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The Way You Describe Others Is the Way People See You

How you acquire the traits you ascribe to others—for better or for worse.

For many people working tedious, often monotonous 9 to 5 jobs, indulging in lunchroom gossip is tempting. “What do you think of Julia, the president´s new assistant?” “Arrogant,” remarks one of your co-workers. “Overconfident,” states another. You definitely have your own opinion, and it is not flattering. Do you jump into the conversation and offer it up? Or do you abide by the timeless wisdom that a closed mouth gathers no foot?

Hopefully, you choose the latter. Because research reveals that the traits you attribute to others are attributed to you.

The Water Cooler Hero

Part of socializing includes talking about other people. Conversing in a personal or professional context, discussing friends, family, and peers is unavoidable. Most of the time, we are gracious, kind, and complimentary. But not all of the time.

Research reveals that we should be. Because badmouthing others may have consequences over and above the obvious risks of having your unflattering remarks revealed, or coming across as bitter, jealous, or vindictive. It turns out that the traits you publicly assign to others are likely to be attributed to you.

Trait Transference: You Are What You Say

Research by Skowronski et al. (1998) describes a phenomenon known as spontaneous trait transference, as a process by which the very traits we describe in others are attributed to us.[i] Their research further demonstrated this association persists over time.

But wait a minute, you think, you clearly do not possess the negative characteristics you describe in others. Bad news: Skowronski et al. found that spontaneous trait transference does not represent a logical attribution, but a mindless association.

Their research also discovered that trait transference was not as simple as transferring a positive impression of someone who compliments other people, or a negative impression of someone who is disparaging. The transference was trait specific. Ouch.

Trait Inference: You Aced a Test So Must Be Smart

But there is more. Traits are not only transferred, but they are also inferred. When we hear about something another person did, we associate action with aptitude.

Research by Wells et al. (2011) discussed both spontaneous trait transference and spontaneous trait inference, defined as inferring traits about others as a result of hearing a description of their behavior.[ii] One example they give is how hearing that someone “aced (his) Quantum Mechanics exam” would leave a listener to infer the test taker is intelligent.

They also discovered that both trait transference and trait inference require thinking, as both are dependent on working memory capacity.

Given how quickly we apparently jump to conclusions, are there times we are more likely to give people the benefit of the doubt? Yes, indeed. Research shows that when we are motivated to bond, we are more likely to view others in a positive light.

Making Friends is Easier Wearing Rose Colored Glasses

In a study aptly named “Seeing others through rose-colored glasses,” Rim et al. (2013) examined the human affiliation goal, recognizing that we are social creatures, born to bond—and to belong. We can instinctively recognize the practical impact of this research every time we go to a networking event hoping to make business contacts, or a social function hoping to make new friends.

They found in one experiment that people with an affiliation goal demonstrated a positivity bias by forming more positive spontaneous trait inferences than negative ones.[iii] In a second experiment, they found this effect only takes place when the affiliation goal remains unfulfilled.

Expressing Kindness and Criticism

The takeaway? Authentic compliments allow you to express admiration of others, with the positive traits you cite also being attributed to you. The opposite, of course, is true as well. Perhaps your parents told you growing up that if you had nothing good to say, don´t say anything. Research indicates the propriety of that wisdom.

During conversation, personal or professional, sometimes expressing criticism is warranted. But if in doubt, leave it out.


[i]John J. Skowronski, Donal E. Carlston, Lynda May, and Matthew T. Crawford, ”Spontaneous Trait Tranference: Communicators Take on the Qualities They Describe in Others,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 74, 1998, 837-848.

[ii]Brett M. Wells, John J. Skowronski, Matthew T. Crawford, Cory R. Scherer, and Donal E. Carlston, ”Inference making and linking both require thinking: Spontaneous trait inference and spontaneous trait transference both rely on working memory capacity,” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 47, 2011, 1116-1126.

[iii]SoYon Rim, Kate E. Min, James S. Uleman, Tanya L. Chartrand, and Donal E. Carlston, ”Seeing others through rose-colored glasses: An affiliation goal and positivity bias in implicit trait impressions,” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 49, 2013, 1204-1209.

More from Wendy L. Patrick, J.D., Ph.D.
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