People Take on the Traits They Describe in Others

October 12, 2006 at 1:48 pm 23 comments

Spontaneous trait transference is a phenomenon where people are perceived as possessing a trait that they describe in others. Telling others that your math professor is lazy will cause them to infer that you are lazy. This works the other way too — describing positive attributes about your friend may ascribe you those attributes as well.

Several experiments showed that people will associate personality traits to communicators mindlessly without logical rational. They also have a poor recollection of whether the communicator was describing themselves or someone else in a conversation.

So be careful when gossiping about a co-worker, lest you be seen as what you describe. And if you want to appear more charming, perhaps you could add that word to your vocabulary when talking about others.

As the old saying goes, “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all”.

Skowronski, J. J., Carlston, D. E., Mae, L., & Crawford, M. T. (1998). Spontaneous Trait Transference: Communicators Take on the Qualities They Describe in Others. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 74(4), 837-848. [PDF]

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23 Comments Add your own

  • 1. alec  |  October 12, 2006 at 9:12 pm

    Are you insinuating that my brain-dead President is merely a reflection of America’s traits?

    Reply
  • 2. dagfarib  |  October 12, 2006 at 11:16 pm

    Did you hear about Ronald’s girlfriend? She’s -so- gossipy, like oh my god!

    Reply
  • 3. eleanor  |  October 13, 2006 at 5:37 am

    ooer!

    Reply
  • 4. sulz  |  October 13, 2006 at 6:07 am

    i’m sorry but i don’t agree with that psychobabble. i often tell my friend that i envy his extrovert personality, but does that make me an extrovert? i’m one of the most introverted people i know. maybe this could be the case in a certain context, but it cannot possibly be generalised for all contexts of gossiping and badmouthing.

    Reply
  • 5. Adam  |  October 13, 2006 at 6:56 am

    Well my mate got raped by shemales, what does that say about me?

    Reply
  • 6. the forester  |  October 13, 2006 at 7:19 am

    Are you insinuating that my brain-dead President is merely a reflection of America’s traits?

    Duh. Look at the immature mentality most people take on when discussing Bush: “He’s so stupid! He’s so stupid!” Repeating that five times every day does nothing to help your own intelligence quotient.

    i’m sorry but i don’t agree with that psychobabble.

    You must be a person who uses a lot of psychobabble.

    The phenomenon described in this post is similar to the idea that people accuse other people of those things they’re guilty of themselves. (See? I’m a psychobabbler too!)

    Reply
  • 7. Beppo  |  October 13, 2006 at 10:40 am

    I’m not sure I agree with that, but I do agree with the notion that we tend to see in others the faults that we struggle with. Perhaps they’re related, in that what we see is based on who we are. It’s true that we see everything around us through a filter of what our perceptions are. (For example, if you think people don’t like you, then you’ll look for people to not like you, and so any little thing might trigger that thought or feeling, even if it’s not actually there.)

    Reply
  • 8. Aphra Behn  |  October 13, 2006 at 12:16 pm

    My ex once asked me why I thought our neighbours were grumpy.

    I speculated that it was because Mrs Neighbour wanted children. My ex thought it more likely that Mr Neighbour was worried about money.

    The exchange tells you all you need to know about the state of our marriage at that time.

    AB

    Reply
  • 9. liboglang  |  October 13, 2006 at 2:39 pm

    Hmm… i must stop gossiping about who-is-gay-in-the-office. I will miss the limelight!

    Reply
  • 10. liboglang  |  October 13, 2006 at 2:51 pm

    Anything you say is a reflection of who you are. Its hard to not be judgemental… but it pays-off to see good things in people.

    Reply
  • 11. Gooberoo  |  October 13, 2006 at 4:17 pm

    If you haven’t seen the movie Zelig (Woody Allen) give it a go, it fits in with this research!

    Reply
  • 12. Gwen  |  October 13, 2006 at 4:51 pm

    Some of this research sounds so FLUFFY.

    Like I really needed some researchers to tell me that telling guys I think some other girl is hot is an all-round good thing for me to say…. =)

    Reply
  • 13. sulz  |  October 27, 2006 at 5:34 am

    The phenomenon described in this post is similar to the idea that people accuse other people of those things they’re guilty of themselves. (See? I’m a psychobabbler too!)

    lol. but i still don’t agree. :)

    Reply
  • 14. cmd  |  November 1, 2006 at 12:52 pm

    It would be interesting to see how this idea would sit with an anthropoligist and especially a philosopher.

    Reply
  • 15. Fab  |  November 20, 2006 at 1:07 am

    i’m sorry but i don’t agree with that psychobabble. i often tell my friend that i envy his extrovert personality, but does that make me an extrovert? i’m one of the most introverted people i know. maybe this could be the case in a certain context, but it cannot possibly be generalised for all contexts of gossiping and badmouthing.

    First, you missed to take into account the fact that this research is done on a sample of people. Thus, what is presented here is valid on the average, and not necessarily on individual, particular, cases. Hopefully, people differ from each other.

    Second, you are reasoning in a abslolute fashion, as if things were binary and if you shifted between 100% introversion (0% extraversion) and 100% extroversion (0% introversion). But, if you thought in a relative sense, you may have understood that, by telling your friend he is extroverted, you may become a little less introverted : from 100% introverted (and 0% extroverted), to 90% introverted (and 10% extroverted).

    Have a nice day. :)

    Reply
  • 16. sulz  |  November 20, 2006 at 5:40 am

    but to my understanding, this research is done on a sample of people to make a general conclusion, just as you said. so perhaps i could be the exception to that rule. unlikely, but possible.

    well, obviously i’m too absolute to have not come up with what you have in between the lines of that report. ;) i can be quite literal, so when the article says “infer you’re lazy” i take it as “100% lazy and not 90% lazy or 10% lazy”. you’ve pointed out something i’ve never considered before…

    likewise, a nice day to you too!

    Reply
  • 17. Jessi  |  December 1, 2006 at 9:28 pm

    i’m sorry but i don’t agree with that psychobabble. i often tell my friend that i envy his extrovert personality, but does that make me an extrovert? i’m one of the most introverted people i know. maybe this could be the case in a certain context, but it cannot possibly be generalised for all contexts of gossiping and badmouthing.

    The study didn’t show that the person talking acquires that trait, just that they are *perceived to have it – because of the listeners bad memory and all that.

    Reply
  • 18. sulz  |  December 2, 2006 at 10:43 am

    so i’m “perceived to be an extrovert” because i say someone is one? i don’t know… i would think a person’s memory of me is based on my actions and interactions than my compliments/criticisms.

    i guess the idea of this research can be applied to very specific areas and contexts of conversation, but that since this was not expounded on, i’m applying this idea to the only example given and cannot see how it works.

    Reply
  • 19. K. Loupon  |  February 19, 2007 at 7:52 pm

    This research proves why it behooves us to speak nicely of others – because any wrongdoings by us will find a way to come back and bite us in the butt – HARD. It is God’s punishment for badmouthing others. He puts it into the listeners head to see us as we are heard. Simple.

    Also, I agree with the statement by Beppo that we tend to see in others the faults we struggle with. It makes sense. It is easier to lash out at others for displaying the fault which is at the forefront of our self-analyzing consciousness. People around me don’t stand a chance! I’ve got lots of corrective comments ready at the tip of my tongue!

    Reply
  • 20. Joe  |  December 9, 2007 at 2:13 pm

    I think this whole notion is very true. If you treat others well and talk nicely about others, you too will be viewed in that same light. How could you not be? It makes total sense. If someone is constantly complaining, what does that make that person look like? Nobody likes a complainer. Get over it. Don’t let something insignificant bring you down to that level.

    It’s kind of like that saying: “You are what you eat.” But in this case it’s more like: “You are what you say.”

    Reply
  • 21. James  |  May 8, 2010 at 12:52 pm

    Yeah I agree with this article. Talking about someone else and how stupid or lazy they are really later places the gossiper into being gossiped.

    Reply
  • 22. Darby  |  August 15, 2014 at 1:28 pm

    Actually whhen someone doesn’t understand after that its up to othedr viewers that they will
    help, so here it happens.

    Reply
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