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People Construal: Social Categorization and Trait Evaluations of Visually Perceived Groups


Our social world is populated by groups—students in classrooms, co-workers in teams, soldiers in platoons, and more. Social psychological research on person construal has established the processes and consequences of perceiving an individual, yet, we know less about our perception of groups. Here, I integrate person construal theory with vision science findings on ensemble perception to outline a framework of people construal, or how we make inferences and judgments about visually perceived groups. Overall, I propose that people construal relies on both social categories (e.g., a group’s gender ratio) and visual cues to within-category variability (e.g., facial masculinity or femininity). Study Set 1 examined whether perceivers were sensitive to a group’s gender ratio and whether this gender ratio impacted evaluative judgments. Studies 1 and 2 showed that within a half second, perceivers were relatively accurate in estimating the number of men within a twelve-person group, and that as a group’s gender ratio shifted from men to women participants associated the group with more threat, measured both explicitly and implicitly. Study 3 revealed that group threat evaluations were derived from participants perceived number of men and not inferences about men's perceived cohesiveness within the group. Study 4 underscored the influence of visual cues to men's gender typicality on group evaluations. Results showed that groups of masculine men, compared to feminine men, were rated as having more men and as more threatening. Study Set 2 shifted to questions of social category activation and social categorization. Study 5 revealed that group gender ratio and men’s gender typicality interacted to influence subsequent social category activation. Specifically, groups of majority masculine men facilitated activation of the category “man” to a greater degree than groups of majority feminine men. Study 6 revealed that participants categorized majority masculine men groups as “majority men” with higher accuracy and in a faster, more direct manner, compared to majority feminine men groups. Together, these results build a framework of people construal, advancing research beyond our perception of the individual to reveal insights into the role social categories and visual cues play in our perception of groups.

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