Thursday, March 7, 2013

He has a great personality: Not every positive description is positive

The statement, “(S)he has a great personality,” has become a cliché for saying that someone is unattractive.  How does this happen?  After all, if someone has a great personality, that is a good thing. 

The negative impression comes from our ability to say things indirectly.  The philosopher H. Paul Grice described this most clearly.  He argued that we expect people to say things that are clear, truthful, and relevant.  The idea of relevance is particularly important.  Consider a woman who has just been set up on a blind date.  She asks her friend to describe the date.  If all she gets back is, “he has a nice personality,” then she may begin to wonder why her friend didn’t say anything about the way he looked.  This omission is taken as evidence that he must not be very attractive.

So, it is possible to give someone a negative impression of a person by saying something positive about them.  Does this really work?

This question was addressed in a paper by Nicolas Kervyn, Hilary Bergsieker, and Susan Fiske in a 2012 paper in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.  They had students imagine that they were with a group of two other friends who were considering whether to have a new person join their group.  The group was either a work group or a group planning a vacation together.  In a work setting, it is important that someone be conscientious and capable.  In a social setting like a vacation, it is important that someone be warm and fun to be around.

In this scenario, participants were told that they had missed a previous meeting with the new person, and their friends were giving them a new description.

In a control condition, participants were told only that the new person made a good overall impression.  In the ‘competent’ condition, participants were told that the new person seemed smart, hard-working, and competent.  In the ‘warm’ condition, participants were told that the new person seemed nice, sociable, and outgoing.

The results showed that people were sensitive to both what was said about the new person as well as what was not said.  When people were evaluating someone to join their work group, their evaluation was much higher for the competent person than for the warm person (with the control condition coming out in between).  When people were evaluating someone to join their vacation, their evaluation of the warm person was much higher than their evaluation of the competent person (with the control condition again being in between). 

These impressions come out in the descriptions people later give of the new people they are evaluating.  In one study, after making all these ratings, participants described the new person.  When they were evaluating a new person for a work group and heard that they were warm, their descriptions conveyed that the person was probably not a hard worker.  Similarly, when they evaluated a new person for a vacation and heard that they were a hard worker, their descriptions conveyed that the person was probably not that nice to be around.

Overall, then, we are quite sensitive to both what people tell us directly in their words as well as what they say to us indirectly through what they fail to say.  It is particularly interesting that these impressions may become an explicit part of the way we think about a new person, even though they were never stated explicitly.