Trait knowledge forms a common structure across social cognition

Ryan M. Stolier, Eric Hehman, Jonathan B. Freeman

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Researchers have noted the resemblance across core models of social cognition, in which trait inferences centre on others’ intentions and abilities (for example, warmth, competence). Current views posit that this common ‘trait space’ originates from the adaptive utility of the dimensions, predicting a relatively fixed and universal architecture. In contrast, we hypothesize that perceivers learn conceptual knowledge of how traits correlate, which shapes trait inferences similarly across domains (for example, faces, person knowledge, stereotypes), from which a common trait space emerges. Here we show substantial overlap between the structures of perceivers’ conceptual and social perceptual trait spaces, across perceptual domains (studies 1–4) and that conceptual associations directly shape trait space (study 5). Furthermore, we find evidence that conceptual trait space is learned from social perception and actual personality structure (studies 6 and 7). Our findings suggest conceptual trait associations serve as a cornerstone in social perception, providing broad implications for the study of social behaviour.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)361-371
Number of pages11
JournalNature human behaviour
Issue number4
StatePublished - Apr 1 2020

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Social Psychology
  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Behavioral Neuroscience


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