People Take on the Traits They Describe in Others

Spontaneous trait transference is a phenomenon where people are perceived as possessing a trait that they describe in others. Telling others that your math professor is lazy will cause them to infer that you are lazy. This works the other way too — describing positive attributes about your friend may ascribe you those attributes as well.

Several experiments showed that people will associate personality traits to communicators mindlessly without logical rational. They also have a poor recollection of whether the communicator was describing themselves or someone else in a conversation.

So be careful when gossiping about a co-worker, lest you be seen as what you describe. And if you want to appear more charming, perhaps you could add that word to your vocabulary when talking about others.

As the old saying goes, “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all”.

Skowronski, J. J., Carlston, D. E., Mae, L., & Crawford, M. T. (1998). Spontaneous Trait Transference: Communicators Take on the Qualities They Describe in Others. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 74(4), 837-848. [PDF]

October 12, 2006 at 1:48 pm 27 comments

Pop vs Soda vs… Coke?

I moved around a lot, and have always used “pop” to refer to soft drinks. When you are a kid, you don’t really notice when someone uses a different term for the same thing, but growing older, you begin to notice these linguistical hiccups. Different regions of the english speaking world use different terms for the same thing — soft drinks.

The word soda comes from soda-water (sodium bicarbonate with acid to create fizz). Its original meaning was sodium carbonate, Na2CO3, but has evolved into one of the generic terms for a soft drink.

Pop was introduced later in 1812 by Robert Southey,

A new manufactory of a nectar, between soda-water and ginger-beer, and called pop, because ‘pop goes the cork’ when it is drawn.

Trailing soda and pop in popularity is coke, which has influence in the south likely due to the location of the Coca-Cola plant in Georgia. “I’ll have a coke,” “What kind of coke?”, “Root beer please”.

While this paper does numerous small surveys on the ubiquity of soda/pop/coke, this newer map is a more comprehensive view of the linguistic divide of people in the United States (via,

(click to enlarge)

pop vs soda vs coke map

Soda is more popular in the southwest, northeast, and St. Louis area; pop is used more in the northwest and midwest; coke is used in the south.

Other terms for soft drinks from other counties (via wikipedia):

  • Canadians and the British say “pop”
  • Some Brits even say “fizzy drink”
  • In Western Scotland, they use “ginger”
  • Aussies and New Zealanders say “soft drink”
  • Some Australians call it “lolly water”

So where did the term soft drink come from? It was chosen because a hard was used to describe alcoholic beverages, hence the antonym soft was the obvious choice for non-alcoholic beverage. And beverage came from the Old French root word beivre (to drink) during their conquest of England in 1066.

 soft drinks terms

Von Schneidemesser, L. (1996). Soda or Pop? Journal of English Linguistics, 24(4), 270-287.

October 5, 2006 at 10:46 pm 170 comments

The Familiar Stranger: The Lady on the Subway

Urban living brings about an interesting phenomenon, one which Milgram calls the Familiar Stranger.

The Familiar Stranger is a person you see during your daily activities, but don’t interact with: the gentleman at the bus stop, the babysitter at the park, or the lady on the subway.

But consider for a moment you saw the lady on the subway while traveling to Paris. Can you imagine, it’s likely you would practically become best friends in a day!

To be a familiar stranger, a person has to be

  1. observed
  2. repeatedly for a certain time period
  3. without any interaction

Milgram notes,

But it’s a real relationship, in which both parties have agreed to mutually ignore each other, without any implication of hostility.

Students from a university in New York went to the commuter stations and interviewed commuters. They found that on average, commuters knew 4 familiar strangers but had only talked to 1.5 individuals.

Commuters said they have a fantasy relationship with familiar strangers, trying to figure out what kind of lives they lead, what their jobs are, etc.

This phenomenon is explained as a response to the overload of inputs from the environment — perceptual processing takes considerably less time than social processing.

However, I think when you see someone you barely recognize from school a few years later at a department store, it feels like you’re friends because you know each other relatively better than everyone else there.

Berkeley is doing a study called the Familiar Stranger Project, which is worth taking a look at.

Milgram, S. (1972). The Familiar Stranger: An Aspect of Urban Anonymity. Division 8 Newsletter.

October 2, 2006 at 1:15 pm 41 comments

Drinking patterns, social interaction, and barroom behavior

Two social scientists walk into a bar…

Typically, we read research papers for their educational value. However, I found this one to be more entertaining than educational.

Observations are done in two bars to explore victimization and guardian influence in bars. The two bars are referred to as “North Bar” and “South Bar”.

One bar which we have given the name, North Bar, attracted a more funky, laid-back weekend crowd that typically dressed in blue jeans, flannel shirts, sweatshirts, and sneakers.

The other bar which we have named, South Bar, attracted a larger and more diverse crowd reflecting a mixture of urban lifestyles, young professionals, college students, and more racial and ethnic minorities.

Here are some interesting excerpts from the paper:

Our observations of the interactions between female patrons and the bouncers revealed that the more flirtatious a female patron would be with the bouncers, the more likely she would be allowed entry into South Bar.

Bar patrons began streaming into the bars at approximately 10:00 p.m. On Tuesday nights the barroom capacity for South Bar was typically reached or exceeded by midnight, slowly continued to increase until approximately 1:30 a.m., and then gradually declined until approximately 2:30 a.m. After 3:00 a.m. only a small number of patrons, typically male heavy drinkers, remained in the bar.

Our observers overheard one exchange, short and to the point, “do you want some of this meat?” which was made while one of the men was rubbing his penis. In one instance a female patron left immediately with these men.

Two young men had begun the event during the late afternoon, were still drinking and were quite intoxicated when we arrived at 10:00 p.m. to begin our observations. They abandoned their efforts around midnight after consuming only about 30 of the required 40 glasses of beer.

Once a small group of males had initiated the formation of a gauntlet, others would join in until up to 20 to 30 men were in control of each side of the pathway for a considerable distance. When young women, typically those who were exceptionally attractive, would attempt to pass through this pathway, the males would first initiate a restriction of the pathway then freely grope, grab, or fondle selected females—typically on the buttocks or breasts.

Males seeking an “easy lay” frequently approached female patrons. On several occasions we observed female targets being quickly drawn into a conversation by a male patron, maneuvered into a seat at the bar, and presented with drinks. Within a short period of time the male would then begin moving his hand up the skirt of the target to her crotch area.

We observed that a higher percentage of female patrons during ladies’ night at South Bar were under the age of 21 years than those at North Bar. One of the South Bar observers was a police officer with substantial experience in estimating age. He agreed with the estimates provided by other observers that approximately 25–30 percent of all women in South Bar at peak drinking hours were under 21 years of age.

Small groups of male patrons would frequently attempt to attract the attention of females outside the bars by shouting across the street, and occasionally entering the street in traffic to get closer to those from whom they sought greater attention.

Males typically outnumbered females on Tuesday nights at North Bar by approximately 4 to 1, and approximately 3 to 1 at South Bar.

Fox, J. G. & Sobol, J. J. (2000). Drinking patterns, social interaction, and barroom behavior: a routine activities approach. Deviant Behavior, 21(5), 429-450.

October 1, 2006 at 1:13 am 4 comments

When do you like someone like yourself? An analysis of online dating

Online dating is gaining momentum and is an easy, socially acceptable way to find partners for dates or relationships. To a social scientist, the wealth of data stored on online dating services has enormous potential in the study of interpersonal relationships. Instead of having to take surveys and interview people, scientists can now discover findings by looking at the statistics of what actually happened. Actions speak louder than words. Never before has something so human and primitive been reducible to such quantitative discrete values.

Do opposites attract? Apparently not. This study of an online dating service measures the importance of a matching characteristic when choosing a partner. The data is extracted from the contacts initiated by the users.

Characteristic Increased Contact
Marital status 1.64x
Wants children 1.54x
Number of children 1.39x
Physical build 1.28x
Smoking 1.25x
Physical appearance 1.23x
Educational level 1.19x
Religion 1.17x
Race 1.14x
Drinking habits 1.12x
Pet preferences 1.11x
Pets owned 1.08x


Demographic findings in this study:

  • 62.8% of members were male and 37.2% were female, but 55% of active members were female
  • The median age for men was 36 and women was 33
  • 78.2% of messages were never responded to
  • Members sent an average of 1.5 messages
  • Men initiated 73.3% of messages, but their initiations were 17.9% less likely to be reciprocated

A more detailed analysis of online dating is given in the author’s thesis.

I found this paper by browsing the list of Judith Donath’s students, who was also one of my professor’s advisor. Fiore’s Masters Thesis was about online dating — I bet that made for interesting party conversation.

Fiore, A. T. & Donath, J. S. (2005). Homophily in Online Dating: When Do You Like Someone Like Yourself?. Proceedings from CHI ’05: Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, 1371-1374. [PDF]

September 27, 2006 at 8:47 pm 52 comments

“Just Kidding” Falls on Deaf Ears

Teasing taken literally is negative; teasers point out flaws, habits, questionable attire, or other traits of the target. But there are a variety of intentions for teasing. Positive intentions include to socialize, flirt, play, entertain, teach, or show affection. However, teasing can also be used for negative intentions: to humiliate, harass, or hurt the target.

Previous studies have shown that targets of the teasing often have a more negative impression of the tease than the teaser. (tongue twister alert)

To mitigate the negative intentions of the tease, people generally use gestures, facial expressions, or tone of voice to say “aha, just kidding”. However, this fails because the targets still evaluate the intentions of the teaser more negatively.

Kruger, J., Gordon, C. L., & Kuban, J. (2006). Intentions in Teasing: When “Just Kidding” Just Isn’t Good Enough. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 90(3), 412-425.

September 25, 2006 at 3:56 pm 8 comments

Cutting in Line

Imagine yourself waiting in line (queue, if you’re British) and someone cuts in front. This obviously upsets and frustrates you. Why should they be in front when you’ve been waiting longer? Why isn’t anyone doing anything about this line jumper?

It’s not just the loss of time and position that are upsetting, but also the violation of a social structure.

A study was done to determine how often, and which people would object to this. When a person intruded into a line, this resulted in an objection 54% of the time. However, when 2 people intruded at once, there were objections 91.3%. The figure shows that 73.3% of objections came from people behind the intruder, and the person directly behind the point of intrusion objected most frequently.

Additional experimenters were brought in to join the line legitimately with instructions to do nothing but stand in line. When the intruder entered the line directly in front of the passive experimenter, there were only objections 25% of the time. When the intruder entered the line in front of two passive experimenters, objections dropped to 5%. These passive line standers significantly influenced how often someone objected to the line jumping.

Then the question is why did a person’s relative position to the intruder affect whether or not they objected? Since everyone behind the intruder incurs the same cost, the objections should be uniformly distributed among the people in line.

There are 3 reasons that may explain this.

  1. They have to notice it. Those closer to the intrusion will be more likely to see it.
  2. They have to be aware that this is line jumping and not the more legitimate practice of “placekeeping”. Those further from the intrusion point may not be sure so they will be more hesitant to object.
  3. Those directly behind the intruder are socially regarded as more responsible for that spot. If everyone defended the space in front of them, line jumping would not be a problem. Hence, it’s their duty to object to those to who jump directly ahead of them.

I also hypothesize another factor is the relative cost to person in line. Those in the back are delayed only a small percentage of their time in line, while the person in front may have to wait twice as long.

So the next time you’re thinking of cutting in line, be aware that it’s about a coin toss whether or not you’ll be ousted, and most likely it’ll be by the person you’re directly stepping in front of. Never line jump at the same time another person is, even though it might seem like you have safety in numbers, it works in the exact opposite way. And lastly, ideally cut in front of someone who is unlikely to object, because your chances of being challenged greatly diminish the more passive people there are directly behind you.

Stanley Milgram is one of my favorite scientists. Psychology students may have learned of the Milgram experiment where subjects were asked to administer electric shocks to others. He also founded “six degrees of separation”, the concept of “familiar strangers”, and wrote about the woman murdered on the streets of New York with 38 onlookers.

I enjoy both classic publications as well as new research, so I’ll try to alternate between the classic and the new in my posts.

Milgram, S., Libety, H. J., Toledo, R, & Wackenhut, J. (1986). Response to Intrusion Into Waiting Lines. Journal of Personality of Social Psychology, 51(4), 683-689.

September 21, 2006 at 9:25 pm 68 comments

Older Posts Newer Posts


Read any good papers lately?

If you're interested in academic research, I'd love to have additional contributors. Shoot me an email.