Personality beliefs shape social judgments from face impressions to stereotypes

Psychologists have noted the similarity of personality judgments across many contexts, from face- to group-based impressions. This may be because we learn the actual correlation of traits, and widely apply this knowledge in judgments —even where it may lead us astray.
Personality beliefs shape social judgments from face impressions to stereotypes

A notable and central finding in social psychology is that all of our judgments of others’ personality traits —from judging extroversion to humor to neuroticism— correlate with one another along a relatively small set of personality trait ‘dimensions’. For instance, most any judgment correlates well with judgments of either ‘warmth’ or ‘competence’ (conceptual illustration below). Interestingly, psychologists have noted that these dimensions of social perception seem to pop up in any context we judge others. For instance, dimensions like ‘warmth’ and ‘competence’ appear in judgments of strangers’ faces, of familiar friends and famous people, and in stereotypes of social groups. 

Why does this happen?

One prominent explanation is that these similar dimensions appear frequently given the ever-present adaptive importance of understanding others’ intentions (‘warmth’) and ability to enact them (‘competence’; Fiske, Cuddy, & Glick, 2007). While this may explain why certain traits are prioritized and central to perceptions, it may not account for why other judgments align with them (e.g., humor, neuroticism). Also posing challenges to a uniformly adaptive and fixed account of the dimensions, recent decades have continuously unearthed cases in which the dimensions change in their form and number (Kervyn, Yzerbyt, & Judd, 2010; Stolier, Hehman, & Freeman, 2018). 

This caught our eye in my first year of doctoral training, working alongside Drs. Jonathan Freeman and Eric Hehman. We set out to explore additional contributions to the dimensions that could explain their plasticity. At first, we primarily focused on the potential role of several social motivations, such as emotion and intergroup bias, in driving and altering trait judgment correlations (for review, see Stolier, Hehman, & Freeman, 2018). In the last couple years of my graduate training, we also considered other contributing factors to a lesser extent. To our surprise, one of these peripheral projects quickly gained traction and moved to the front of our interests, as its subject had striking explanatory power in our data. I briefly review this research below, and share some additional thoughts.

In our recent research (Stolier, Hehman, & Freeman, 2020), we provide evidence for an additional origins story of the dimensions: people have beliefs about how personality traits correlate, such as sociability with open-mindedness, and apply this knowledge anywhere we may judge people. Participants made personality judgments of strangers’ faces, famous people, or societal social groups (e.g., ‘skaters’, ‘Republicans’). In each case, we found participants’ judgments reflected their beliefs. So, a ‘sociable’ face, celebrity, or occupation appears ‘open-minded’ to us, if we believe the two traits are correlated, and less so if we instead believe sociable people as domineering and obstinate. Below is an example of how perceivers who disagree about the correlation of ‘friendliness’ and ‘competence’ traits may judge faces differently (Stolier, Hehman, Keller, Walker, & Freeman, 2018).

In essence, these findings imply we hold ‘personality stereotypes’. We generalize about others’ personality traits based on the others we ascribe to them. 

But why do we apply personality beliefs in judgments, and where do they come from?

This may be the side effect of a social trick we use to figure people out. Inconvenient to the perceiver, certain personality traits are more or less drawn out by situations or worn on our sleeve. For instance, our sociability is more apparent than our open-mindedness (Vazire, 2010). To our luck, different personality traits are in fact correlated, such as sociability and open-mindedness (Digman, 1997). Therefore, if we accurately learn which personality traits correlate, we can leverage this knowledge to figure others’ personality a bit more accurately. In other words, we may use a clear glimpse of certain traits to fill and color in the whole picture of others’ personalities (Jackson, 1972; Tamir & Thornton, 2018). In support of this possibility, we also found people have impressively accurate knowledge of which personality traits are more or less correlated.

However, some personality judgments are quite often inaccurate, for example, face-based judgments (Todorov, Olivola, Dotsch, & Mende-Siedlecki, 2015). Nonetheless, our personality beliefs are still reflected in these judgments. From this observation comes an interesting speculation, that personality stereotypes, while useful in some contexts, run wild in our perceptions even when they are not relevant. That the dimensions of personality appear anywhere may be a sort of unintended by-product of a socially intelligent trick meant to be used when we have an accurate starting point.

A metaphor in evolutionary studies used for this is a ‘spandrel’, the often-adorned opening between an arch and ceiling in cathedrals. Whereas the ceiling and arch that supports it are purposeful and useful, the spandrel is a space and shape in the architecture that is their unintended by-product (Gould & Lewontin, 1979). Perhaps the ubiquity of the dimensions of social cognition is merely a spandrel of cognition, with considerable consequence. 

Image taken from

Whether a spandrel or not, future research will be important to identify the many contexts where and when personality stereotypes help and hurt us and others the most.


Digman, J. M. (1997). Higher-order factors of the Big Five. Journal of personality and social psychology73(6), 1246.

Fiske, S. T., Cuddy, A. J., & Glick, P. (2007). Universal dimensions of social cognition: Warmth and competence. Trends in cognitive sciences11(2), 77-83.

Gould, S. J., & Lewontin, R. C. (1979). The spandrels of San Marco and the Panglossian paradigm: a critique of the adaptationist programme. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London. Series B. Biological Sciences205(1161), 581-598.

Jackson, D. N. (1972). A model for inferential accuracy. Canadian Psychologist/Psychologie Canadienne13(3), 185.

Kervyn, N., Yzerbyt, V., & Judd, C. M. (2010). Compensation between warmth and competence: Antecedents and consequences of a negative relation between the two fundamental dimensions of social perception. European Review of Social Psychology21(1), 155-187.

Stolier, R. M., Hehman, E., & Freeman, J. B. (2018). A dynamic structure of social trait space. Trends in cognitive sciences22(3), 197-200.

Stolier, R. M., Hehman, E., & Freeman, J. B. (2020). Trait knowledge forms a common structure across social cognition. Nature Human Behaviour.

Stolier, R. M., Hehman, E., Keller, M. D., Walker, M., & Freeman, J. B. (2018). The conceptual structure of face impressions. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences115(37), 9210-9215.

Tamir, D. I., & Thornton, M. A. (2018). Modeling the predictive social mind. Trends in cognitive sciences22(3), 201-212.

Todorov, A., Olivola, C. Y., Dotsch, R., & Mende-Siedlecki, P. (2015). Social attributions from faces: Determinants, consequences, accuracy, and functional significance. Annual review of psychology66, 519-545.

Vazire, S. (2010). Who knows what about a person? The self–other knowledge asymmetry (SOKA) model. Journal of personality and social psychology98(2), 281.

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