Can personality traits be inferred automatically? Spontaneous inferences require cognitive capacity at encoding

James S. Uleman, Leonard Newman, Laraine Winter

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Previous research showed that people can make trait inferences from single behaviors described in sentences, without either intentions to do so or awareness of having done so. This suggested that these inferences might be automatic. By definition, "automatic" cognitive processes occur without intentions or awareness, without effort, and without using capacity-limited cognitive processing resources. Winter, Uleman, and Cunniff (1985) attempted to manipulate available cognitive capacity by varying the difficulty of the concurrent cognitive task. This did not affect unintended trait inferences, suggesting that these are automatic by this criterion. But they had no direct measure of available cognitive capacity. In the present study, we added a probe reaction time measure of capacity to their procedure and extended the range of task difficulties. Earlier findings of trait inferences without intentions or awareness were replicated, but there was also evidence that the concurrent task interfered with the trait inference process. Hence, although trait inferences can be "spontaneous" (occurring without intentions or awareness), subjectively effortless, and difficult to disrupt with a concurrent task, they are not entirely automatic because they do use capacity-limited resources. These results also confirm that the cued-recall evidence for spontaneous trait inferences reflects important encoding and not merely retrieval phenomena.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)77-90
Number of pages14
JournalConsciousness and Cognition
Issue number1
StatePublished - Mar 1992

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Developmental and Educational Psychology


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