A Systemic Approach to Impression Formation From Verbal to Multimodal Processes


Utrecht University and Kof University


CIS/ISCTE, Lisbon University Institute and Utrecht University

Our views of how interpersonal relationships are forged and the factors that influence how we form impressions of others have always been a central chapter in social psychology. It was Salomon Asch who laid the foundations of what was to become social cognition with his classic studies on impression formation in 1946. He demonstrated that warm and cold as “central traits” play a critical role in dramatically shaping impressions. The cognitive revolution was to tame this perspective into a representational paradigm that captured the imagination of researchers for an extended period emerging from person perception, and developing to person cognition, to person memory and social cognition (e.g., Ostrom, 1984; see Waenke, Samochowiec, & Landwehr, this volume, for a different perspective).

Recent developments have questioned the central tenets of social cognition work inspired by cognitive psychology by drawing attention to the adaptive, embodied, and dynamic nature of social cognitive processes in a social and physical environment (e.g., Palma, Garrido, & Semin, 2011; cf. for a review Semin, Garrido, & Palma, 2012). This emerging perspective on human functioning, broadly referred to as situated cognition or socially situated cognition (Semin & Smith, 2002; Semin et al., 2012; Smith & Semin, 2004) introduces an embodied view of social cognitive processes inviting a consideration of how abstract concepts such as time (see Miles,

Stuart, & Macrae, this volume), affection, power, and valence that we cannot experience with our sensorimotor devices are grounded by conceptual metaphors that involve action, space, and bodily experiences (Lakoff & Johnson, 1980, 1999).

In this chapter, we return to the central concept that Asch introduced, namely, warm and cold as central traits, except that our concern is driven by highlighting the type of bodily experiences that ground interpersonal affinity and how physical features of the environment that influence our bodily experiences contribute to the types of inferences we make about persons. It is temperature as a physical or environmental stimulus rather than its linguistic neighbors warm and cold that interest us. How do differences in ambient temperature affect our inferences about persons, and what is the relationship between physical and linguistic representations of temperature? Notably, bodily experiences that ground interpersonal affinity are not limited to temperature alone. As we shall argue in this chapter, temperature is but one modality that is a significant contributor, shaping our perceptions of others. Two other modalities are wedded to temperature and jointly ground interpersonal affinity: physical distance and smell. The investigation of different modalities as they affect our perceptions of others falls squarely in the area of how social situations dynamically modulate the impressions we form. The examination of these modalities that constitute distinctive features of social situations and contribute to how we construe our social reality highlight the interaction between physical and psychological processes in impression formation.

In the following we provide the background to the embodied grounding of intimate relationships and review the research, conducted by others (e.g., Williams & Bargh, 2008a, 2008b; Zhong & Leonardelli, 2008) and our research group (e.g., Garrido & Semin, 2012; Ijzerman & Semin, 2009, 2010), revealing the systematic relationship between different thermal conditions and how they influence the shape of the impressions we form. We also present research evidence revealing the roles that olfactory features of the environment and physical distance play on how we form perceptions of interpersonal affinity (Garrido & Semin, 2012; Williams & Bargh, 2008b). In concluding the research overview we refer to our work that shows how these modalities interface with their linguistic neighbors (e.g., physical proximity—distance vs. close) along with investigations highlighting how differences in temperature influence patterns of language use in communication as well as perceptual processes. In the concluding section, we discuss this research field’s contribution to social cognitive inferences in particular and to experimentation in general.

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