Implicit Personality Theory

Key Takeaways

  • Implicit personality theories describe how individuals think of individual traits as relating to and occurring with each other. For example, someone may associate sternness with coldness or humor with intelligence.
  • There are two main branches in implicit personality theory research: the first is concerned with the role that bias plays in how people perceive others on the macro level, and the second is with individual differences in how people perceive others.
  • Psychologists have debated methods for measuring implicit personality theories and have devised various ways of finding similarities between the implicit personality theories of large groups of individuals.
  • Psychologists have structured implicit personality theories around concepts such as centrality, additivity, and complexity.
  • Some psychologists have argued that implicit personality theories have a linguistic basis.
  • Implicit personality theories play an important role in making judgments concerning how much we trust others in social relationships as well as in our stereotyping of broad groups.

Implicit personality theories refer to individuals’ notions about what personality characteristics tend to co-occur in people. For instance, someone may want to correlate warmth with generosity, or a sense of humor with intelligence.

These implicit personality theories guide inferences that social perceivers make of other people. For example, if someone sees someone present an academic talk energetically and presumes that energy is linked to intelligence, the perceiver will likely infer that the other person is intelligent (Dunning, 1995).

History and Overview

In the first major review of research on how people perceive the personalities of others, Bruner and Tagiuri (1954) introduced the term “naive, implicit personality theory” to describe the possibility that perceivers drew connections between the attributes of other people (Schneider, 1973).

At the time, other psychologists such as Jones (1954), Steiner (1954), and Kelly (1955) described phenomena like implicit personality theories, but perhaps the most notable instance of implicit personality theories becoming incorporated into modern psychology in the 1950s was Lee Cronback’s notion of “the generalized other” (Cronback, 1955).

In Cronback’s view, the “other” contained the person’s beliefs about the attributes and abilities that a typical person had, along with how these attributes and abilities interrelated.

Crohnback believed that people’s theories about attributes and abilities placed these qualities into a few key categories.

Although different researchers have come to different conclusions about what the major dimensions of personality were, common categories included divisions between good and bad traits, social skill and inadequacy, intellectually gifted and undistinguished, active vs. passive, friendly vs. unfriendly, dominant vs. submissive, and accepting vs. rejection authority (Dunning, 1995).

There are two main traditions in implicit personality theory.

  • The first tradition is concerned with the role that bias has in how people make judgments about others.
  • The second is concerned with individual differences in how people perceive others (Schneider, 1973).

Judgments About Others

Psychologists have often debated whether implicit personality theories reflect or distort reality. For instance, researchers have debated whether when people associate, say, leadership with dominance, they are reflecting the social world as it truly exists or making an assumption not supported by real-world evidence, even one only reflective of a cultural association between leadership and dominance (Dunning, 1995).

Overall, research has found that implicit personality tends to mirror reality but overstate it: many people overestimate some traits when in reality, these traits are merely somewhat related (Dunning, 1995).

Research showing that perceivers tend to exaggerate the size of relationships among traits dates to the 1920s (Newcomb, 1931; Thorndike, 1920; Schneider, 1973).

Scientists working with the role that bias plays in how people make judgments about others have compared personal perception and impression formation to a large number of other judgment phenomena (Bruner, Shapiro, and Taagiuri, 1958; Wishner, 1960; Schneider, 1973).

Usually, these researchers look at the psychology of human judgment and the biases implicit in language (Schneider, 1973).

Individual Differences

Meanwhile, researchers concerned with individual differences in how people perceive others have tended to focus on topics related to how certain factors such as authoritarianism, “The New Look,” personality measurement, and personality construct theory contribute to how biases vary from person to person (Schneider, 1973).

Although Bruner and Tagiuri originally used the term implicit personality theory to describe the assumed relationships between traits, the term broadened to correspond to a broad conception of classic personality theory: a set of assumptions about why people behave the way they do (Schneider, 1973).

Crohnback (1955), for example,  painted a view of implicit personality theory as more than relationships among traits.

He suggested that a person’s so-called “lay theory of personality” consisted of the average strength and variability in strengths of each trait as well as the likelihood that other traits are to occur with a certain trait (Schneider, 1973).


Gender Stereotypes

There have been a number of studies seeking to obtain lists of “male” and “female” traits. Hamilton (1981) argued that gender stereotypes derive from implicit personality theories.

Hamilton rephrased implicit personality theory as being about observed traits and relationships linked together in a cognitive structure.

Thus, in saying, for example, that a man got a poor grade on an art assignment because “men are not artistically inclined,” one is associating a non-personality trait (gender) with a personality trait (artistic inclination).

Perceived Riskiness of Sexual Partners

Williams et al. (1992), in their study of 308 university students, showed that many students used implicit personality theories to judge the riskiness of potential sexual partners.

Students in focus groups were asked by researchers to discuss when they would and would not engage in sexual activity using condoms.

Specifically, partners whom college students know and like (such as monogamous partners who had not been tested for HIV infection) are not perceived to be risky, even if they do not know any information relevant to that person’s HIV status.

Often, students tended to associate risky sexual partners with those that dress provocatively, whom one met in bars, who were older than most college students, who were from large cities, or who were overly anxious about sex (Williams et al, 1992).

Structures for Implicit Personality Theory

Trait Centrality

Asch’s (1946) research into impression formation has greatly influenced implicit personality theory and methodology. One of Asch’s concerns was trait centrality. Asch found that warm-cold was a central trait in several contexts.

However, he failed to elaborate on when a trait is or is not central or why central traits exist (Schneider, 1973).
Two traditions emerged around these problems.

The first was based on a so-called “correlational model” and the second on a model of “trait implication.” Along the first line of thought, Wishner (1960) argued that the response traits most affected by the shift from warm to cold were also traits that correlated most highly with warm and cold.

By Wishner’s logic, any trait can become a central stimulus trait if it is correlated highly with enough response traits. Much of the research in the Wishneer school has been concerned with linguistic biases in trait ratings (e.g. D’Andrade, 1965).

The other school of thought around trait centrality deals with Scaling. Hays (1958) for example believed that traits were central to the extent that they implied other traits without being implied for them.

For example, fitness could be a central trait if it implied fastidiousness and energeticness, but fastidiousness and energeticness did not necessarily imply fitness. Meanwhile, irritability would not be a central trait if it implied anger, but anger also implied irritability.

Research has found that warm-cold is, as Asch suspected, a central trait — they lie at opposite ends of social evaluation (Friendly and Glucksberg, 1970).
Rosenberg et al. (1968) argued that traits that exist on the extremes of two dimensions (such as warm-cold) are central for traits that are less extreme on that dimension.

Similarly, Zanna and Hamilton (1972) have shown that varying warm and cold on a list of traits affects whether that person will be labeled with traits that are either socially desirable or undesirable, and that varying the degree to which someone is seen as industrious or lazy affects the extent to which that person is rated as having intellectual desirable or undesirable traits (Schneider, 1973).

However, these models fail to address the weighting of each trait at the extreme of each dimension. For example, whether warmness would be less correlated with socially desirable traits than coldness is correlated with socially undesirable traits.

Hamilton and Huffman (1971) showed that in judgments of likability and evaluation, negative traits have a higher weight than positive ones.
Researchers have also noted that traits that are more general or abstract tend to have stronger implications than less general traits.

Hinkel, for example, had participants generate 10 “subordinate” — a linguistic term for the most specific category of an idea, such as a pear in one’s hand or one’s pet dog — and 10 “superordinate” constructs — the most general category of an idea that controls many other ideas.

Hinkel found that the superordinate constructs were more often thought to cause traits than the subordinate constructs.

Additive Models

Another issue from Assch’s paper was his emphasis on additive versus non additive processing of information (Schneider, 1973).

Asch opposed the idea that the impression that a person has of another is based on the addition of traits, claiming, instead, that the traits someone has would create an impression that would be different for every new set of stimuli (Asch, 1946).

Newer models have found that certain variables greatly influence trait relationships, such as the occupation of the person whose traits are being assessed.

For example, there was a significant inverse correlation between awareness and unhappiness in lecturers and a slight positive one for road sweepers (Veness, 1969).

Over a quarter of the correlations in Veness’ study differed significantly for different occupations (Schneider, 1973).

Cognitive Complexity

The last issue in the structure of implicit personality theory concerns cognitive complexity. Some people assess the relationships between traits on more dimensions than others.

Many researchers, such as Crockett (1965) and Schroder, Driver, and Streufert (1967) have related complexity to impression formation processes.
In particular, these researchers have focused on individual differences in complexity.

Researchers such as Pedersen (1965) and Walters and Jackson (1966) have found individual differences in numbers of dimensions used for trait complications, but only subtle and minor ones.

In general, researchers have considered high relationships among traits to indicate cognitive complexity (little relationship between the dimensions traits are correlated with), and low relationships high complexity.

Zaajonc (1960) and Cohen (1961) investigated cognitive tuning and showed that information was related in a more complex fashion when participants expected to receive rather than communicate the information.

Still other researchers have found that when participants make a choice among people they generally hold a more positive set of trait assumptions for the person they have chosen.

This “ halo effect ” can be increased by caffeine arousal and decision importance (O’Neal and Mills, 1969; O’Neal, 1971). These researchers have attributed the halo effect to a person’s desire to be certain in their choosing another person.

People can create illusions of certainty in this situation by decreasing the complexity of trait relationships (Schneider, 1973).
Different types of stimuli can also trigger greater complexity (a lower correlation between traits).

For instance, Crockett (1965) discusses unpublished studies by Nidorf and Supnick that show that information seeking and descriptions are less complex for people who were very different from the participant making the judgment and for those who are highly disliked.

Meanwhile, Koltuv (1962) found that the correlations between traits were higher for those that participants did not know than those that they did. When people have more information about how a person is likely to act, they are less likely to make assumptions about their traits (Schneider, 1973).

Measurement of Trait Relationships

Classic personality theories often attempt to find dynamic and causal relationships between traits.

The ways that researchers have done so has differed in how they assign traits to “objects,” create a so-called trait matrix, interpret trait relationships, reduce the trait matrix into a more basic matrix, and interpret the basic matrix.

Assignment of traits

Many researchers in implicit personality theory begin by having several perceivers assign traits to stimulus objects.

Stimulus objects can either be people (such as through a picture of a person making certain facial expressions) or physical objects; however people are more common.

Usually, researchers ask these perceivers to give each stimulus person a rating for how strong the particular trait is in this stimulus object. This creates a matrix of trait ratings based on the perceiver, trait, and stimulus person.

The trait matrix

This trait matrix can be used to calculate correlations among traits across stimulus people.

Often, however, studies can rely on how similar participants rate certain traits to be (Messick and Kogan, 1966; Pedersen, 1965; Schneider, 1973) as well as ratings of how likely certain traits are to co-occur.

Other studies, such as those of Rosenberg (Rosenberg, Nelson, and Vivekananthan, 1968; Rosenberg and Olshan, 1970) ask participants to divide a total sample of traits into piles, with each pile representing a distinct person.

The researchers then give traits disassociation scores which depend on the number of participants who disagree on whether two traits go together (Schneider, 1973).

Reduction and interpretation of the trait matrix
After gathering a list of correlations between traits, researchers must determine how to make the data interpretable.

This can be done through a variety of mathematical methods (Schneider, 1973).

After gathering a list of correlations between traits, researchers must determine how to make the data interpretable. This can be done through a variety of mathematical methods (Schneider, 1973).

when researchers aim to study how individual implicit personality theories differ, it may be important to determine how different groups of people see relationships between traits.

For example, women may see confidence as associated with both competence and warmth, while men may see confidence as merely correlated with competence.

Stimulus People

Several studies into implicit personality theory have investigated the stimulus person. In such studies, researchers attempt to obtain judgments of similarity among a variety of stimulus persons.

For example, Jacksson, Messick, and Solly (1957) had participants rate how similar they were to each other; Messick (1961) scaled similarity judgments of political figures; and Wiggins and Hoffman (1968) had participants compare profiles representing stimulus persons.

Scientists can interpret these ratings — determine how the stimulus person’s personality compares to ratings of traits that participants thought them to have — in various ways.

For example, researchers could either use a public figure (whose personality traits are already known) or administer a personality test to the stimulus person.

The Situation

Individuals’ situations, roles, and so on can also be scaled to determine similarity and correlation between traits.

Many researchers have recognized the role of the situation in perception of behavior (Hastorf, Schneider, and Polefka, 1970), biasing personality judgments toward one’s correlated with one’s role.

For example, a dancer may be seen as socially graceful and a tax-collector as ruthless.

Critical Evaluation


Research as far back as Thorndike’s (1920) halo effect has shown that the perceived relationships that people see between traits differ significantly from empirical relationships.

There has also been considerable research examining how implicit personality theory can exist independently of people’s subjective experiences.

Levy and Dugan (1960), for example, used 15 traits and measured how often each was used to describe photographs. Three researchers found that people often attempted to correlate the same traits with the same pictures.

Mulaik (1964), meanwhile, asked different groups of participants to rate real people and stereotypical roles. Similarly, Mulaik found that people often rated real people and stereotypical roles in a similar, but not identical way.

Nonetheless, many studies have findings contradicting this early research (e.g. Chapman, 1967; Lay and Jackson, 1969). All in all, these findings suggest that perceived trait relationships deviate from what researchers have calculated the “true” relationships between traits to be.

Language and Implicit Personality Theory

Many scholars have claimed that implicit personality theories are determined by linguistics. For example, Kusinen (1969) showed that the differential ratings of trait names creates a linguistic structure similar to the structure for other concepts.

One of the biggest controversies around linguistic factors as a basis for implicit personality theory involves the fact that traits have both denotations and connotations.

For example, as Walters and Jackson (1966) demonstrated, while some factors of personality can be characterized by high ratings of interpersonal warmth and sociability, all of the socially desirable terms also are associated with interpersonal warmth (Schneider, 1973).
Researchers have tried to block out linguistic dimensions in a way that avoids this loading.

Peabody (1967), for example, organized traits into groups of four so that they would be paired with traits that have opposite evaluative and meaning dimensions.

This means that Peabody would pair a trait such as cautious with one that meant the same thing but had an opposite evaluation (such as timid) and with two traits of positive descriptive meaning, one positive (e.g. bold) and one negative (e.g. rash).

He then asked subjects to make inferences from various traits on scales consisting of a positive trait and its negative descriptive opposite (e.g. cautious-rash or timid-bold).

Peabody showed that most inferences people made were descriptive rather than evaluative.

However, others, such as Rosenberg and Olshann (1970) have criticized Peabody’s research, arguing that Peabody’s traits obscured the evaluative dimension of implicit personality theory (Felipe, 1970).


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Saul Mcleod, PhD

BSc (Hons) Psychology, MRes, PhD, University of Manchester

Educator, Researcher

Saul Mcleod, Ph.D., is a qualified psychology teacher with over 18 years experience of working in further and higher education.

Charlotte Nickerson

Research Assistant at Harvard University

Undergraduate at Harvard University

Charlotte Nickerson is a student at Harvard University obsessed with the intersection of mental health, productivity, and design.