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Biasing Effects in Person Perception

Snap judgments can occur as the result of verbal descriptions, not just images. In the 1940s, Solomon Asch showed a powerful effect due to which trait was described first in a long list of traits describing a person. This is called a primacy effect. A primacy effect occurs when a first-occurring item is remembered better than later items in a series. This effect is well documented with lists of words and other items. The first word in a list is more likely to be remembered than others.

What is a primacy effect? How did Asch show a primacy effect in person perception?

How did Asch demonstrate the biasing effect of a single word?

Asch decided to see if the primacy effect could influence the perception of people. He gave subjects descriptions of other people that either started or ended with the word intelligent. He found that if "intelligent" came first in a list of adjectives, it had a great influence on subjects' impressions of the person. If the word "intelligent" came last, it had little effect on impressions.

Some traits are more influential than others in changing person perception. In a classic study by Asch (1946), he asked subjects to form an impression of a person they did not know, based on seven adjectives. One group saw the words, "intelligent, determined, skillful, practical, industrious, cautious, warm." The other group saw the same words, but the list ended in cold rather than warm. When the word "cold" was included, only 8% thought the person was likely to be generous. When the word "warm" was included, 91% of the subjects thought the person would be generous. They also thought the warm person would be more likely to have a good sense of humor and other positive qualities.

How did Harold Kelley explore the "warm/cold" dimension?

Harold Kelley (1950) extended Asch's finding. He gave a class of students a paragraph-sized description of a visiting lecturer. Half the students received a description that listed his technical qualifications then noted (at the end) that he was considered a "very warm" person. The other half of the students received the same description but with an ending that said he was considered a "rather cold" person.

The lecturer gave the same talk to all the students. Those who had warm in their descriptions rated the lecture more favorably and were more likely to ask questions and interact with the lecturer. The students with cold in their descriptions rated the lecturer as aloof and unsociable. Only 32% said they wanted to ask him a question or interact with him, compared to 56% in the group that heard him described as warm.

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