Dr. C. George Boeree


The basic building blocks of meaning we could call  contrasts:   we cut up the world into little pieces, we separate this from that, we make differentiations.  There are many other names we could use:  constructs, concepts, percepts, categories, dimensions, and so on, all with slightly differing meanings.  But they all ultimately refer to this process of making one into two:  more or less; it's this or it's that; there are two kinds of people in the world; it's them or us; it's got to be one or the other; it's black or white; please answer, yes or no; what goes up must come down.

Most of the time, we use only one end or the other of a contrast at a time.  These ends are called characteristics or, especially in reference to the characteristics of people,  traits.   But the other end is always there, lurking in the background.  You can't have one without the other -- good without bad, up without down, fat without thin...

Please note that these contrast need not be verbal:  My cat knows the difference between the expensive cat food and the cheap stuff, yet can't tell you about it;  an infant contrasts between mommy and non-mommy; wild animals contrast safe areas and dangerous ones, etc.  Even adult humans sometimes "just know" without being about to say -- unconscious contrasts, if you like:  what is it about that person that you like or dislike?

Contrasts don't just float around independently, either.  We interrelate and organize them.  For example, we can  define  a category:  "Women are adult female human beings."  Or we can go a step further and organize things into  taxonomies,  those tree-like structures we come across in biology:  A Siamese is a kind of cat, which is a kind of carnivore, which is a kind of mammal, which is a kind of vertebrate....

Or we can put contrasts into more temporal structures, like  rules.   These are often called schemas or scripts.  You can find explicit examples in books about card games, etiquette, or grammar; but you know quite a few rule systems yourself, even if they have become so automatic as to be unconscious!

Not all organization of contrasts are so tightly structured.  We can  describe  something:  "Women are delicate."  As the example is intended to suggest, descriptions, as opposed to definitions, need not be true!   Beliefs  are similar to, but looser than, taxonomies.  Whereas birds definitely (i.e. by definition) are vertebrates and have feathers, it is only my belief that they all fly -- I could be wrong!  Stereotypes are examples of beliefs; so are opinions.  But some beliefs are so strongly held that we see them as definite.

There are also  narratives -- the stories we have in our minds.  These are temporal, like rules, but are amazingly flexible.  They can be a matter of remembered personal experiences, or memorized history lessons, or pure fiction.  I have a suspicion that these contribute greatly to our sense of identity, and that animals don't have them to the degree we do.


One lovely thing we can do with the verbal contrasts and characteristics is describe a person to someone -- i.e. give a list of traits.  We then begin to deal with them socially before we actually meet them!  They, in fact, could be long dead, and yet we can get to know them somewhat.  Each word or phrase we give or hear narrows the range of possible expectations a little more.  He's male?  So what.  He's male, 40-ish, chubby, a professor of psychology...  Oh, I know who you mean.  The more that is said, the more precise the anticipations.

In linguistics, it is said that language is  generative.   That means that, with a small set of words and a small set of rules of grammar, you can create (generate) a potentially infinite set of meaningful sentences.  Well, this generativity is characteristic of all human activity.  This means that, no matter how many contrasts you can relate about a chubby professor or whatever, there are still an infinite number of possible characteristics or behaviors that the 40-ish professor can generate.  That professor, in other words, can still surprise you!

Since we are still "built" to try to anticipate him, we try one more thing:  We try to anticipate others by putting ourselves into our anticipations!  We make the assumption that they will do what we would do if we were in their situation and in the kinds of pigeon-holes we have placed them in.  I call this "the assumption of empathic understanding."

This seems to be such a strong tendency in human beings that we often do it when we are trying to anticipate non-human beings and things.  We tend to be  anthropomorphic  in our dealings with animals, for example.  I tend to see my cat as being manipulative, Machiavellian, even sociopathic when, in fact, she doesn't have the I.Q. of a bean sprout.  We even attribute "souls" to non-living things, which is called  animism.   So our ancestors attempted to appease angry  volcanoes, or give thanks for the generosity of the earth, and so on.

When all else fails, we expect others to be like us.

Interaction of traits

Some of the preceding makes people sound rather computerish -- all orderly and neat.  For better or for worse, however, there is nothing terribly neat about our use of traits.  Trait meanings can vary quite a bit, depending on the context they, and we, are in.  Traits vary, for example, in the presence of  other  traits.

The original research on this involved giving people lists of trait adjectives, as if we were describing a blind-date:  "He's cute, has a good personality, works at the mall, drives a 'vette..."

For example, try to imagine this person:

        cold, handsome, intelligent, concerned.

Compare your image with  this  person:

        warm, handsome, intelligent, concerned.

If I asked you for details, you might have some like mine:  Number one is a physicist, looks a bit like James Bond, and is concerned about the disposal of nuclear waste;  Number two is a psychologist, is the "cute" kind of handsome, and is concerned with the emotional welfare of young children.

Some traits -- called  central traits -- are "heavier" than others, that is, are responsible for more alteration in other traits while tending to remain relatively untouched themselves.  Warm-cold is an example.  Or try imagining this person:

        Strong, tough, cold, athletic, and...female.

What happened?  Well, we all know strong, tough, cold, athletic women; but male-female is a very strong contrast and influences our interpretation of other traits dramatically.

It also seems that the  first  traits we hear have the greatest effects.  Try this one:

        Popular, friendly, warm, ugly.

And compare it with this one:

        Ugly, warm, friendly, popular..

In the second example, you more easily adapted the following words to the prime one (ugly), whereas in the first, your stereotypes had you imagining a fairly attractive person.

Note that these things don't just happen when we describe someone with a list of trait adjectives.  They happen as we piece together our impressions of a real person right in front of us!  And so our last example is also the way "first impressions" happen.  And first impressions do, indeed, have a large impact.

Put first impressions together with the heaviest contrast of all -- good-bad -- and you have what is called the  halo effect:   If we quickly evaluate a person as good, everything afterwards will be seen with a "halo" around it... this person can do no wrong!  If we see them as bad, the halo becomes horns, hoofs, and a pointy tail, and even possible positive traits are interpreted negatively!


As I said earlier, contrasts don't just float around loose.  They are organized to some degree.  This means that we can make  inferences  from one characteristic to another.  Usually, this means going from a fairly obvious characteristic to one that is more "abstract," hidden, or uncertain.  For example, when you see a person in a lab coat with a stethoscope around her neck and a certain kind of diploma on the wall, you might infer that this person is a physician.  Or if you see someone being rude to someone else, you might infer that she is obnoxious, that is, has some inner trait that will lead her to be rude in other situations and might involve other behaviors as well.

Note that some of our inferences are more a matter of definitions, and others are more a matter of beliefs.  Certain college degrees, for example, are crucial to who is or isn't a doctor; their manner of dress, or their bedside manners, might be important, but are not crucial.

There are several different bases for the inferences we make:

(1)  A smile is usually correctly understood as an indication of happiness because smiles seem to be a part of our  biology.   There is no culture in the world that does not understand the smile, though many misuse and pervert that understanding.

(2)  "The finger" is understood, in our culture, as an indication of contempt, because it is a part of our  cultural communications system.   Language, gestures, clothing, social ritual, occupation, and much of body language is cultural.

(3)  Being female has been, in our culture, traditionally assumed to imply poor mechanical ability.  This assumption, of course, has lead parents to discourage the development of mechanical abilities in their daughters:  Why bother?  The inference is, therefore, a  self-fulfilling prophecy.   The expectation creates itself!

(4)  Finally, many of our inferences don't really work at all.  They are perpetuated because we often ignore or deny contradictions -- perhaps they are threatening to us -- or the contradictions simply don't show up well, as when we have little contact with some category of people.  We could call these  superstitious inferences.


Probably the simplest inferences we can make begin with the appearance of the person before us.  As you'll see, there is a good deal of superstition here, but also some inferences well rooted in biology.

Facial expression of emotion

First, we tend to infer emotion from facial expressions.  Charles Darwin noted that animals as well as people communicate emotion through facial expression, and that certain expressions appear to be universal among human beings:  Smiling is a sign of happiness and warmth towards another; crying is a sign of sadness; the frown with down-turned eye-brows is a sign of anger.

Laughter, too, is universal, but it is a more complex thing:  It may signify happiness, yet if someone greeted you by laughing, you would feel funny--laughter can be very hostile, as when we find someone's misfortunes amusing.  In other words, laughter reflects interpersonal tension and tension-release, such as when we conclude that we are not afraid of the stranger (that silly clown!) after all.

Anthropologists have noted these and other expressions even in cultures that had had no previous contact with the mainstream of world cultures.

Not only the expressions but the inferences we make from the expressions may be built-in.  Notice how we tend to smile when someone smiles, or cry when they cry.  Even babies do that!  It's called "social contagion," and may explain the sometimes terrifying behavior of mobs.

But notice that some expressions are culture-bound, such as the single raised eye-brow (signifying wry amusement in our culture) or the tongue pushing out the cheek (signifying sexual interest in Latin America).

And further, we can manipulate even our natural expressions.  All the European cultures use facial expressions willfully and in exaggerated fashion.  Other cultures, notably the Japanese, suppress some expressions and use stereotypical versions of others.  Only a few cultures, such as the Polynesians', tend to express their feelings fairly directly and honestly.

Finally, of course, no matter what your natural feelings or your cultural adaptations, you can lie with your facial expressions.  It takes a good eye to catch the minute differences between a well-acted emotion and the real thing!

Facial structure

It is perhaps the biological bases of facial expressions that leads us to make further inferences based on facial structures:  A blockhead is honest but dumb, a weak chin means a weak personality, a high brow means great intelligence, a low brow means coarse or vulgar tastes, beady eyes means sneakiness, a prune-face suggests a prude, and so on.

Most of these are superstitious or even bigoted:  Some derive from the supposed characteristics of certain ethnic groups and their supposed similarity to certain animals (English stereotypes of Irish people, for example -- they all look like leprechauns, don't they now?)  Some -- the prune face or beauty-pageant smiles, for example -- are the results of habitual expressions of disgust or sociability.  Beware of how you hold your face:  It may stay that way!

The body

And if your face can tell something about you, why not your body?  William Sheldon even developed a theory (with some supportive research) that connected body types with personality types:  To exaggerate, thin people (ectomorphs) are neurotic (cerebrotonic), muscular people (mesomorphs) are jocks (somatotonic), and fat people (endomorphs) are jolly (viscerotonic).  Sheldon maintained that there really is a biological (or, more precisely, an embryological) connection.

But it could also be a matter of self-fulfilling prophecy:  The broad-shouldered boy gets pushed into football by his over-zealous father, or the lonely chubby girl makes jokes at her own expense in order to make friends.


Fortunately, we cover our bodies with clothing. (I've been to nude beaches and they are not a pretty sight!)  And this gives us another opportunity for making inferences.  Obviously, there's nothing biological here.  First, it is a great opportunity for communicating about oneself, consciously and unconsciously.  It is a way of expressing ourselves.

Sometimes, the communication is very direct:  you can wear a t-shirt with a political slogan or favorite band on it, for example, or wear a cross, or a star of David, or yin-yang, or peace sign.

But generally, in order to communicate, we need to rely on our cultures' stereotypes.  Otherwise, how would others know what kind of statement we are trying to make?  This is another example of the effect of  context  on person perception.

For example, if one dresses sloppily (relative to the norms of your society), that might suggests to people in one culture that one is lazy.  In another culture, it might suggest that the person is interested in higher things.  In a third, it might suggest that the person is relaxed and comfortable.  In a fourth, it might mean you are uncouth....

 Within  a culture, sloppy may mean good things at a family barbecue, and bad things at uncle Joe's funeral!

A curious point:  If you dress "conventionally" (for whatever place and time you are in), people will trust you more!  Deviation in dress suggests deviation in other matters as well.

Actually, you needn't move from one culture to another.  You can stay in one place and just wait a few years:  The styles will change.  In the 1950's lipstick meant liberal; in the 1960's, it meant conservative.  Today...I don't know.  Glasses used to mean smart, reliable, industrious (frequent reading may have led to this stereotype!); today, with the availability of contacts, glasses are simply a choice.

Again notice that we can lie with clothes, even more easily than with our facial expressions.  We can, for example, "dress for success," or at least for an interview.

Please notice that these inferences are not necessarily from the obvious to the less visible -- we can work them backwards, too.  For example, what does a librarian look like?  Forgive me my stereotypes, but I picture a woman (despite the many male librarians I've met), a bit older, dressed in a conservative suit (tweed, even), dark stockings, sensible shoes, hair in a bun, and glasses with one of those little gold chains.  I'm ashamed of myself, but there is in fact a little of the self-fulfilling prophecy at work here:  Someone who wants to be a librarian, identifies with the profession, may in fact tend to dress in keeping with the stereotype and thereby promote it!


The strongest effect of face and body is the overall characteristic of attractiveness.  We tend to see pretty people as being nicer, smarter, even morally better -- we like them more.  This has held up under the research:  for example, psychologists found that teachers preferred and expected more from the pretty kids and less from the unattractive ones.  They even made excuses when the attractive ones didn't meet up with their expectations!

I should note that the longer you know someone, the less important their attractiveness becomes.  And also note that there are plenty of exceptions to the rules when it comes to making inferences from attractiveness--note the "dumb blonde" stereotype.  And finally, don't forget that beauty is in the eye of the beholder -- it is very subjective and (beauty pageants to the contrary) impossible to measure!


Along with appearance we can include how you sound.   We can make quite a few inferences from the sound of your voice, and not too inaccurately, either.  For example, we can infer social class.  In England, for example, we can easily tell the upper class dialects of Brideshead Revisited  from the lower class dialects of Upstairs Downstairs.

This isn't restricted to England by any means, though.  On Long Island, for example, you can hear a range of class dialects running from "Long Island Lockjaw," named for the way its speakers keep their teeth together when they speak, to the working class dialects famous for their "Jeet yet?"  and "Watcha doon?"

We can also tell people's origins.  Australians (“Ozzies”), for example, stand out when they speak "Strilian" and wish you a "G'die mite." Likewise, we can tell Americans from Brits, Scotsmen from Englishmen, and Liverpudlians from Londoners.  We can even tell which part of London a person is from.  Only a "Cockney" Londoner, for example, would say "vewwy li'oo" for "very little."

How we deal with r's alone can tell a lot:  If American news anchors pronounce "fire" with a light r, central Pennsylvanians say "fiyur," with a strong r, and Oklahomans say "fahrr," New Yorkers say "fiyuh," and aristocratic Brits say "faah."  In Massachusetts, an r changes a preceding a: "a nice caah."  And Rhode Islanders drop nearly all r's:  "thwee nice caahs."

Words may differ in different dialects.  The plural for you is a good example:  Many Americans say "you guys."  New Yorkers often say "youse" and even "youse guys."  Southerners say "you-all" or "y'all."  And in Appalachia they say "you-uns."

In Pennsylvania, you can practically tell what county someone is from on the basis of a few sentences:  If you're from Lancaster (pronounced Lancster), you might say "the lawn needs mowed," "the peanut butter is all," or "outen the light."  On the other hand, if you're from Huntingdon, you might say "leave him go" or "I left the dog out," "you-uns comin'?" or even "thar she be!  Thar be yer woman!"

Generally, city dialects are loose, open, fast, and loud.  Country dialects are slow and drawled.  Upper class dialects tend to be tenser, more precise, and rather clipped.  Surprisingly, this pattern holds well even cross-culturally!

Some dialects have different speech patterns for men and women!  Japanese is notorious for this, with different pronunciations, grammatical structures, and even words for each gender.  But they are not alone:  Haven't you ever noticed that certain words (naughty ones) are spoken much more frequently by men?  Or that women tend to speak in a more roundabout, less confrontational, fashion?  And in Oklahoma there are even phonetic differences:  men will say "thenk yuh," while women tend to say "think yuu."

We also infer emotion, especially anxiety, from the pitch of your voice, the stop-gaps you use (umm, and uh, you know...), stuttering and so on, with some accuracy.  When the pitch of your voice begins to rise, it's not a bad bet that you're lying!  A loud person is usually pegged as an extravert; a quiet one as an introvert.

And last, there are those very stereotyped inferences that have been perpetuated in movies and the like:  A high pitched voice suggests that you are small (with some logic) and good (hi there, Minnie, heh heh!); a low pitched voice suggests you are large (usually true) and bad (I AM your father!).  And so on.


Although facial expressions are commonly thought of as momentary things, things you can capture in a photograph, in fact they take some time to accomplish.  Research that suggests that we are not very good at interpreting facial expressions often ignores that fact, using only still photographs of people.  As you should understand by now, everything in social psychology involves context, including the context of complete movements.

There are, then, quite a few inferences we make that begin with acts.


Perhaps the most obvious are  gestures,  often called emblems in social psychology.  They are mostly cultural devices that communicate in much the same way that words do.

The simplest are movements of intention, that is, the very beginnings of an action that come to stand for the whole thing, like when your date keeps making motions toward the door.

Examples are plentiful:  When we greet someone with our arms outstretched, that's a sign that we want to hug and perhaps make nice.  If we greet someone with our fists clenched, that might mean something else.  If we put our hands or arms over or in front of our heads, that suggests self-protection, and may be used to indicate that you've had enough and can't take any more.

The most universal movement of intention is pointing.  Pointing derives from the act of reaching for something.  Mind you, some cultures point with the entire hand.  Others may point with the chin or even with the tongue.

While some movements are, like pointing, fairly universal, many are specific to each culture, such as placing ones hands on one's cheeks to suggest upset or placing hands together under one cheek to suggest the need to sleep.

Most gestures seem pretty arbitrary, like words:  If "bow-wow" might be a sensible thing to call a dog, the word "dog" is just traditional.  A good example of an arbitrary gesture is the "thumbs up" gesture, indicating approval, which comes to us from the ancient Romans.

There are other gestures of approval:  In all cultures, movements like clapping, snapping fingers, and stomping feet are used as applause.  A famous European gesture of approval is the "pursed hand," where all the fingers of one hand are brought together and pointed up.  Some say this comes from the act of feeling material in the market place for its quality.  It is also used to indicate something is very fine, small, or precise, and can be used to say "listen to me, this is exactly what I mean to say."  We can kiss our fingertips and say "magnifique!"  Or we can touch only our index finger and thumb, and say "okay!"  Be careful though:  that gesture may also mean zero or certain orifices!

We are superstitious creatures, and so have many gestures of protection:  We cross our fingers (a cross? or some ancient symbol for lovers?); we point our index finger and pinky at someone to protect ourselves from the evil eye; we cover our mouths when we yawn (to keep our souls from escaping).

We also use gestures to communicate on the sly:  We can pull our lower eyelid with our index finger, or form a circle around our eye, to tell our friends to be alert and take a look.  We can touch or pull our earlobe, to say "listen up!"  We can tap or rub the side of our nose, to say "I smell trouble!"

Some of these gestures pertain to matters of sex:  The "fig," the thumb sticking between the index and middle fingers, is a symbol for the female genitalia, and is used in some places to indicate sexual interest.  So are gestures like pushing out one's cheek with one's tongue, or the hand purse and okay sign (which suggests another explanation of their origin!)

Some gestures express hostility:  Flicking ones chin or teeth, or biting one's thumb, expresses disinterest or contempt.  Thumbing one's nose expresses mockery ("I make a long nose at you!").  Holding up the index and little fingers suggests that the person to whom it is directed is a cuckold.  (This is the origin of “bunny ears.”)  Dropping one's pants while facing away from someone ("mooning") is experiencing a resurgence of popularity.

The examples I've been using are of European origin.  There are gestural "languages" for every region of the world.  In Islamic countries, for example, showing the bottom of the foot is the primary gesture of contempt.  This is difficult for Americans, who are prone to cross their legs and thus insult their Islamic hosts.

One set of gestures is particularly intriguing to the psychologist:  gestures of sexual hostility.  The most famous is, of course, the "finger."  It represents the penis, and says, essentially, "I wish sexual aggression upon your person."  We can emphasize the message by using the entire forearm (popular in Italy) or by using two fingers instead of one (popular in England).  In Australia, the thumb, jerked upward, is a common substitute, once used inadvertently by former president Bush on a visit.

This last example shows how dangerous gestures can be in cross cultural situations:  In Greece and Turkey, that same backhanded "v" is used as a victory sign, adapted from Churchill's original forehanded "v" because, in Greece and Turkey, the forehanded "v" is the obscene gesture, going back to ancient Constantinople, where people would push excrement into criminal's faces as they were paraded through the streets.

On a more positive note, their are gestures of greetings, love, and friendship:  The kiss and the hug are the most universal.  But note the enormous number of variations, with their different meanings in different cultures.  Does one kiss one's host or hostess on the hand, the cheek, or the mouth?  If the cheek, does one kiss the left or the right?  Does one kiss both cheeks, or even kiss three times (very popular among Europeans today)?  Or do you kiss the air?  Are the rules different for men and women?

Some cultures do not use the kiss as a greeting.  Asian cultures typically avoid bodily contact.  Eskimos rub noses instead, and Maoris press their noses together.

Even hugs have variations.  American men (and many women) seem to have a bit of a problem with hugs:  Instead of "just hugging" they pat each others’ backs repeatedly.

There are many different ways to greet each other.  In many regions, a raised hand is common.  This may come from the desire, way back, to show that one has no weapons.  European cultures take it one step further and clasp hands.  It's as if two warriors want to show trust, but can't quite, and so need to hold on to each other's weapon-hands.  The Chinese, on the other hand, "shake" their own hands, and Indians typically raise their hands in a prayer-like gesture.

A note:  We shake right hands, not left.  In fact, the left hand has been considered dirty by both European and Moslem cultures.  It is the bathroom hand -- the one you used to wipe yourself in the age of leaves, stones, or sand.  It is still taboo in many countries to eat with your left hand.

Another greeting is the bow.  It is a symbol of submission, which might be why it has never been as popular in the west as in the east.  In Japan, the depth of the bow indicates relative status.  If you are uncertain, repeated bows may be necessary until the correct relationship is established.  Prostration is the extreme form.

The bow is to be contrasted with dominance gestures, any movement that raises one higher than others, such as being on a platform or tilting one's head back and looking down one's nose at someone.  Being more comfortable than others is another way of indicating dominance  -- you shouldn't sit in the presence of royalty, for example.

Curiously, the yes nod and the no shake are nearly universal gestures.  Erwin Straus' theory is that the yes nod is an abbreviated version of the bow of submission, i.e. "you are correct and I bow to your will."  The no shake, on the other hand, involves no lowering of the body or the head.  You remain erect, as if standing your ground, and only turn your head sideways, like a baby rejecting food.

His theory gains support when we look at the exceptions:  In southern Italy and Greece, many people will toss their head backwards to say no.  It looks a little like yes, but in fact only serves to exaggerate the erect "no" posture.  On the other hand, in some parts of India, people say yes by pivoting their heads around an imaginary axis running from the nose to the back of the head.  Again, at first glance, it looks more like no.  But actually, it takes you out of the erect posture sideways, like a fancy bow.  This curious yes gesture has evolved into an almost constant body movement among some Indians.

Body language

Which brings us to body language.  Body language is less conscious, less linguistic, than gestures.  And we use and read body language a good deal more than we think we do.

For example, a tight body posture (arms tight against sides, perhaps folded; legs together and, if seated folded; muscles tensed) indicates stress, and most of us read it that way.  A loose body posture, of course, suggests relaxation.  Notice that we can fake either one and thereby hide our true emotional state.

While the communication of stress is clearly based in our biology, much of body language is cultural, although usually much less conscious than the gestures we spoke of before.  In fact, here is an interesting place to note cultural variation, for example while looking at conversational movement.  Some cultures are noted expressionists, making much use of the arms in particular. The Italians tend to use broad arm movements;  Hasidic Jews use their arms a great deal as well, but keep their arms closer to their bodies, so that the movement is more up and down;  The French have a tendency to reach forward with their gestures.

Other cultures are less exuberant.  In the Far East, we see a great deal of restraint in regards to arm and hand movements;  Russians tend to speak from a rather direct, face-to-face, flat-footed, arms hanging at their sides posture;  Americans have a tendency to face slightly away and to rock sideways, moving from one foot to the other as if restless, and if hands and arms are used at all, it will be at the level of the waist.

One more aspect of body language involves body orientation:  It is a sign of interest when we face someone.  When we turn away a little, it begins to indicate disinterest.  When we turn around and rapidly walk away....  Notice also that disinterest, and its body language, is a big part of being “cool,” that is, of showing relative power.  This is, partially, why teenagers often act so bored.

Eye contact

Generally, eye contact shows interest in much the same way, but things can be quite different in different cultures.  The most common variation involves the lowering of the eyes by people of lower status, especially women.  In many cultures, including to some extent our own, lowering the eyes is a sign of femininity!  This is, of course, learned; and some people need to unlearn it in order to achieve a degree of "assertiveness."

Staring, on the other hand, is too much of a good thing in many countries.  You can practically feel the weight of the stare.  In some cultures, though, staring is polite when someone is talking to you, to show you are taking it all in.  In others, like in Turkey, men commonly stare at women, a way of showing their sexual interest.  Often, staring between men is a sign of aggressive intentions, a challenge to power.

A more biological aspect of eye contact involves the dilating of the pupils when we find something of interest.  They dilate when we are aroused!  So it used to be common to put eye drops in models eyes to dilate them before taking advertising photo's.  But note that we also get aroused when angry, so do not assume a person is sexually interested in you on the basis of pupils alone.


Personal space

There are certain culturally specified distances for various interactions--usually one for public address, one for ordinary conversation, and one for intimate conversation.  In our culture, public distance begins at about ten feet--which is part of the reason people tend not to sit in the front row of a classroom.  The conversational distance is about 2 and a half feet, and the intimate distance is a few inches.

There is a little illustration of this called the parking lot waltz.  If I take you into an open space, such as a parking lot, engage you in some conversation, and stand too close to you, you will feel uncomfortable and begin to back away.  If I step closer, you will back off again.  By changing angles, I can waltz you around the parking lot.  Try it, it works.  You will know that you are too close because you will feel uncomfortable, too.  Things can go wrong, however, if you read my closeness as an attempt to get intimate and you either run away or beat me up.

The same works in reverse--but not as well.  As you recall, moving away is read as a loss of interest, breaking off a conversation, so the other person is likely to say goodbye and leave.  There are, of course, some people who don't read signs very well and will continue to talk to you even as you walk briskly away!

As I said, different cultures have different distances.  Germans, for example, have longer conversational distances, three or three and a half feet.  Arabs, on the other hand, have very short distances, one and a half and even one foot.  It is considered a social pleasure to feel the other's warm, moist breath and smell their smells.  Americans often feel uncomfortable when talking with Arabs and back away, which the Arab sees as being cold and impolite.  Many international business deals must fall through because of personal distance!

Of course, we also have personal distances behind us and to the sides.  We have, in fact, a  personal envelope.   At a relatively uncrowded bus stop, for example, people will spread themselves out to a comfortable degree.

Again, different cultures have different envelopes, and men and women differ as well.  But notice the effect of context:  Watch the different distributions of people at a party.  Notice the differences between all male group, all female groups, and mixed groups.   Or look at the way people squeeze through a crowd:  Do they face the person they are brushing past, or turn their backs to them?  It is interesting.

Situations change our personal envelopes.  In New York City at three in the morning, a person walking behind us makes us nervous -- even if they are a block away.  But in a rush hour subway, we can be squeezed together like sardines, and we ignore the sexual or aggressive messages of violated intimate space, though we seldom feel comfortable!

Two examples of the interaction of situations and envelops you might want to observe for yourself are the direction one faces in elevators and the effects of neighborliness at urinals.

The envelope can also vary because of personal experiences.  A Vietnam veteran friend of mine would take off your head if you came up behind him too quickly.  And some researchers have found that criminals tend to have rather large envelopes.  The question remains:  Did they get into crime because their huge envelopes were constantly getting stepped on, or did they develop huge envelopes in response to the dangerous games they play?


The anthropologist E. T. Hall distinguishes two broad conceptions of time:  monochronic and polychronic.  "M-time" is typical of modern, industrialized, western cultures -- such as our own.  "P-time" is typical of more traditional ones -- such as we find in Latin America and the Middle East.

M-time involves schedules:  Time is thought of as a ribbon or a road, and it is chopped up, with each piece assigned a certain purpose.  Each piece has a clearly defined beginning and end:  promptness counts; tardiness is a character flaw, if not a sin.  Time is concrete:  It can be saved or spent, lost or made up... and eventually you run out.  We have clocks and calendars and use them -- or rather they use us.

M-time is really rather arbitrary (why 50 minute classes? 40 hour work weeks?  15 week semesters?).  You have to learn to follow all these schedules:  except for the day, the year, and the seasons, they do  not  come naturally.  Also, you deal with people in a way that is molded by m-time:  one person (or a few) at a time, orderly, separately...  Life is segmented;  social  life is segmented.

P-time, on the other hand, makes Americans crazy:  The first thing likely to hit you is the lack of concern about appointments.  An hour wait is not at all bad -- if you complain, they point out that they were speaking with someone important -- and you wouldn't want them to rush someone important!  A government office may have a courtyard where dozens of appointments sit or walk about, and several officials "mingle" with them, rather than everyone lining up for their 15 minutes.  If you get ignored -- well, perhaps you're problem wasn't sufficiently significant to cause you to step up and interrupt!

P-time is people-oriented, task-oriented, and very much tradition-oriented:  Like the priest who can’t see you now because someone needs him or an artist who'll get to you when the inspiration has worn off a bit, the present moment is rather sacrosanct.  "3:15 on October 28th," on the other hand, is an abstraction that means nothing in P-time.

This, of course, is terribly inefficient!

In contrast, we M-timers schedule not only our work but our fun as well:  dinner at 8:00, a weekend in N.Y., two weeks vacation,  Roseanne  at 9:00 (for precisely one half hour), John has the kids on Saturdays, spends a little "quality time" with them, sex on Friday at 10:00....

M-time is efficient, and it's likely that we would never have developed our high-tech society without it.  But it is also alienating.  It turns us into something akin to the very machines we work with:  wristwatches, punchclocks, factory whistles, assembly lines, computers.


Imagine you are walking down Fifth Avenue in New York City when a kid jumps out of an alley, pushes you to the ground, and steals your wallet or purse -- in which you have all your vacation money.  You report the robbery to the police and -- a miracle! -- they actually catch the kid.  You are ready to string the little S.O.B. up, right?

Attribution theory,  which deals with inferences of responsibility, would call your present attitude an  internal attribution of causality,  meaning that you assign the responsibility for what happened to the kid.  The cause is inside him somehow:  He's rotten.

Let's say they actually catch the little son-of-a-gun.  But you find out from the police that this robbery is a part of a local gang's initiation rites, and that if a neighborhood kid doesn't participate, he and his family can expect severe abuse from the gang.  And the kid's only twelve years old!

Attribution theory would now suggest that you will now make an  external attribution of causality.   You're still mad as hell, but it's not so much the kid anymore.  Now it's that rotten New York City environment, the state of the world, or whatever.  The kid is still the focus, but the causes of his behavior are seen as external to him.

The founder of attribution theory, Harold Kelley, suggested that we make our attributions the same way a scientist (or a detective) does:  by asking questions.

Attribution rules

Let's look at a question of responsibility:  "Why did George's quiche turn out runny?"  In attribution theory terms, George is the person; the quiche is the entity; the relation between them is "making it turn out runny."  We answer the question of responsibility by asking a few more questions:

1.  Distinctiveness:   Does George make other entities (eggs, souffle's, apple pies, meat loafs,...) runny or otherwise hard to get in your mouth?  If no, the particular event is highly distinct -- rare for George.  If yes, the event has low distinctiveness -- this is common for George.

2.  Consensus:   Do other people tend to make quiche runny, or otherwise mess it up?  Is there a "consensus" on this problem?  If no, the event has low consensus -- few people have George's problem with quiche.  If yes, it has high consensus -- everybody messes up their quiche.

3.  Consistency:   Does George's quiche always turn out runny?  If no, the relationship has a low consistency -- George's quiche is usually top-notch.  If yes, there is a high consistency -- George has trouble with quiche.

quiche  (entity) George (person) destroys (relation)
is this entity distinctive? is there a consensus? is this pattern consistent?
(does it happen to other entities?) (does it happen to other people?) (does it happen on other occasions?)

By answering these questions we can make attributions beyond simple internal or external:

1.  If we answer that George makes everything runny,  but most people have no problem with quiche, and furthermore George's quiche always comes out runny, we can make a person attribution:  George can't cook.  This is the same as the internal attribution.

2.  If we answer that George doesn't have this problem with other foods, but other people mess up their quiche, and on top of it all George often has a problem with quiche, then we make a kind of external attribution called the entity attribution:  Quiche is a pain.

3.  If we answer that George messes up everything and everybody has trouble with quiche, and certainly George has had this problem before, we can make a person-entity attribution (either sufficient):  George can't cook and quiche is a pain.

4.  If we answer than George doesn't make everything runny, and that most people don't have a problem with quiche, but it is indeed true that George is always having this problem with quiche, we make another version of the person-entity attribution where both are necessary what I prefer to call a relation attribution:  George and quiche just don't get along.

5.  But if the answers are that George never has a problem with making things runny, and that other people don’t have that problem with quiche, and George doesn't always have this problem with quiche, we make a circumstance attribution:  It was a coincidence, an accident, a bad day.

All this requires quite a bit of information -- what X does in other situations, what others do, past experiences X has had with the situation, and so on.  Often we must deal with one-time events.  In these circumstances all we can do is take a look around and try to make sense of things with what we have at hand:

1.  The discounting principle:  The more things you see making something inevitable, the less important any one thing seems -- including the person you are looking at.  An external attribution is more likely.  Joe has a fender-bender?  He's a jerk.  At two in the morning?  He was sleepy.  In the rain?  It was slippery.  With a cut brake line?  Joe sounds less and less like a jerk and more and more like the victim of circumstances.  The more reasons for it happening, the less blame you lay on him.

Discounting can also diminish the credit  you give someone:  John won the faculty car race!  Wow!  He drives a Ferrari.  Oh.

2.  The augmenting principle:  The more things you see making a something  unlikely,  the more important a reason for it happening seems -- especially the person.  An internal attribution becomes likely.  He won the triathalon?  Good.  He is handicapped?  Great!  He is 70 years old?  Incredible!  He's been dead for a week?  What a man!  The more reasons for failure, the more credit you give him.

Augmenting can also increase the blame  you give someone:  John ran out of gas.  Too bad.  I warned him he was low.  Quite the sieve-brain, that John.


So far, we are entertaining a rather rational view of ourselves.  In truth, we are a bit less than rational--we have our biases.

1.   The fundamental attribution error.   We tend to see others as internally motivated and responsible for their behavior.  This could be because of  perceptual salience,  that is, the other person is what we see most of when we look at them; or it could be that we lack more detailed information about what causes their behavior.  But some social psychologists suggest that people are more often the causes of their behavior than the researchers who came up with the fundamental attribution error believe.  In other words, it may be those researchers who have the bias!

Perhaps the saddest example of the tendency to make internal attributions whether they are warranted or not is  blaming the victim.   If giving someone our sympathy or blaming the true culprit somehow causes us dissonance, we may hold the victim responsible for his or her own pain and suffering.  "He had it coming" and "she was asking for it" are all-too-common phrases!

2.   The actor-observer effect.   On the other hand, we tend to see ourselves, as more externally motivated.  As kids say, he did it on purpose but I couldn't help it.  This could be perceptual salience as well -- when I look at my behavior, all I see is its environmental causes; it could be that we simply have more information about our own motivations.

We can play with the salience idea:  For example, if we are sitting next to someone in a debate, we tend to "see things from his point of view," including seeing the person across from both of you as more in control and more aggressive -- i.e. more "internal".  If you sympathize with someone, on the other hand, you tend to attribute external causes for his or her behavior -- "My brother couldn't help it, your honor!"  And some therapists use videotapes of their clients in order to encourage the taking of responsibility.  For example, drunks rarely have a realistic view of their own behavior and tend to believe they are in control; a tape of themselves staggering about and being obnoxious might help.

3.   The self-serving bias.   But, adding to the confusion, we tend to see ourselves as the causes of our successes, but external events as the causes of our failures.  If it works, I did it; if it doesn't, it was God's will.  We may have more information about our motivations; but we may not want to acknowledge it.

An exception to the self-serving bias can be found in people's attitudes towards complicated machinery, such as computers.  When things go wrong, we tend to blame ourselves -- "I must have done something wrong!"  In fact, the problem is more often one of bad engineering and poor software design!

4.   The just-world hypothesis.   This is the idea that everything works for the best:  If you're good, good things will happen to you; if you're bad, bad things will happen to you.  Now this really isn't terribly realistic, but we get even worse:  we  reverse  the logic, and believe that, if good things happen to you, you must've deserved them, and if bad things happen to you you, you must've deserved  them,  too!

This makes for all sorts of weird things, like people feeling guilty when bad things happen that they had no control over, or assuming that the victims of natural disasters or criminal acts are not as worthy as others and may even have had it coming to them!  And we tend to like lucky people and feel like we deserve riches we get by inheritance, and so on.

As we will see in more detail later, we never seem to think quite so logically when we are personally involved.  There are, in fact, even more biases of attribution, involving the severity of consequences, how those consequences impact on us, and whether we detect signs of intention.  We will likely discover more as time goes by.

Copyright 1999, C. George Boeree