3.2.0: Perceiving Others

Now that we have an understanding of how we select, organize, and interpret the various stimuli we encounter every day, let’s apply these principles to how we perceive other people and their behaviors. In this section, we will address how we form impressions of other people and make attributions for their behavior(s). 


3.2.1: Impression Formation

We form impressions of others based on physical appearance and our interactions with them. Have you ever heard the phrase ‘Don’t judge a book by its cover?’ When applied to people, it is meant to caution us against judging others based on physical appearance. However, forming impressions of people based on physical appearance is a natural thing that we do. Uncertainty Reduction Theory (Berger, 1975) states that our social worlds are ambiguous, and this ambiguity can make us feel anxious. To lessen this anxiety, we monitor our environments and make interpretations. So, based on things like skin color, gender, attractiveness, grooming, clothes, weight, etc. we make judgements and have stereotypes of other people that are positive, neutral, and negative. However, although this is a natural process, it is important to be aware of how our impressions will influence our communication with people. The Communication Competence section of this chapter discusses the importance of reflecting on our judgments and stereotypes and how they may shape interactions in problematic ways.

In addition to making impressions based on physical appearance, we make impressions based off of behaviors we observe and our interactions with others. These impressions can be about their personality, likeability, attractiveness, and other characteristics. For example, if we meet someone for the first time and they are smiling and making eye contact with us, our impression may be that they are friendly. Although much of our impressions are personal, what forms them is sometimes based more on circumstances than personal characteristics. All the information we take in isn’t treated equally- the timing of information and the content of the messages we receive can influence our perception.

For many people, first impressions matter and if we interpret the first information we receive from or about a person as positive, then a positive first impression will form and influence how we respond to that person as the interaction continues. Likewise, negative interpretations of information can lead us to form negative first impressions. For example, if you sit down at a restaurant and servers walk by for several minutes and no one greets you, then you will likely interpret that negatively and not have a good impression of your server when they finally show up. This may lead you to be short with the server, which may lead them to not be as attentive as they normally would. At this point, a series of negative interactions has set into motion a cycle that will be very difficult to reverse and make positive.


3.2.2: Attributions

In most interactions, we are constantly running an attribution script in our minds, which essentially tries to come up with explanations for what is happening. Why did my neighbor slam the door when they saw me walking down the hall? Why is my partner being extra nice to me today? Why did my officemate miss our project team meeting this morning? In general, we seek to attribute the cause of others’ behaviors to internal or external factors.

Internal attributions connect the cause of behaviors to personal aspects such as personality traits. External attributions connect the cause of behaviors to situational factors. Attributions are important to consider because our reactions to others’ behaviors are strongly influenced by the explanations we reach. For example, imagine that Avery and Kennedy are dating. One day, Kennedy gets frustrated and raises their voice to Avery. Avery may find that behavior more offensive and even consider breaking up with Kennedy if they attribute the cause of the blow up to Kennedy’s personality. Conversely, Avery may be more forgiving if they attribute the cause of Kennedy’s behavior to situational factors beyond Kennedy’s control. If Avery makes an internal attribution, they may think, “Wow, this person is really a loose cannon. Who knows when they’ll will lose it again?” If Avery makes an external attribution, they may think, “Kennedy has been under a lot of pressure to meet deadlines at work and hasn’t been getting much sleep. Once this project is over, I’m sure they’ll be more relaxed.” This process of attribution is ongoing, and, as with many aspects of perception, we are sometimes aware of the attributions we make, and sometimes they are automatic and/or unconscious.

Attribution has received much scholarly attention because it is in this part of the perception process that some of the most common perceptual errors or biases occur. One of the most common perceptual errors is the fundamental attribution error, which refers to our tendency to explain others’ behaviors using internal rather than external attributions (Sillars, 1980). For example, if you get a get a speeding ticket, you may attribute the cause of the ticket to the malevolence of the police officer, essentially saying you got a ticket because the officer was a mean/bad person, which is an internal attribution. You may be much less likely to acknowledge that the officer was just doing their job (an external attribution) and the ticket was a result of your decision to speed.

Just as we tend to attribute others’ behaviors to internal rather than external causes, we do the same for ourselves, especially when our behaviors have led to something successful or positive. When our behaviors lead to failure or something negative, we tend to attribute the cause to external factors. For example, if a student gets a poor grade on a test, they may attribute their poor grade to their busy schedule or other external, situational factors rather than their lack of motivation, interest, or preparation (internal attributions). On the other hand, when a student gets a good grade on a paper, they will likely attribute that cause to their intelligence or hard work rather than an easy assignment or an “easy grading” professor.

These psychological processes have implications for our communication because when we attribute causality to another person’s personality, we tend to have a stronger emotional reaction and tend to assume that this personality characteristic is stable, which may lead us to avoid communication with the person or to react negatively. Now that you are aware of these common errors, you can monitor them more actively and verify your attributions by checking your perceptions. Perception checking and other skills will be covered in the communication competence section.


Back to: I.C.A.T Interpersonal Communication Abridged Textbook > Chapter 3: The Perception Process & Perception of Others