Be Careful with that Gossip

by John Skowronski, Ph.D., Donal Carlston, Ph.D.,
and Lynda Mae, M.A., & Matthew Crawford

The American Psychological Association

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It appears to go against common sense -- not to mention classic psychological theory -- but researchers writing in the April 1998 edition of the American Psychological Association's (APA) Journal of Personality and Social Psychology say they have identified a common, but apparently mindless, psychological phenomenon that plays a previously unrecognized role in the way people form impressions of other people. Specifically, they've found that when someone attributes positive or negative traits to someone else, the listener will often attribute those same traits to the speaker. "In other words," the authors write, "politicians who allege corruption by their opponents may themselves be perceived as dishonest, critics who praise artists may themselves be perceived as talented, and gossips who describe others' infidelities may themselves be viewed as immoral."

In a recent communication, the authors suggest that this phenomenon could play a role in the public's reaction to participants in the recent White House scandal. "For example," they note, "when Kenneth Starr accuses Bill Clinton of perjury, Starr himself may be seen as more deceitful. Similarly, when Linda Tripp claims that Monica Lewinsky had sex with the President, Tripp herself may be seen as more promiscuous. The gist of our research is that when you gossip, you become associated with the characteristics you describe, ultimately leading those characteristics to be 'transferred' to you."

The researchers conducted a series of four studies on the phenomenon they call spontaneous trait transference. Three of the four studies involved participants looking at photographs accompanied by brief statements. In the first study, the statements were ostensibly about someone the person in the photograph knew. In the second, the statements were either about the person in the photograph or about someone else. In the third study, participants were clearly told that the photographs and the statements had nothing to do with each other; they had been paired at random. In the final study, participants watched videotapes of actors answering off-screen questions about themselves or about someone they knew.

Some of the statements accompanying the photographs (or made on the videotape) were designed to elicit a positive or negative trait. For example "cruel" was implied by the statement "He hates animals. Today he was walking to the store and he saw this puppy. So he kicked it out of his way." But consistently through the studies, participants attributed the elicited trait to the speakers, even though these speakers described someone other than themselves. This occurred even when participants were specifically told that there was no connection between the speakers and the statements, suggesting, the authors say, that this phenomenon is irrational and largely outside of conscious awareness.

  • Article: Spontaneous Trait Transference: Communicators Take on the Qualities They Describe in Others by John J. Skowronski, Ph.D., The Ohio State University at Newark; Donal E. Carlston, Ph.D., and Lynda Mae, M.A., Purdue University and Matthew T. Crawford, Indiana University Bloomington in The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 74, No. 4.

3/18/98

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John J. Skowronski, Ph.D., can be reached at (740) 366-9348

The American Psychological Association (APA), in Washington, DC, is the largest scientific and professional organization representing psychology in the United States and is the world's largest association of psychologists. APA's membership includes more than 151,000 researchers, educators, clinicians, consultants and students. Through its divisions in 50 subfields of psychology and affiliations with 58 state, territorial and Canadian provincial associations, APA works to advance psychology as a science, as a profession and as a means of promoting human welfare.

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