Person Perception Carry-Over Effects: an Exploratory Look At How Our Partners' Traits Influence the Evaluation of Ourselves

Therese A. Louie, UCLA
ABSTRACT - Research has investigated what traits individuals should possess to receive favorable evaluations. We extend this inquiry by exploring how the evaluation of individuals is influenced by the traits of their romantic partners. Subjects 1) read vignettes which portrayed partners who possessed varying degrees of status, personal warmth and attractiveness, and 2) rated the favorability of individuals associated with these partners. Individuals who had partners with high, versus low, personal warmth were judged favorably, with those who had partners with high personal warmth/low status rated highest. In addition, paralleling past research, males judged individuals by the partners' attractiveness more than females did.
[ to cite ]:
Therese A. Louie (1992) ,"Person Perception Carry-Over Effects: an Exploratory Look At How Our Partners' Traits Influence the Evaluation of Ourselves", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 19, eds. John F. Sherry, Jr. and Brian Sternthal, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 81-84.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 19, 1992      Pages 81-84

PERSON PERCEPTION CARRY-OVER EFFECTS: AN EXPLORATORY LOOK AT HOW OUR PARTNERS' TRAITS INFLUENCE THE EVALUATION OF OURSELVES

Therese A. Louie, UCLA

ABSTRACT -

Research has investigated what traits individuals should possess to receive favorable evaluations. We extend this inquiry by exploring how the evaluation of individuals is influenced by the traits of their romantic partners. Subjects 1) read vignettes which portrayed partners who possessed varying degrees of status, personal warmth and attractiveness, and 2) rated the favorability of individuals associated with these partners. Individuals who had partners with high, versus low, personal warmth were judged favorably, with those who had partners with high personal warmth/low status rated highest. In addition, paralleling past research, males judged individuals by the partners' attractiveness more than females did.

A recent radio advertisement provides the listener with a conversation between individuals who are wondering why they lost out on a promotion. While one individual mentions, "I get along better with the boss than he [the promoted colleague] does," the other remarks, "My wife is prettier than his." The last remark suggests that individuals are evaluated not only by their own characteristics, but also by the traits of their spouse or romantic partner.

Similar to the manner in which the traits of a company spokesperson influence the image of a product, the attributes of a romantic partner may influence judgments about an individual. This "partner carry-over" has many applications in consumer behavior. For example, in the field of advertising, suppose that an advertisement is being constructed to show consumers what type of individual (e.g., a yuppie or a farmer) uses a given product. The inclusion of a romantic partner can be used to reinforce the desired image. In addition, in the field of public relations, individuals who are concerned about projecting a certain image (e.g., political candidates) might be interested in knowing how their partners' characteristics reflect upon themselves. In short, the partner carry-over effect is relevant to any occasion in which it is important that an individual project a certain image to consumers.

While researchers have long noted the potential impact of a partner's characteristics (Whyte, 1956) efforts to explore any carry-over effect have been limited to the examination of the trait of physical attractiveness. In real world situations information about variables other than attractiveness may be available for forming person perceptions. This research is an attempt to explore how personal traits combine to form a partner carry-over effect.

Past Research On Traits Which Influence Person Perception

Physical attractiveness. The partner carry-over effect has been partially examined by researchers investigating physical attractiveness. Past work suggests that individuals who associate with others who are attractive are evaluated higher than those who do not (Strane and Watts, 1977; Sigall and Landy, 1973). However, other efforts suggest that this effect is dependent upon gender specific stimuli in that it occurs primarily for males who associate with attractive female partners (Harnett and Elder, 1973; Bar-Tal and Saxe, 1976).

When individuals describe one another they often comment upon factors other than attractiveness such as personal warmth (e.g., amicability) and status (e.g., success in professional or intellectual pursuits). When investigated separately these factors have been found to heavily influence the evaluation of individuals (see Sears, Freedman, Peplau, 1985). However, the simultaneous influence of multiple partner traits on individual evaluations has not been probed in past work.

Personal warmth. The extent to which an individual has a pleasant personality, or is personally warm, may be assessed by witnessing the degree to which he/she reacts positively to other individuals. Research (Folkes and Sears, 1977) has shown that individuals who have a positive attitude are perceived as having higher levels of personal warmth and more favorable evaluations than those who do not. This perhaps suggests that individuals who have partners with high personal warmth are evaluated more highly than individuals who have partner's with low personal warmth.

Status. An individual's status is often measured through his/her success in professional or intellectual pursuits. For example, individuals are often judged by what college they attended or by their job title. In general, individuals who have high status are evaluated more favorably than those with low status (Kinder and Abelson, 1981). Intuitively it seems reasonable to propose that individuals are more favorably evaluated when associating with a partner of high, rather than low, status.

To summarize, information about attractiveness, personal warmth and status has been shown to influence the evaluation of individuals. In general, when each of these traits is examined separately higher levels of each generate more favorable individual evaluations. This research shifts the focus of trait investigation from those possessed by the individual being evaluated to those possessed by the individual's partner. We attempt to begin exploring how the evaluation of an individual is influenced by a partner's level of attractiveness, personal warmth, and status.

METHOD

Subjects And Procedure

Due to the exploratory nature of this research a small sample was used. Ten female and 10 male graduate students were asked to voluntarily complete experimental questionnaires.

Stimulus Materials

Researchers have used written scenarios, or vignettes, to ascertain how subjects would react in given situations (Gross, Mason, and McEachern, 1958). In this study questionnaires were used which contained vignettes about particular target individuals interacting with their romantic partners.

To compose the vignettes, ten pretest subjects (who did not participate in the final study) completed a preliminary questionnaire in which they rated (a) the level of attractiveness of various physical descriptions (e.g., of a fashion model or of an individual who has a significant weight problem), (b) the level of personal warmth displayed by various actions (e.g., by giving a partner a thoughtful gift or by yelling at a partner in public), and (c) the level of status of various job descriptions (e.g., of a company vice president or of a fast food worker). All ratings were made on a scale of one (1 = low) to ten (10 = high).

Mean item ratings of below and above the arbitrarily chosen cut-off of five were respectively designated as negative and positive descriptions of attractiveness, personal warmth, and status. Then, questionnaire vignettes were constructed using the different descriptions to convey information about the target individual's romantic partner.

Below is a sample vignette with a partner who is of low attractiveness, personal warmth, and status. The target individual is John.

John's girlfriend stopped by to ask if he could give her a ride from the fast food stop where she worked to her Weight Watchers meeting that evening. When John agreed, she said, "Don't make me wait."

It should be noted that, departing from the procedures used in previous research in which information about attractiveness was presented visually, the presentation of all traits was standardized by being presented in verbal print form. This procedure, in addition to presenting the traits in an identical manner, allowed us in this preliminary effort to avoid some of the confounds which may stem from subjects' different opinions of what is considered visually attractive. In future research photographs or film may be used to more fully explore how physical attractiveness interacts with personal warmth and status.

Sixteen vignettes were written to rotate all combinations of the variables. Two randomizations of the vignettes were made to form two versions of the questionnaire. Finally, the gender of the subject was noted in order to examine any differences in evaluation style. Thus, this is a gender of target individual (2) X partner's level of attractiveness (2) X partner's level of personal warmth (2) X partner's level of status (2) X gender of subject (2) within subjects design.

Dependent Variables

After reading each vignette the subjects were asked to rate how favorably the target individual would be evaluated on a scale of one (1 = extremely unfavorably) to ten (10 = extremely favorably).

RESULTS AND DISCUSSION

A comparison of means was conducted across the levels of attractiveness, personal warmth, and status, and across both the gender of the subject and of the target individual, retaining subject as a factor. An initial analysis showed that there were no significant effects of the gender of the target individual. Therefore, the data were collapsed across this variable and subsequent analysis were conducted across the factors of attractiveness, personal warmth, status, and the gender of the subject.

Target Individual Evaluations

There were two interactions in the data, one which highlights the differences across levels of personal warmth and status, the other which accentuates how male and females subjects differentially react to the attractiveness of the partner.

Level of personal warmth and level of status. As displayed in Figure 1, the evaluation of the target individuals differed significantly across the partners' levels of personal warmth and status: F(1, 319) = 4.59, p < .001.

This interaction qualifies a significant main effect of personal warmth whereby the subjects more favorably evaluated target individuals when their partners had high, versus low, levels of personal warmth: M = 6.11 and M = 4.67, respectively, t(319) = 9.47, p < .001. In addition, subjects evaluated target individuals more highly when their partners possessed high personal warmth and low status than when their partners possessed high personal warmth and high status: M = 6.43 and M = 5.78, respectively, t(319) = 3.16, p < .05.

According to the study findings, individuals who want to be evaluated favorably should associate with partners who have high levels of personal warmth. There also appears to be a hierarchy in the importance of different traits: While there was a main effect of personal warmth, status had only interactive effects.

Somewhat counter-intuitively, low rather than high partner status increased evaluations when paired with high personal warmth. To gain insight into this finding one subject was asked to explain verbally the reasoning behind his provided responses. The subject stated that the described target individuals who associated with partners of high status could be accused of using their partner to obtain prestige and power. In contrast, target individuals who had partners of low status were not as suspect; for this subject, high ratings were given to target individuals who had partners with low status and high warmth due to the assumption that the target individual was truly caring without ulterior motives. As we do not have open ended measures of the subjects' thoughts we can only speculate that perhaps the interaction of partner warmth and status conveys information about an individual's interpersonal motives and sincerity.

FIGURE 1

EVALUATION OF TARGET INDIVIDUAL: LEVEL OF PERSONAL WARMTH BY LEVEL OF STATUS INTERACTION

FIGURE 2

EVALUATION OF TARGET INDIVIDUAL: GENDER OF SUBJECT BY LEVEL OF ATTRACTIVENESS INTERACTION

Gender of subject and level of attractiveness. As illustrated in Figure 2, the target individual was evaluated differently by the male and female subjects according to the level of attractiveness of the partner: F(1, 319) = 9.84, p < .001. Post-hoc comparisons reveal that males evaluated target individuals with partners who had low levels of attractiveness more unfavorably than did females: M = 4.95 and M = 5.54, respectively, t(159) = 2.47, p < .05. In addition, the male subjects evaluated target individuals less favorably when the corresponding partners had low, versus high, levels of attractiveness: M = 4.95 and M = 5.60, respectively, t(159) = 2.72, p < .05.

Hence, male subjects were more likely than females to consider the level of attractiveness of the partner when evaluating the favorability of the target individual. This finding is similar to that of past research in which males place greater value than females on a target individual's physical attractiveness when selecting a partner (see Feingold, 1990). However, as we found no differences based upon the gender of the stimuli, these research findings differ from that of past studies in which male individuals were evaluated more favorably when associating with attractive partners (Harnett and Elder, 1973; Bar-Tal and Saxe, 1976).

FUTURE RESEARCH

There are many ways to test the generalizability of these results by improving and expanding upon this initial effort. For example, while information about high and low traits levels was manipulated in this study the weight of these factors was not controlled. To convey high status in one vignette the partner was described as a company vice president, while the same trait was conveyed in another vignette by describing the partner as a student at an ivy league college. Some subjects might view the former as higher in status while others might favour the latter. In future research care can be taken to ensure that the weights of each factor are similarly valued for all individuals.

In addition to testing the generalizability of these results, having found some evidence of partner carry-over effects, another future endeavour is to investigate why the different findings occurred. For example, females were less likely to evaluate target individuals based upon the partner's attractiveness than were males. Perhaps the different genders truly do place different emphases on the value of physical attractiveness. If so, it would be interesting to investigate when and how this difference develops, how persistent and pervasive the difference is, and what can be done to lessen any negative consequences resulting from this discrepancy.

Or, equally interesting is the possibility that the genders similarly emphasize this factor but approach the evaluation task differently, with females trying particularly hard to be unprejudiced by responding to descriptions with attractive and unattractive partners as equivalently as possible. To test for this "matching" effect, these results may be contrasted with those of a study using a between subjects design in which subjects are placed in conditions to read about only attractive or unattractive partners.

In addition, these findings pertain to circumstances in which information is conveyed verbally (e.g., via print or radio media). Individuals may react quite differently to visual or visual/verbal data. For example, unlike the results of previous efforts (e.g., Bar-Tal and Saxe, 1976) the findings of this study do not differ across the gender of the target individual. That previous studies were conducted with visual stimuli suggests that individuals' evaluations are less sensitive to biases caused by gender-based stimuli when the information is provided verbally. This visual/verbal difference may have interesting implications for the manner in which information is conveyed in pictorial versus written/spoken materials. If the evaluation of an individual is less subject to gender biases when the information is conveyed via nonvisual media--even when the gender of the individual is identified--then this media should be used when evaluations are to be made without regard to gender differences. It would suggest, for example, that the practice of attaching photographs to applications (e.g., as requested by some college admissions offices) should be eliminated. Insights into how information is conveyed visually and nonvisually can be gained by asking subjects to respond to open ended thought questions.

In short, many steps may be taken to improve upon this initial effort. These include constructing the stimuli with equal attribute weighting, using a between subjects experimental design, incorporating visual as well as verbal information, and requesting that subjects respond to open ended thought questions.

CONCLUSION

The findings of this exploratory effort suggest that the traits of partners carry over to influence the evaluation of individuals with whom they associate. The three traits of attractiveness, personal warmth, and status, and the gender of the evaluator all influenced the evaluations. Future research will attest to the generalizability of these findings across different evaluation tasks and different sources of trait information.

REFERENCES

Bar-Tal, Daniel and Leonard Saxe (1976), "Perceptions of Similarly and Dissimilarly Attractive Couples and Individuals", Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 33(6), 772-781.

Feingold, Alan (1990), "Gender Differences in Effects of Physical Attractiveness on Romantic Attraction: A Comparison Across Five Research Paradigms", Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 59(5), 981-993.

Folkes, Valerie and David O. Sears (1977), "Does Everybody Like a Liker?", Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 13(6), 505-519.

Gross, Neal, Ward S. Mason and Alexander W. McEachern (1958), Explorations in Role Analysis. New York: Wiley.

Harnett, John and Donna Elder (1973), "The Princess and the Nice Frog: Study in Person Perception", Perception and Motor Skills, 37, 863-866.

Kinder, D.R. and R.P. Abelson (1981), "Appraising Presidential Candidates: Personality and Affect in the 1980 Campaign", paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association, 1981, New York.

Sears, David O., Jonathan L. Freedman and Letitia Anne Peplau (1985), Social Psychology. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, Inc.

Sigall, Harold and David Landy (1973), "Radiating Beauty: Effects of Having a Physically Attractive Partner on Person Perception", Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 28(2), 218-224.

Strane, Kim and Carol Watts (1977), "Role of Physical Attractiveness in Impression Formation", Perception and Motor Skills, 45, 225-226.

Whyte, William, H., Jr. (1956), Organization Man. New York: Simon and Schuster, Inc.

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