Human beings are social creatures

Human beings are social creatures. Our interaction with another is important as it provides us with a vast amount of information necessary to carry out daily activities. With the amount of information that is available to us at one time, the human mind has naturally developed shortcuts that allow us to function more efficiently in a social world. One function of human interaction is the ability to make rapid assessments about other people. We often form impressions about people within seconds of meeting them. Impressions of personality form quickly and easily. It is quite hard to forget our impression of a person once it has been formed in our minds. These impressions form automatically and instantly provide us with important information about others. Then, this information provides us with a foundation on which we make additionally judgments and effects future attitudes about an individual.

This ability to form rapid impressions of people is neither bad nor good. According to Asch (1946), it is simply a precondition of social life. Concerning social psychologists in particular are questions regarding the manner in which our impressions of other people are established, and what are the principles that regulate the formation of these impressions.

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It has been found in social psychological research, that impressions of personality can be influenced by certain cognitive biases. An excellent example of a cognitive bias that influences our perception of personality of others is the halo effect. The halo effect is a cognitive bias that occurs when the perception of one trait of a person or object influences the perception of another trait or multiple traits. Thorndike (1920) was the first to support the theory of the halo effect using empirical research. Commanding officers were asked to use a rating scale to assess traits of their soldiers. The results of his study showed a high cross-correlation between positive and negative traits (Thorndike, 1920), which suggests that people do not think of others in mixed terms, but rather as generally good or bad across different categories of measurement.

Primarily, the halo effect biases our perception with a tendency to focus mainly on “the good.” A classic example would be judging a good-looking person as more sociable or more intelligent. Another example would be perceiving an individual’s personality differently based on information given about that person. This includes influencing expectations of another person through the use of interchangeable adjectives. An overwhelming amount of research supports the notion that describing a stranger’s personality using particular words can significantly affect the way that person is perceived by others (Asche, 1946; Mensh & Wishner; 1947; Kelley, 1950; Biggs & McAllaster; 1981; Widmeyer & Loy, 1988). A stranger’s disposition can be perceived to match up to the personality traits previously stated, despite the actual nature of the person.

Influential Social Psychological Research

Over sixty years ago, Asch (1946) demonstrated that certain labels can affect the entire impression of a person. Asch read a list of adjectives which were supposed to describe a hypothetical person. His subjects who were all college students (mostly women) were then asked to characterize that person. Asch found that by simply using interchangeable adjectives representing central qualities, such as “warm” and “cold,” he could influence the descriptions given by subjects about the personality of a hypothetical person. However, it was also found that including words to describe peripheral qualities, including terms such as “polite” or “blunt”, did not have a significant effect on subjects’ perceptions of the personality of the hypothetical person.

A number of the Asch experiments were replicated by Mensh and Wishner (1947) to determine if the results of Asch’s experiment were population specific. In their study, they used subjects that were a mix of both male and female students. Furthermore, they took measures to make sure that subjects were graduate and undergraduate students, and they also selected subjects from different geographical locations. Despite Mensh and Wishner’s modifications to Asch’s experiments, the findings in Asch’s study were effectively confirmed and reinforced by Mensh and Wishner (1947).

Asch’s experimental work was also extended by Kelley (1950) who demonstrated that the warm/cold manipulation extends to actual people, as well. That is, Kelley found that this warm/cold manipulation effected subjects’ perception of a person with whom they had actually encountered, instead of just a hypothetical person whom they had never met. In Kelley’s study, a man posing as guest lecturer was introduced to subjects in a neutral manner. Later, one of two notes about the stimulus person were randomly distributed to subjects. One note contained a description of him as being “rather warm,” while the other note described him as “rather cold.” Then, the “guest lecturer” proceeded to give a 20-min discussion to the subjects, while the verbal interaction that between the subjects and the stimulus person was recorded. The recording of the subjects interaction with the instructor was novel, because according to Kelley (1950), no previous studies reported had “dealt with the importance of first impressions for behavior” (Kelley, 1950). After the discussion, subjects were asked to rate the personality of the stimulus person on 15 different scales that were predetermined. In addition to rating the stimulus person, subjects were also asked to write free descriptions of him, as well. “It was by observing the interaction between the subjects and the stimulus person that Kelley found support for the autistic hostility hypothesis (Newcomb, 1947). The autistic hostility hypothesis states that when someone perceives another individual as cold, that person will limit his or her interactions with the “cold” person. It was observed by Kelley that students who were in the “warm” group engaged in discussions more freely and more frequently than those in the “cold” group (Kelley, 1950).

Like Asch, Kelley found that subjects’ total impression of a person is significantly influenced by the attribution of a central quality such as warmth. Kelley’s results showed that subjects who were given preinformation describing him as warm, gave him consistently better ratings on multiple personal attributes than did those who were given preinformation describing the stimulus person as cold. Furthermore, Kelly found that 56% of the “warm” subjects actively participated in the discussion, as opposed to only 32% of the “cold” subjects.

These studies conducted by Kelley (1950) and Asch (1946) are important because they were both novel and influential. Their early studies stimulated a considerable amount of research concerning the perception of people, specifically a study by Widmeyer & Loy (1988). They designed their study with the primary intent to determine whether or not Kelley’s warm/cold effect could be replicated in a classroom setting 35 years later. More specifically, they examined the effects of warm/cold manipulation on first impressions of individuals and their teaching ability.

In Widmeyer & Loy’s study (1988), a man posing as a guest lecturer gave a “neutral” lecture to 140 male and 100 female college students. Before the lecture, as in Kelley’s study, forms were randomly distributed to subjects describing the instructor. One half of the group received information describing him as “rather cold,” while the other group received information describing him as “rather warm.” To half of each of these groups, the stimulus person was said to teach physical education, while the other half of these groups were told that he taught social psychology classes. Following the stimulus person’s 40-min lecture, subjects evaluated his personality and teaching ability though a Likert scale and through additional written comments. Results showed that subjects who were told the stimulus person was “rather warm” rated his personality and his teaching ability more positively than did subjects who were told he was “rather cold.” Additionally, it was found that the manipulations of both disciplinary status of the instructor and the sex of the subjects had no significant influence on subjects’ ratings of the stimulus person’s teaching ability.

Research done by Asch, Kelley, and others is strongly supported by the findings of a similar study conducted by Biggs & McAllaster using warm/cold manipulation (1981). In this study, it was found that subjects who were told that a guest lecturer was warm tended to evaluate that person as more favorable than subjects who were led to believe he or she was cold. Additionally, the use of the neutral group (one that was told that the speaker was neither warm nor cold) also helped to reinforce the findings of Asch (Biggs & McAllaster, 1981), which will be discussed in further depth along with some interesting novel occurrences within the experiment.

Critical Review of Research

The studies conducted by Asch, Mensh & Wishner, Kelley, Biggs & McAllaster, and Widmeyer & Loy are similar in ways that link them together and give them the ability to use modifications in order to add to existing research. It is because of these modifications that they all contain important differences that extend the level of research to a new level. One important similarity is that they use all warm/cold modification to discover if subjects’ total impression of a person is influenced by the attribution of a central quality such as warmth or coldness. All studies found that this modification of adjectives did affect the way the stimulus person was perceived by subjects. Additionally, four out of the five studies use a male as a stimulus person. Interestingly, Biggs & McAllister (1981) intentionally uses “him or her” when discussing the stimulus person. This raises an important question regarding the sex of the stimulus person. Would subjects’ rating across multiple characteristics such as personality and teaching ability differ if the stimulus person used was a female? It might be interesting to see how a female instructor might be rated by female subjects, and also by male subjects, as well.

Another variation of this experiment might seek to investigate the length of the description of the instructor provided to the subjects. It might be interesting to examine whether a longer description would increase or decrease the differences between the cold ratings and the warm ratings. In a longer description, for example, the word warm or cold might be glossed over given the larger amount of information being provided or ultimately missed all together. It is possible, however, that people might accidently read only certain words that help them to form an impression of the stimulus person due to an overload of too much information. Varying the length of the description could be another possible modification of these experiments.

It should also be noted that while the study conducted by Asch (1946) found that the use of interchangeable adjectives could influence the descriptions given by subjects about the personality of a hypothetical person, Kelley (1950) found that this warm/cold manipulation effected subjects’ perception of a person with whom they had actually encountered, instead of just a hypothetical person. Furthermore, as mentioned earlier, no previous studies reported had “dealt with the importance of first impressions for behavior” according to Kelley (1950). This made Kelley’s recording of the subjects’ interaction with the instructor quite novel, as it had not been reported to have been done by a previous study.

Widmeyer & Loy (1988) sought to modify and extend Kelley’s work in three specific ways which will be discussed below. Since Kelley’s study only examined teaching performance indirectly by looking at whether the observers expectation of the instructor was favorable or not, Widmeyer & Loy tried to determine whether warm/cold manipulation would affect subjects’ impression of the instructor’s teaching ability specifically.

Secondly, according to Wilson (1968), an instructor’s perceived status has an influence on subject’s perception of an instructor. For example, physical education is likely to be seen as being less academically prestigious than other disciplines that are more “traditional” (Seater & Jacobson, 1976). These finding were of particular interest to Widmeyer & Loy who wanted to determine whether the labels of “physical education professor” and “social psychology professor” would have different influences on subjects’ judgments on an instructor’s teaching performance, and on their central and peripheral personality traits, respectively. They found, however, that the disciplinary status of the instructor had no significant effect on subject’s ratings of the stimulus person.

Thirdly, based on evidence that suggests male and female college students assess college-level instructors differently (Lombardo & Tocci, 1979), Widmeyer & Loy were interested in the sex of the subjects. The subjects in Asch’s study were mostly female college students, while Kelley’s study included only male college students. Just as Biggs & McAllister intentionally used gender-neutral terms when discussing the stimulus person, the sex of the subjects was also went unreported. Widmeyer & Loy specifically made efforts to determine if male and female subjects were influenced differently by the preinformation given about the instructor, in regards to the warm/cold variable, by using a mixture of both male and female college students as subjects. It should be noted that Mensh & Wishner (1947), seeking to extend on the original research of Asch, also used subjects that were a mix of both male and female students, but despite their modifications to Asch’s experiments, the findings in Mensh & Wishner showed that subject sex had significant influence on subjects’ impression of the stimulus person.

Despite the finding that the manipulations of disciplinary status and the sex of subjects has no significant effect on subject ratings (Widmeyer & Loy, 1988), effects were found in regard to perceptions of personality and perceptions of teaching ability. In regard to the warm/cold manipulation, significant effects were reported. More specifically, subjects who were told that the stimulus person was warm, perceived him (with regard to personality) as “less unpleasant, more sociable, less irritable, less ruthless, more humorous, less formal, and more human” compared to subjects to were led to believe that has was a cold person (Widmeyer & Loy, 1988). Additionally, in regard to perceptions of teaching ability, it was found that subjects who were told that the stimulus person was rather warm perceived him to be “more intelligent, more interesting, more considerate of the class, and more knowledgeable of his material” than subjects who were given information that the instructor was cold.

These findings strongly support previous research in a number of ways. First, they confirm the hypothesis that the attribution of the central quality of warmth greatly influences the overall impression of subjects on the personality of the instructor. These results also lend support to Kelley’s observation that “the size of this effect seems to depend upon the closeness of relation between the specific dimension of any given rating scale and the central quality of ‘warmth’ or ‘coldness’” (Kelley, 1950). In other words, it was asserted by Kelley that the warm/cold manipulation does not have an equal influence on all variables. In the studies conducted by Asch, Kelly, Biggs & McAllastar, and Widmeyer & Loy found that being sociable, humorous and considerate were positively related to warmth, while being proud ruthless and irritable were negatively related to warmth. It was also found that being proud, self-assured and dominant were not related to warmth at all. The discovery that the warm/cold manipulation affects the ratings of some characteristics more than others supports an assertion made by Kelley concerning the extent of the halo’s effect’s influence. Kelley states that, the effect “cannot be explained altogether on the basis of a simple halo effect” (Kelley, 1950). The pattern found by Widmeyer & Loy with regard to the differential effects across 12 common scales is similar to the patterns found by both Asch & Kelley. This pattern lends support to the explanation given by Kelley of how the effect is dependent on the closeness of the characteristic being rated to the quality of warmth (Kelley, 1950). Any discrepancies in the findings of Widmeyer & Loy that do not parallel the patterns in the other studies, lend support to an idea asserted by Mensh & Wishner’s (1947) that depending on the context, the strength of the effect of the warm/cold manipulation can vary. For example, formality was not related to warmth in Widmeyer & Loy, while it was related in Kelley’s investigation.

Biggs & McAllister (1981). Using warm/cold manipulation, subjects who were told that a guest lecturer was warm tended to evaluate that person as more favorable than subjects who were led to believe he or she was cold. Additionally, the use of the neutral group (one that was told that the speaker was neither warm nor cold) also helped to reinforce the findings of Asch (Biggs & McAllister, 1981). More specifically, the warm/cold comparison made it possible for Biggs & McAllister to replicate Kelley’s experiment, while the addition of the neutral group allowed them to make sure that other words in the biography were not contributing to differences in the evaluations between the warm and cold groups, as Asch did in his study.

Something else that should be taken into consideration is the lecture or discussion led by the stimulus person. In Asch and Mensh & Wishner’s experiments the person described was merely hypothetical, so there was no lecture or discussion. In Biggs & McAllister’s (1981) study, the stimulus person used was real as opposed to hypothetical. This stimulus person gave a lecture as opposed to an interactive discussion, but not amount of time was reported regarding the length of the lecture given. In Kelley’s experiment, the stimulus person led the class in a 20-min discussion and subject verbal interaction was recorded. In Widmeyer & Loy’s experiment, however, the stimulus person gave a 40-min lecture to the subjects, and there was no reported subject interaction with the lecturer. Discussions can vary in formality and the comfort-level of the atmosphere can be influenced, while lectures do not tend to vary as much in these respects. It could be possible that one of these conditions could be easier or harder for the stimulus to demonstrate intelligence and knowledge of the subject. Also, it may be the case that subject interaction with the instructor could provide a different foundation on which subjects base personality ratings and ratings regarding teaching ability.

As previously mention, there were some interesting occurrences within the Biggs & McAllaster (1981) experiment. There were two occurrences in particular that should be noted. First, some students realized later, after talking to each other, that some descriptions of the instructor contained the world warm, while others contained the word cold. What was interesting, though, was that one subject later told the instructor that the cold group’s description of contained words such as vicious and unforgiving, as well as other negative thing that were not included in the description. It seems that in the perception of the instructor’s personality, the word cold became combined with extra negative characteristics. The second occurrence to be noted is that one individual from the class felt that she did not have sufficient information to rate the instructor. Her refusal to finish the questionnaire was turned into a positive point of discussion in this study because it demonstrated that her decision regarding the personality of the instructor did not have to be made based solely on the information that was provided.


Each of these studies replicates, modifies, and/or extends the original Asch study pertaining to warm/cold manipulation in a variety of ways. They all lend support to hypothesis that a subject who is told that another person, whether real or hypothetical, is warm will tend to evaluate the stimulus person more favorably than another person who is led to believe he or she is cold. These studies demonstrate how easily first impressions are formed despite limited or even invalid information. Additionally, the experiments can be used to discuss trait theories of personality perhaps and why it would be important to be careful when make predictions based on single traits. Furthermore, the error in cognition referred to as the halo effect can be pointed out since the evaluator is making generalizations about a person from a single personality trait. It is noteworthy that personality characteristics as well as teaching abilities can be influenced by the halo effect. By being perceived as a warm person, an instructor would be able to influence students’ rating of his or her personality as well as teaching abilities. When considering the role that students’ evaluations of their instructors play in regard to tenure and promotions, these findings have considerable implications within the educations system. Teachers who would like to “get ahead,” for example, should present themselves being warm. It is possible that students’ expectations of professors can be influenced by student ratings. These expectations can, in turn, have an influence on the attitude and behavior of the instructor. Thus, these studies have significant educational implications.

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