We make decisions about the characteristics of other people from their actions. We decide that someone is aggressive if they yell, make rude comments, and try to push people around. Often, though, a specific behavior is ambiguous. It is not entirely clear what it signals. For example, if someone goes skydiving, he might be adventurous or he might be reckless. How do you decide?
One factor that influences the way you evaluate other people is the concepts you are already thinking about. That is, if you are already thinking about danger, then that active concept can affect your interpretation of someone’s behavior. The way this works is a bit complicated, though, as described in a paper in the July, 2010 issue of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin by Marlone Henderson and Cheryl Wakslak.
They looked at the effects of active concepts and distance on evaluation of people’s behavior. Quite a bit of work (some of which I have described in previous entries) suggests that when people think about things that are near to them in space or time, they tend to think about them much more specifically than when they think about things that are far away from them in space or time. So, if you find out that someone is skydiving in a town nearby, you are more prone to think about the specific aspects of strapping on a parachute and jumping out of a plane than if they are going to skydive in a city far away. When they are far away, you treat the action abstractly.
Henderson and Wakslak suggested that the concepts you are thinking about are much more likely to have an effect on your evaluation of someone’s actions when you are thinking about their actions specifically than when you are thinking about them only generally.
In one study, they got people to think about recklessness (which is a negative trait) or adventurousness (which is a positive trait) by having them do a word search puzzle that had lots of words that related to either to being reckless (like dangerous and cautious) or to being adventurous (like exciting and bravery). After doing the word search people evaluated a person shown in a picture skydiving. That person was described as either skydiving in a nearby town or across the country.
When the person was skydiving nearby, then people had a more positive evaluation of them when they were thinking about adventurousness than when they were thinking about recklessness. Their active concepts had no reliable influence on their evaluations when they person was skydiving far away. So, active concepts only affect the interpretation of actions when you are thinking about someone specifically.
So what effects your evaluation of someone when they are far away? Henderson and Wakslak also did a study in which they had people give their general attitude toward another behavior that could be thought of as reckless or adventurous (riding a motorbike). They found that this general attitude did not affect people’s evaluation of someone motorbiking nearby, but it did have a reliable effect on their evaluation of someone motorbiking far away. So, when someone is mentally distant from you, then you tend to use your general attitudes to evaluate them.
This research is also related to work on stereotypes. Stereotypes are a general attitude about a group. When someone is psychologically distant from you, then you often use your stereotypes to evaluate them. However, when someone is psychologically close to you, then you tend to evaluate them based on their specific actions. On the positive side, that means that if you hold a negative stereotype about a group, that will not affect your evaluation of people close to you. On the negative side, the positive characteristics of people who are close to you and are also part of a stereotyped group will not make you think better of the group in general.
For example, there is a widespread stereotype that women are worse at math than men. You might know a lot of women who are quite good at math. Because those women are psychologically close to you, however, their math ability may not affect your general impression that women are bad at math. Ultimately, combating stereotypes requires thinking generally about a group and recognizing that there is no basis for a general attitude that you hold.