The Different Ways We Evaluate People

What are the different ways in which we evaluate people? When we meet someone for the first time, we notice a number of surface characteristics clothes, gestures, manner of speaking, tone of voice, appearance, and so on. Then, drawing on these cues, we assign the person a ready-made category. Associated with each category is a schema (plural: schemata), which, is a set of beliefs or expectations about something (in this case, people) that is based on past experience and is presumed to apply to all members of that category (Fiske & Taylor, 1991).

Schemata serve a number of important functions (Gilbert, 1998). First, they allow us to make inferences about other people. We assume, for example, that a friendly person is likely to be good-natured, to accept a social invitation from us, or to do us a small favor. Second, schemata play a crucial role in how we interpret and remember information. Schemata can also lure us into “remembering” things about people that we never actually observed. Most of us associate the traits of shyness, quietness, and preoccupation with one’s own thoughts with the schema introvert.

How do these factors play a role in our expectations of other people? Over time, as we continue to interact with people, we add new information about them to our mental files. However, our later experiences generally do not influence us nearly so much as our earliest impressions. This is known as the primacy effect. According to Susan Fiske and Shelley Taylor (1991), they point out that human thinkers are “cognitive misers. ” Instead of exerting ourselves to interpret every detail we learn about a person, we are stingy with our mental efforts.

Once we have formed an impression about someone, we tend to keep it, even if our first impressions were formed by jumping to conclusions or through prejudice (Fiske, 1995). Thus, if you already like a new acquaintance, you may excuse a flaw or vice you discover later on. Conversely, if someone has made an early bad impression on you, you may refuse to believe subsequent evidence of that person’s good qualities. Moreover, first impressions can lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy. A stereotype is a set of characteristics believed to be shared by all members of a social category.

What are the disadvantages of these expectations? A stereotype is a special kind of schema that may be based on almost any distinguishing feature, but is most often applied to sex, race, occupation, physical appearance, place of residence, and membership in a group or organization (Hilton & Von Hipple, 1996). When our first impressions of people are governed by a stereotype, we tend to infer things about them solely on the basis of their social category and to ignore facts about individual traits that are inconsistent with the stereotype.

As a result, we may remember things about them selectively or inaccurately, thereby perpetuating our initial stereotype. For example, with a quick glance at almost anyone, you can classify that person as male or female. Once you have so categorized the person, you may rely more on your stereotype of that gender than on your own perceptions during further interactions with the person. Stereotypes can easily become the basis for self-fulfilling prophecies.


Morris, C. & Maisto, A. (2005) Social Psychology. Retrieved November 13, 2009, from The Psychology of Science, Axia College e-Resource.

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