The Valence of a Trait

The valence of a trait—whether it is considered good or bad—also influences its impact on our final impressions. Over the years, research has shown that people exhibit a trait negativity bias, the tendency for negative information to weigh more heavily on our impressions than positive infor- mation. This means that we form more extreme impressions of a person who is said to be dishonest than of one who is said to be honest. When you think about it, this makes sense. We tend to view others favorably, so we are quick to take notice and pay careful attention when this expectation is violated. For that reason, one bad trait may be enough to tarnish a person’s reputation regardless of other qualities. In light of this research, Baumeister and others have concluded that bad is stronger than good in a “disappointingly relentless pattern”.

Our positive expectations of others are so strong that the absence of a favor- able evaluation may lead us to assume the worst. If you’ve ever read or written letters of recommendation, you will understand this next study. In evaluating people—whether it’s for school or a job or membership in a social group—it is customary to comment on two characteristics of that person: warmth and com- petence. What if you’re reading a letter that raves about how competent an appli- cant is but says nothing about how nice he or she is as a person? Or what if a letter comments on how nice the applicant is but says nothing about compe- tence? No negative information is stated, but is it implied by omission?

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