Heuristic Processing in Person Perception

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‘Heuristics’, in psychology, refer to the mental shortcuts we have that allow us to reduce complex judgements to simple ‘rules of thumb’ based on knowledge and experience. Many psychological theorists believe we use heuristic processing to make attributions and inferences about other people’s behaviour, known as person perception. Theorists have suggested that there are two main types of heuristic through which this occurs; the representativeness heuristic and the availability heuristic, which are commonly used to make social categorizations (Tversky & Kahneman, 1973). This essay will explore the advantages of heuristic processing in person perception, which also critically evaluating them.

It is widely accepted amongst psychological theorists, and demonstrated through research, that humans have a basic need to attribute causality and meaning to other people’s behaviour. For instance, in Heider and Simmel’s experiment, participants were merely asked to describe the movement of geometric shapes (Heider & Simmel, 1944). Researchers found a general inclination for participants to describe these movements in terms of human intentions and motives, showing our tendency to assess and ascribe intentionality. Fiske and Taylor (1991) have argued that we are ‘cognitive misers’, as we use heuristics to categorize other people, which saves time and effort as we do not have to spend extensive amounts of time analysing social information as a result of these ‘mental shortcuts’. This is advantageous in person perception as it allows meaning to be promptly and efficiently ascribed to ambiguous, abstract behaviour. In turn, this reduces uncertainty, which is an unpleasant emotion, and makes the world a more predictable, understandable place. Heuristics also impose little cognitive demand and expend few cognitive resources, which is also advantageous as mental processing resources are immensely valuable yet limited.

Some theorists believe we use heuristics to make inferences about others behaviour as there is research supporting the representativeness heuristic, which is used to allocate a set of attributes to someone if they match the existing prototype of a given category (Tversky & Kahneman, 1973). In Kahneman and Tversky’s classic study (1973), participants were presented with the same description of ‘Tom W.’, including items such as liking clarity, order, neat and tidy systems, and having a dull, mechanical writing style and a desire for competence (Swieringa, Gibbins, Larsson, & Sweeney, 1976). When asked questions on Tom’s most likely major, researchers found participants were most likely to believe that Tom was an engineering major, despite there being a comparatively small number of engineering students in the school where the study was conducted.

Whilst participants representativeness heuristics clearly enabled them to quickly and easily categorize Tom, these findings are also indicative of the base rate fallacy; participants disregard important information in favour of stereotypes, which are a direct result of social heuristics and which may not necessarily have a basis in reality. This can have detrimental real-life consequences, for instance Brannon and Carson’s study found that nurses were less likely to attribute patients’ symptoms to a physical illness when extra-symptom patient characteristics were included in their case descriptions (Brannon & Carson, 2003). This suggests that even medical professionals use heuristic, prototypical processing in diagnostic practice, which could have long-term effects such as in terms of treatment. Representativeness heuristics, however, can have important real-life applications, for example if you arrived in a police station in need of help, it is likely that you would quickly be able to identify an individual wearing a white shirt with the police logo on it and a helmet as being a police officer. This is advantageous as it allows us to quickly seek out and interpret social information, so we can carry out fundamental tasks. However, whilst there seems to be some advantages of using the representativeness heuristic, such as making it much quicker and easier to process social information, it is overall a flawed method of person perception as it can bias the way in which we interpret and make judgements on other people.

There is also evidence to support the existence of the availability heuristic, which is used to judge an event or situation in terms of what readily comes to mind (Kahneman and Tversky, 1973). This has led some theorists to believe that they play a valuable role within the process of person perception. For example, Schwarz et al. conducted an experiment demonstrating the effect of the availability heuristic through asking participants to identify 6 or 12 examples of when they had been either assertive or unassertive (Schwarz, et al., 1991). The results showed that those who recalled 6 examples of when they had been assertive or, rather than 12, rated themselves as being more assertive, and the same effect occurred when recalling examples of when they had been unassertive. This suggests participants recognised their difficulty in bringing up examples after the first few that immediately came to mind, which was intensified when more instances had to be recalled, so participants tended to reflect on how difficult it was to recall instances rather than just the content. Therefore, whilst the initial use of the availability heuristic may be advantageous in helping us judge behaviour in terms of what comes to mind, this study suggests that this is only partially effective and useful up to a certain point.

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Some theorists believe, as is apparent through a plethora of psychological research and literature, that some we use heuristics to make social categorizations. However, there are significant disadvantages of this within person perception. Research suggests that we tend to categorize on the basis of temporal primacy, perceptual salience and chronic accessibility, all of which are superficial factors that disregard more meaningful, personal information about other people. Another notable issue that arises from categorization is the illusory correlation; this is the belief that two variables are associated with each other where in fact little or no true association exists. This effect was demonstrated in a study conducted by Hamilton and Gifford in which participants were asked to read information on people in two made-up groups; ‘group A’, which was the majority, and ‘group B’, which was the minority (Hamilton & Gifford, 1976). They found that twice as much information was recalled about group A than group B and that participants attributed more undesirable behaviours to group B, despite both groups having the same ratio of positive to negative information. This is a considerable limitation of heuristic processing in person perception, as this research suggests that negative information commonly becomes associated with minority groups, for instance in terms of class, gender and race. Often this does not reflect the individuals who belong to those groups and could lead to discrimination. However, this experiment was an artificial task, bringing into question the ecological validity of the study as it may not reflect how we perceive groups in everyday life.

Another disadvantage of heuristic processing in person perception is that the availability heuristic is responsible for a highly influential bias called the false consensus effect (Gross & Miller, 1997). This is the tendency to overestimate the extent to which one’s own opinion is typical of the rest of the population. The availability heuristic is responsible for this effect as our own personal beliefs are most easily recalled from memory, making them most available when being asked to judge the opinions of others. This effect was demonstrated in a study conducted by Ross, Greene and House in which students were asked whether or not they would advertise a cafeteria by walking around their campus wearing a sandwich board for thirty minutes (Ross, Greene, & House, 1977). Regardless of whether they agreed or not, participants were subsequently asked how many other students they thought would have made the same choice as them. Whatever choice participants made, participants estimated that most other people would agree with their decision. This is undoubtedly a limitation of using heuristics in person perception as assuming that other people share our opinions and beliefs causes bias and could lead to other people being viewed as abnormal if they differ from these.

Categorization using heuristic processing tends to lead to selective encoding of stereotype-inconsistent information and easier accessibility of stereotype-consistent information. For example, in Cohen’s study, participants were shown a video of a woman eating a birthday dinner; those who were told she was a librarian were more likely to recall that she was wearing glasses, whereas those who were told she was a waitress were more likely to recall that she was drinking beer (Cohen, 1981). This demonstrates how heuristic preconceptions can distort our memories, which has been shown to lead to prejudice and discriminatory judgements through creating stereotype-consistent biases. For instance, Gaertner and McLaughlin found that white participants were much faster at citing positive words, including ‘ambitious’ and ‘smart’, having seen the racial category ‘white’ compared to ‘black’ (Gaertner & McLaughlin, 1983), demonstrating how heuristic categorization can reinforce racist attitudes.

In contrast to Fiske and Taylor’s proposition that we are ‘cognitive misers’, early attribution models suggest that we behave as what Heider referred to as ‘naïve scientists’ when perceiving other people. Naïve scientists look for information on consensus, consistency and distinctiveness, combining these sources systematically to form an internal or external attribution, rather than making quick categorizations when perceiving other people. Two main theories of attribution are influential, one being correspondent inference theory (Jones & Davis, 1965); this suggests we prefer making internal rather than external attributions as they are more useful in forming behavioural predictions. The other is the co-variation model (Kelly, 1967), which suggests that the cause of a particular behaviour must be present when the behaviour is present, or otherwise both absent. These early theories have led some theorists to believe that we do not use heuristics to make inferences about others behaviour. A major disadvantage of these earlier models of attribution, however, is that they involve long, time-consuming processing when interpreting social information, which is an advantage of alternatively using heuristics in person perception as they work very quickly. However, a number of theorists accept Kruglanski’s idea that people are ‘motivated tacticians’, who are able act as both ‘naïve scientists’ and ‘cognitive misers’, suggesting that heuristic processing alone is an incomplete explanation for person perception (Kruglanski, 1996).

Making inferences about other people’s behaviour has many disadvantages in itself, including the fundamental attribution error. The fundamental attribution error refers to people’s tendency to make internal rather than external attributions, despite the fact there could be situational causes (Ross, 1977). This error was demonstrated in Jones and Harris’s study where participants were asked to read essays that were either in favour of Fidel Castro’s rule in Cuba or against it (Jones & Harris, 1967). Participants were also told that the writers had either chosen or not chosen their essay topic, and their task was then to guess the writer’s true attitude towards Castro. In both the choice and no choice conditions, participants assumed the essays reflected the writers genuine opinions, thus making internal attributions despite there being just as much evidence to suggest the contrary; that they had no choice. This is a disadvantage of making inferences about others’ behaviour, which is the prime function of heuristics, as evidence suggests we often incorrectly interpret others behaviour as being self-determined, whereas it could equally be the result of external factors.

In conclusion, there is a broad range of psychological research and evidence supporting the concept of heuristic processing within person perception, thus explaining why some theorists believe this happens. There are evidently some advantages of this use of heuristics, namely the ability to make quick and efficient judgements of others behaviour without a great deal of cognitive effort. However, research suggests that they have a greater abundance of disadvantages as a result of the biased information processing (Ajzen, 1996) they tend to cause. For instance, biases including the illusory correlation and the false consensus effect often incorrectly distort how we perceive others. Therefore, whilst heuristic processing has been demonstrated to take on an important role in person perception, this appears to be only beneficial to us and detrimental to others.

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