. Making assumptions about people based on the category in which they are placed is known as stereotyping, and will be discussed in detail in the next section.

Halo Effect

The halo effect is a cognitive bias in which judgments about a specific aspect of an individual can be affected by one’s overall impression of the individual. It is the tendency to allow a general impression about a person (I like Judy) to influence other, more specific evaluations about a person (Judy is a good mother, Judy is trustworthy, Judy can do no wrong). The halo effect explains why people are often inaccurate when evaluating people that they either believe to be generally good or those that they believe to be generally bad. An individual’s attractiveness has also been seen to produce the halo effect. As described earlier, attractiveness can be determined by a variety of traits, and the perception of these traits can impact the view of an individual’s personality. It has been shown that people who are perceived as attractive are also more likely to be perceived as trustworthy and friendly.

Just-World Hypothesis

Another cognitive bias during impression formation is the just-world hypothesis. In a so-called just world, good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people; noble actions are rewarded and evil actions are punished. Consequences may be attributed to a universal restoring force; in Hinduism, this force is referred to as karma. A strong belief in a just world increases the likelihood of “blaming the victim” or stating that a victim is getting what he or she deserves because such a worldview denies the possibility of innocent victims.

Self-Serving Bias

Self-identity and perception can be skewed through self-serving bias, also known as self-serving attributional bias, which refers to the fact that individuals credit their own successes to internal factors and blame their failures on external factors. The tendency to attribute good outcomes to our good traits or behaviors and to attribute bad outcomes to situational factors is used to protect our self-esteem. For example, a student who earns a good grade on a test may attribute her success to her intelligence or to how intensely she studied. However, if she received a bad grade, she might attribute this outcome to poor teaching by the professor, unfair questions, or too long a test for the allotted time. These types of attributions have been found to occur in many settings including the workplace, school, interpersonal relationships, and athletics. Self-serving bias is influenced by motivational processes, like self-enhancement and self-verification. Self-enhancement focuses on the need to maintain self-worth, which can be accomplished in part by the self-serving bias. Self-verification suggests people will seek the companionship of others who see them as they see themselves, thereby validating a person's self-serving bias. Self-serving bias is also influenced by cognitive processes. For example, emotion is a factor in self-serving bias because emotion can impact self-esteem, which influences the need to protect one’s self-identity. Individuals with higher self-esteem are more likely to protect this image and thus more likely to exhibit self-serving bias. Relationships to others also determine the likelihood of the bias: Individuals who have close relationships are less likely to attribute failures to one another, and instead will make joint attributions. On the other hand, strangers are much more likely to self-serve by placing blame for a failure on each other.

In-group vs. Out-group Bias

As discussed in Chapter 9, Social Interaction, humans naturally come together to form groups, which results in the subjective categorization of in-group and out-group. In-group refers to other members of one's social group, while out-group refers to those who are not in the group. Given the propensity for humans to form groups, it's understandable that how an individual perceives members within their group (in-group) versus people outside their group (out-group) is heavily biased. Specifically, in-group bias refers to the inclination to view members in one's group more favorably, while out-group bias refers to the inclination to view individuals outside one's group harshly.

Real World

People with depression often have a reversed attributional bias, viewing their successes as caused by external factors (I got lucky this time) and failures as caused by internal factors (It was all my fault).


Another aspect of social cognition is explaining the behavior of others. It is human nature to observe and try to understand why others act the way they do. Attribution theory describes how individuals infer the causes of other people’s behavior.

Dispositional and Situational Causes

Fritz Heider, one of the founding fathers of attribution theory, divided the causes for attribution into two main categories: dispositional (internal) and situational (external). Dispositional (internal) attributions are those that relate to the person whose behavior is being considered, including his or her beliefs, attitudes, and personality characteristics. Situational (external) attributions are those that relate to features of the surroundings, such as threats, money, social norms, and peer pressure. For instance, suppose you hear that a friend has been nominated for an academic award. Believing that the friend has been nominated because of hard work and personal effort would be a dispositional attribution. Contrarily, chalking up the nomination to luck would be a situational attribution. Situational attributions, therefore, consider the characteristics of the social context rather than the characteristics of the individual as the primary cause.


In order to understand the behavior of others, a variety of cues are used. These include consistency cues, consensus cues, and distinctiveness cues. Consistency cues refer to the behavior of a person over time. The more regular the behavior, the more we associate that behavior with the motives of the person. Consensus cues relate to the extent to which a person’s behavior differs from others. If a person deviates from socially expected behavior, we are likely to form a dispositional attribution about the person’s behavior. Distinctiveness cues refer to the extent to which a person engages in similar behavior across a series of scenarios. If a person’s behavior varies in different scenarios, we are more likely to form a situational attribution to explain it.

Key Concept

· Consistency cues—has consistent behavior over time

· Consensus cues—matches others’ behavior

· Distinctiveness cues—uses similar behavior in similar situations

The correspondent inference theory takes this concept one step further by focusing on the intentionality of others’ behavior. When an individual unexpectedly performs a behavior that helps or hurts us, we tend to explain the behavior by dispositional attribution. Thus, we may correlate these unexpected actions with the person’s personality.

Fundamental Attribution Error

The fundamental attribution error posits that we are generally biased toward making dispositional attributions rather than situational attributions when judging the actions of others. For example, suppose that on a team project, another team member was unable to complete his assignment. According to the fundamental attribution error, our immediate response might be to assume that this team member is lazy or unreliable—both of which are dispositional attributions. We may ignore the possibility that the team member got ill, had too many concurrent assignments, or suffered a personal tragedy—all of which are situational attributions. The fundamental attribution error can present itself in positive contexts as well. Imagine if you observed someone getting out of their car to help an elderly gentlemen across the road. According to the fundamental attribution error, you would likely make a dispositional attribution like, "What a kind stranger!" rather than a situational attribution like, "Oh, maybe that's their grandfather." Notice that in these examples, the dispositional attributions often provide simpler explanations than the situational attributions. This difference in complexity is actually the source of the fundamental attribution error: Assuming that a person's behaviors accurately portray who they are as a person is easier than speculating about what circumstances might have caused the observed behavior.


Actor-observer asymmetry (or bias) results from the self-serving bias (by the actor) and the fundamental attribution error (by the observer). Actor-observer bias holds that, due to our unique knowledge about our own actions, we are more likely to make situational attributions for the self as compared to others. If you, rather than another person, failed to complete an assignment, for example, you would be far more likely to consider the situational factors involved in your behavior because you are intimately aware of them. This effect is most commonly seen with negative behaviors.

Attribute Substitution

Attribute substitution occurs when individuals must make judgments that are complex, but instead they substitute a simpler solution or apply a heuristic. When making automatic or intuitive judgments on difficult questions or scenarios, an individual may address a different question or scenario without even realizing a substitution has been made. In one study, individuals were asked to envision a sphere that could just fit inside a cube. They were then asked what percentage of the volume of the cube would be taken up by the sphere. This is challenging to envision, so most individuals likely simplified the problem in their minds to imagine a circle inside a square. The answers given in this study averaged around 74 percent, which is approximately the area of a square taken up by a circumscribed circle (79%), but significantly higher than the volume of a cube taken up by a circumscribed sphere (52%).

Attribute substitution can take place in far simpler setups as well. A classic example used in many psychology classes is the following question: A pencil and an eraser cost $1.10 together. If the pencil costs one dollar more than the eraser, how much does the eraser cost? Most individuals respond instinctively with the answer ten cents. It is easy to recognize that the pencil costs more, and to integrate the information given in the question stem ($1.10 and one dollar) incorrectly.

This process is also common when dealing with size and color in optical illusions. For instance, when judging the size of figures in an image with perspective, the apparent sizes shown in the image can be distorted by three-dimensional context, as shown in Figure 10.6. The expected three-dimensional size of the figure, based on perspective cues, substitutes for the actual two-dimensional size of the birds within the image. It is interesting to note that painters and photographers with experience in two-dimensional images are less likely to substitute due to the fact that two-dimensional size is more understandable to their perception.

ImageFigure 10.6. Attribute Substitution for Size in Optical IllusionsThe birds are of identical size, but three-dimensional cues affect our interpretation of the image.

Shadows, patterns, the position of the sun, and other visual cues can also cause attribute substitution for color, as shown in Figure 10.7.

ImageFigure 10.7. Attribute Substitution for Color in Optical IllusionsThe central boxes labeled A and B are of identical color, but shadow cues affect our interpretation of the image.

Cultural Attribution

Another important factor in attribution is culture. The type of culture an individual belongs to plays a major role in the types of attributions the individual makes. Individualist cultures, including Anglo-American and Anglo-Saxon European cultures, put high value on the individual, personal goals, and independence. Collectivist cultures, including many Asian and African societies, view individuals as members of a group and place high value on conformity and interdependence. Individualists tend to make more fundamental attribution errors than those in collectivist cultures. Individualists are also more likely to attribute behavior to dispositional factors, whereas collectivists are more likely to attribute behavior to situational factors.

MCAT Concept Check 10.2:

Before you move on, assess your understanding of the material with these questions.

1. For each of the social cognitive biases below, provide a brief description:

o Primacy effect:

o Recency effect:

o Halo effect:

o Just-world hypothesis:

o Self-serving bias:

2. What is attribution theory? What are the two types of attribution?



3. What is the fundamental attribution error?

4. What is attribute substitution?