Whether we realize it or not, each of us harbors an implicit personality theory—a network of assumptions about the relationships among various types of people, traits, and behaviors. Knowing that someone has one trait leads us to infer that he or she has other traits as well. For example, you might assume that a person who is unpredictable may also be dangerous or that someone who speaks slowly is also slow-witted. You might also assume that certain traits and behaviors are linked together—that a celebrity with a sweet and beloved persona, for example, could not possibly have skeletons in the closet.
Solomon Asch was the first to discover that the presence of one trait often implies the presence of other traits. Asch told one group of research participants that an individual was “intelligent, skillful, industrious, warm, determined, practical and cautious.” Another group read an identical list of traits, except that the word warm was replaced by cold. Only the one term was changed, but the two groups formed very different impressions. Participants inferred that the warm person was also happier and more generous, good-natured, and humorous than the cold person. Yet when two other words were varied (polite and blunt), the differences were less pronounced. Why? Asch concluded that warm and cold are central traits, meaning that they imply the presence of certain other traits and exert a powerful influence on final impressions. In fact, when college students in different classes were told ahead of time that a guest lecturer was a warm or cold person, their impressions after the lecture were consistent with these beliefs, even though he gave the same lecture to everyone.