When thinking of implicit personality theory, an old joke comes to mind. How does one tell when a politician’s lying? His mouth is moving. Of course, the joke has lost its humor over the decades because it’s become more of a warning than anything else. Some personality traits seem innate while others are learned behaviors. It’s safe to assume that a professional football player is athletic, but does that also mean he’s not too intelligent? Do certain characteristics coincide with others or is that just stereotypes and perception?
Implicit Personality Theory
Are beautiful people unintelligent? Well, that depends on who’s perceiving the subject and situation. Implicit personality theory dictates that often times people believe certain personality traits coincide with other personality traits (Vohs & Baumeister, 2007). For instance, during performance reviews, a manager might notice how punctual a particular employee is and assume that this is due to how much the employee cares about her job, thus giving her a positive review in all aspects. Also known as the halo effect, this bias leads an observer to rate another in mostly positive ways, due to the acknowledgment of a few other positive traits (Vohs & Baumeister, 2007).
Implicit personality theory is often where stereotypes and biases originate. When a person observes one characteristic in another’s behavior and then infers other traits, she has fallen victim to stereotyping due to her perception that those attributes are related. This is the crux of implicit personality theory – that there is an overreliance that certain features go hand-in-hand with other ones. Talkative people are social. Aggression coincides with violent tendencies. Funny people are hiding their internal pain. Many of these relationships are true for some people, but an observer wouldn’t know that for each individual. Should an observer perceive someone possessing both traits when only one is actually observed, a bias has been committed (whether positive or negative).
Connection to Impression Management
Where implicit personality theory is most often associated with how various attributes are related, especially in perceiving others, impression management is how we attempt to portray ourselves to those in a group or setting. Authors Rosenfeld, Giacalone, and Riordan (1995) describe impression management as the behaviors and actions people use to influence the assumptions of others. Quite simply, this is how each of us attempts to manipulate others into believing we are who we portray to be.
The connection between the two theories is exemplified in how people sometimes choose their vehicles. Red sports cars are just that, but certain attributes are often attached to the people who buy them. Knowing this, a person who buys a red sports car might be trying to present himself as a cool, affluent, risk-taker. Customer service representatives frequently smile, speak very politely, and use a pleasant tone to heighten the impression that they are there to help. This is how they attempt to achieve the perception that they are friendly and approachable in resolving customer conflicts. Likewise, customers frequently read the body language and disarming nature and interpret these representatives to be effective problem-solvers. In other words, the link between implicit personality theory and impression management is circular in nature – one person knows that smiling evokes a feeling of friendliness, so the other person is more likely to treat the smiler as being friendly. In some ways, impression management is trying to impart a self-fulfilling prophesy.
Social Welfare and Social Change
Whatever impression of ourselves we choose to portray, by no means has to be truthful. For this reason, it seems that impression management has little impact on any social change. Anyone can demonstrate personality traits they wish to impress upon others, but it’s ultimately up to the observer to interpret these and related traits. Therefore, it makes sense that any social reform will come from implicit personality theory.
In their research on motivated implicit theories of personality, authors Steimer and Mata (2016) found that many people believe their personality weaknesses can be molded and transformed, but their strengths are somewhat anchored. When people were motivated to change their weaknesses, by being led to believe what a desirable trait is, they believed that these undesirable characteristics would lessen over time. In other words, these subjects assumed their personalities would continue to change for the better over their lifetimes, continuously purging weaknesses while keeping their strengths. Furthermore, this belief was more pronounced in subjects whose view of themselves fell short of their ideal self (Steimer & Mata, 2016).
Authors Yeager et al (2014), studied the effects of labels in adolescence and their impact in later years. For instance, someone who may have been labeled a “jock” in high school might have a persistent belief in himself as someone unintelligent, aggressive, and oafish. The authors found that this contributes to stress and health issues later in life when the subject feels he can’t dispel this earlier label (Yeager et al, 2014). These implications are incredibly important to social change. If someone believes the personality traits bestowed upon her, and that these traits are valid and unchangeable, she may experience dismay at her inadequacies. However, this also means that if she were to believe it’s in her power to change herself for the better, it’s then possible to do so and elevate her self-esteem.
If it is possible to teach the youth, adolescents, and young adults that personality traits can change over time with work and effort, then it’s likely they can overcome any stigmas and experience higher levels of self-esteem. Also, believing we can change ourselves has been linked to less stress, causing fewer health problems (Yeager et al, 2014). This has monumental impacts on the health of society as a whole. In a nation with ever-increasing health costs, any little bit that mitigates deleterious effects is going to be a benefit to society.
Rosenfeld, P. R., Giacalone, R. A., & Riordan, C. A. (1995). Impression management in organizations: Theory, measurement, and practice. New York, NY: Routledge.
Steimer, A., & Mata, A. (2016). Motivated implicit theories of personality: My weaknesses will go away, but my strengths are here to stay. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 42(4), 415-429. doi:10.1177/0146167216629437
Vohs, K., and Baumeister, R. (2007). Encyclopedia of Social Psychology. Thousand Oaks, Calif: SAGE Publications, Inc.
Yeager, D. S., Johnson, R., Spitzer, B. J., Trzesniewski, K. H., Powers, J., & Dweck, C. S. (2014). The far-reaching effects of believing people can change: Implicit theories of personality shape stress, health, and achievement during adolescence. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 106(6), 867-884. doi:10.1037/a0036335