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Social psychology is a branch of psychology focused on the scientific study of how people think about and relate to one another. One of the core research areas within social psychology concerns the question of how we learn about and evaluate other people based on their behavior. Expanding on the theories of early pioneers like Solomon Asch, Fritz Heider, and Harold Kelley, social psychologists have identified consistent patterns that govern how form stable impressions of the people around us. For instance, research suggests that when learning about a person’s moral character, bad behavior weighs more heavily on our impressions than good behavior. However, when learning about a person’s abilities, achievement is more informative than failure. Much of this lesson is influenced by the research of psychologists like Susan Fiske, John Skowronski and Donal Carlston, and Bogdan Wojciszke. (See Selected References below.)

In more recent years, the field of social neuroscience has emerged at the intersection of social psychology and the biological sciences. Several social neuroscientists have investigated the underlying neural signatures of forming initial impressions of other people. (See Selected References below.) Our lab has tried to expand on this work, focusing on what happens after the first impression, especially in moments where we change our minds about other people.

I’m currently a graduate student, working under the guidance of Dr. Alex Todorov at Princeton University. Our first paper on impression updating can be found here, while the follow-up paper (which is the basis for a lot of this lesson) is currently under review! Also check out Alex’s lab’s website for lots of cool demonstrations of some of his other work, including how we form impressions of people based on facial appearances.

For every aspect of human social life, there's a possible research topic for the fields of social psychology and social neuroscience. For some more general info regarding the work we do and the kinds of questions we ask, check out this TED Talk from David Brooks, this blog from Drs. Jamil Zaki and Adam Waytz, or this special issue of Nature Neuroscience. Moreover, you should check out The People's Science, a forum designed to bring scientists and the general public into direct dialogue.

Finally, for a demonstration of how fMRI works, check out this video or take a look at this article!

Selected References

1. Cloutier, J., Kelley, W.M., & Heatherton T.F. (2011a). The influence of perceptual and knowledge-based familiarity on the neural substrates of face perception. Social Neuroscience, 6, 63-75.

2. Cloutier, J., Gabrieli, J.D.E., O'Young, D., Ambady, N. (2011b). An fMRI study of violations of social expectations: when people are not who we expect them to be. NeuroImage, 57, 583-588.

3. Fiske, S.T. (1980). Attention and weight in person perception: the impact of negative and extreme behavior. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 38, 889-906.

4. Fiske, S., Cuddy, A., Glick, P. (2007). Universal dimensions of social perception: Warmth and competence. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 11, 77-83.

5. Ma, N., Vandekerckhove, M., Baetens, K., Van Overwalle, F., Seurinck, R., Fias, W., (2011). Inconsistencies in spontaneous and intentional trait inferences. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 12, 937-50.

6. Mende-Siedlecki, P., Cai, Y., Todorov, A. (2012). The neural dynamics of updating person impressions. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience. doi:10.1093/scan/nsr090.

7. Mende-Siedlecki, P., Baron, S., Todorov, A. (under review). Diagnostic value underlies asymmetric updating of impressions in the morality and ability domains.

8. Mitchell, J.P., Macrae, C.N., & Banaji, M.R. (2004). Encoding-specific effects of social cognition on the neural correlates of subsequent memory. Journal of Neuroscience, 4912-4917.

9. Mitchell, J.P., Macrae, C.N., Banaji, M.R. (2005). Forming impressions of people versus inanimate objects: Social-cognitive processing in the medial prefrontal cortex. NeuroImage, 26, 251–257.

10. Mitchell, J.P., Cloutier, J., & Banaji, M.R., Macrae, C.N. (2006). Medial prefrontal dissociations during processing of trait diagnostic and nondiagnostic person information. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 49-55.

11. Schiller, D., Freeman, J.B., Mitchell, J.P., Uleman, J.S., Phelps, E.A. (2009). A neural mechanism of first impressions. Nature Neuroscience, 12, 508-514.

12. Skowronski, J.J., Carlston, D.E. (1987). Social judgment and social memory: The role of cue diagnosticity in negativity, positivity, and extremity biases. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 52, 689-699.

13. Skowronski, J.J., & Carlston, D. (1989). Negativity and extremity biases in impression formation: A review of explanations. Psycho

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We’ve discussed some of the basic patterns that guide how we form and update impressions of other people based on the way they act. What are some other factors that that might influence the process—i.e., characteristics of behaviors, characteristics of actors, characteristics of perceivers, general contextual factors? Think about anecdotes from your own life that either correspond with the examples from the lesson, or perhaps run counter to these general patterns.

Aug 15 • 
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