Personality traits function as causal concepts

Laura M. Kressel, James S. Uleman

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Traits can be either descriptive or causal, summarizing people and behavior, or explaining behavior. We hypothesized that isolated traits are primarily causal. Participants made rapid judgments of causal relations between 128 word pairs, including 32 trait-action pairs. Fenker, Waldmann, and Holyoak (2005) showed that causal relations are identified faster when words appear in a predictive sequence (cause → effect) than in a diagnostic sequence (effect → cause). They hypothesized that this occurs because causes always occur before effects. However traits are always inferred after behavioral observations. Nevertheless, if they are causally linked, participants may identify predictive sequences (clumsy → stumble) faster than diagnostic sequences (blush → shy). Participants did just that, and just as strongly as for nonsocial causes, suggesting that traits are primarily causal concepts.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)213-216
Number of pages4
JournalJournal of Experimental Social Psychology
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 2010


  • Causality
  • Person perception
  • Social cognition
  • Trait inference

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Social Psychology
  • Sociology and Political Science


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