Every day we see and meet new people, and we make countless decisions abou
to react to them.
Some of these people are not particularly relevant to us -- the unknown
pedestrians we pass on the sidewalk or the checkout clerk at the grocery, for instance.
these cases our interactions might be on a fairly superficial level – we might just want to
engage in a quick transaction, nod our head in passing, exchange pleasantries, or
accomplish some relatively limited tasks with the person before we move on.
imagine that interactions like this are going to involve cursory, resource-saving
processing on our part, and therefore may be subject to some errors and biases.
On the other hand, there are other people whom we cannot or do not wish to ignore – our
family, friends, bosses, and teachers, for example.
We might wonder whether the
attractive person at the movies has a current partner, or whether our new social
psychology professor is going to be an easy or hard grader.
We might suspect that our
boss or best friend is angry at us and wonder if we did something wrong, and how we
might rectify the situation.
In these cases we are more thoughtful -- these individuals
have meaning for us because they are essential for helping us meet the important goals of
protecting the self and relating to others.
We think carefully about how our boss is
feeling toward us and our work, because we really want and need to know whether we
are doing a good enough job.
And we definitely need to know about that professor – if
he is an unfair grader or a boring lecturer, we’ll want to consider other options rather than
spending a whole semester in his class.
Learning about people is a lot like learning about any other object in our environment --
with one major exception.
With objects, there is no interaction--we learn about the
characteristics of a car or a house, for example, without any concern that the car or the
house is learning about us. It is a one-way process.
With people, in contrast, there is a
two-way social interaction – just as we are learning about the other person, that person is
also learning about us.
In this social dynamic, we have two goals – first, we need to learn
about others, and, second, we want them to learn about (and hopefully like and respect)
Our focus here is on the former process – how we make sense of other people.
remember that, just as you are judging them, those others are also judging you.
The process of learning about other people, or
is a skill that we all
need to master.
Indeed, we have an underlying desire to evaluate and understand our
own actions and the actions of others (Bandura, 1977, 1986; Pittman & D'Agostino,
Of course, a great deal of our knowledge – including that about people – is
If we want to learn about our new psychology professor, we might
simply ask other students for their opinion (another social interaction in itself) or we