Traits And Implicit Processing Tendencies

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Researchers interested in individual differences may wish to capture processes that are more dynamic than those measured by traits (Pervin, 1994). If self-reported traits were somehow exhaustive of personality functioning, we would expect implicit processing measures to correlate with self-reported traits. However, they often do not. Theoretical reasons for such dissociations are discussed next.

As in many other areas of psychology, William James (1890) made significant contributions to the psychology of mind and consciousness. In a chapter on habit, he contrasted procedural knowledge, automated with repeated use, with volition. Once habits become a matter of procedural knowledge, the person has little insight into their operation. In a chapter on the stream of thought, he bemoaned the "baleful" failures of attempting to discern why or how one thought triggers another thought. In a chapter on the self, James contrasted the "I," which perceives and interprets, from the "me," which can be reflected upon. Other chapters, like those related to attention, memory, and will, similarly contrast operative processes with awareness concerning those processes.

Dissociations between knowledge use and awareness of knowledge use are not confined to James (1890). Indeed, modern statements on procedural knowledge (e.g., Anderson, 1982) make the case that knowledge is often used without awareness of knowledge use. That is, people attend to, perceive, categorize, and choose behaviors without awareness of what their minds are doing. One useful contribution in this regard was provided by Jacoby and Kel-ley (1987), who suggested that it is critical to distinguish "memory as an object" (i.e., explicit memory) from "memory as a tool" (i.e., implicit memory). When memory is an object, participants are asked to recall or recognize events that they were exposed to in the past. When memory is a tool, by contrast, no memory instructions are provided. Rather, the investigator is interested in the question of whether a prior exposure to a word or object speeds subsequent recognition. The short answer is that it does even when there is no conscious awareness of the prior event (Kihlstrom, 1987).

Somewhat parallel to Jacoby and Kelley's (1987) distinction between implicit and explicit memory is Bassili's (1996) distinction between operative and meta-attitudinal measures of attitude strength. A meta-attitudinal judgment asks the person to rate the importance of the attitude, their certainty about their attitude, its centrality to the self-concept, or some other judgment that presumably taps the likelihood that the attitude guides their behavior in everyday life. Operative measures of attitude strength do not require such insight. Rather, operative measures seek to tap what is happening in the mind when the person is confronted by the object. Among some people, the mere presence of an attitude object (e.g., a Snickers bar) is enough to trigger an evaluation from memory (e.g., yum) without extensive deliberation or thought. Among others, this is not the case.

The accessibility of attitudes can be measured by asking people to, as quickly as possible, evaluate attitude objects (Fazio, 1989, 1995). People who make such judgments quickly have more accessible attitudes, a quality that should, and does, predict relevant behavioral outcomes (Fazio, 1989, 1995). For example, independent of the extremity of attitudes, Fazio and Williams (1986) found that they could predict biased perceptions of the Reagan-Mondale debates as well as voting behavior better among those with more accessible attitudes toward Reagan. Accessible attitudes are also more stable over time (Fazio, 1989, 1995). Finally, consistent with the dissociation theme, attitude accessibility is empirically distinct from self-reported measures of attitude strength such as importance and certainty (Bassili, 1996).

The purpose of this section has been to establish three points. One, implicit methods capture the mind in action rather than as an object of self-reflection. Two, mental events take time and therefore can be measured chronometrically. And three, assessments based on the mind in action should not, in principle, be seen as tapping the same constructs as those tapped by self-report. In the following sections, we review four types of cognitive processing tasks and their contributions to an implicit science of personality.


It is common to think that, because self-reported traits are the dominant approach to personality, they must capture people's tendencies related to attention, encoding, and retrieval. However, this assumption appears to be a mistake. Considering attention first, there is some consensus that normal variations in self-reported traits play a relatively small role in selective attention. In the emotional Stroop task, a person is asked to name the color of words. Of interest is whether the semantic nature of the ignored word interferes with attention to the primary color-naming task. For example, one might expect trait anxious participants to exhibit slower color-naming latencies for words like criticism because such words capture attention among anxious individuals. However, a substantial literature review (Williams, Mathews, & MacLeod, 1996) has concluded that subclinical variations in anxiety do not seem to be robust predictors of performance. That is, subclinically anxious participants do not, by and large, exhibit selective attention for threatening words. This conclusion is reinforced by work with the spatial probe paradigm. In this paradigm, several words are simultaneously presented, and attention toward a threatening word is inferred from fast latencies to respond to spatial probes presented in the area of the threatening word. Based on numerous studies, Mogg et al. (2000) concluded that the links between anxiety and selective attention for threat, although relatively robust in the clinical literature (Mogg & Bradley, 1998), are not particularly robust concerning trait anxiety.

Because most work on selective attention has involved threatening information, we (Tamir & Robinson, 2004) recently sought to investigate the correlates of attention to rewarding words (e.g., love, success). Based on theorizing linking extraversión to reward sensitivity, one might expect a correlation between extraversión and selective attention to reward (Robinson, Vargas, et al., 2003). However, in none of our studies did we find correlations between extraversión and attention to reward. Does this mean that attention to reward is affectively irrelevant? No. In the same studies, we showed that mood states, but not extraversión or neuroticism, predicted attention performance. In Study 2, for example, we showed that aggregated measures of high activation positive affect (based on an experience-sampling protocol) predicted selective attention. Specifically, those who had been experiencing lots of excitement and joy in their daily lives exhibited a significant tendency to selectively attend to rewarding words in a spatial probe paradigm. In

Studies 3 and 4, we showed that manipulated mood states predicted selective attention such that the induction of excited mood states biased attention toward rewarding words. Somewhat related to these findings, Mogg and colleagues (Mogg & Bradley, 1998) have suggested that state anxiety, but not trait anxiety, is more predictive of attention to threat.

If selective attention covaries with emotional states, but not traits, then attention to threat might be expected to disappear with successful therapy. Indeed, this is the case (MacLeod, 1999). Furthermore, the degree to which the therapy is successful predicts the degree to which the attention bias is reduced (MacLeod, 1999). Going further in this direction, MacLeod and Hagan (1992) suggested that attention performance might serve as a diathesis in predicting vulnerability to anxiety. In this study, they measured attention to threat using a subliminal version of the emotional Stroop test. At a later time, some of the women in the study were given a positive diagnosis for possible cervical cancer. The dependent measure in the study pertained to dysphoric reactions to the diagnosis. As predicted, there was a high correlation (r > .5) between the information processing measure of attention to threat on the one hand and dysphoric reactions to the diagnosis on the other. The finding has been conceptually replicated (MacLeod, 1999).

If attention to threat correlates with anxiety, improves with therapy, and acts as a diathesis in predicting stress in everyday life (MacLeod, 1999), then attention to threat may actually cause anxiety. Indeed, this appears to be the case. In an important study, MacLeod, Rutherford, Campbell, Ebsworthy, and Holker (2002) chose to examine the causal hypothesis by manipulating attention to threat in a modified spatial probe task. They randomly assigned some subjects to an avoidance condition in which attention was systematically drawn away from threat. By contrast, the other condition was sensitized toward threat. They trained attention by manipulating the spatial probes (requiring a manual response) such that they either replaced the non-threatening word of the word pair (avoid condition) or the threatening word of the word pair (sensitize condition). Over the course of the 576 training trials, such a procedure was hypothesized to train or alter patterns of selective attention either toward or away from threatening information. Reaction time performance confirmed this hypothesis. More important, the authors showed that those trained toward threatening information reacted with more anxiety and depression to a laboratory stressor task (unsolvable anagrams). That is, training altered reactivity to stressors. Related results have been reported by MacLeod (1999).

The results reported in this section offer a productive model for implicit personality research. Those who are clinically anxious display selective attention to threatening information in the environment (Mathews & MacLeod, 1994). This initial result set the stage for assessing attentional performance as an indicator of successful therapy (MacLeod, 1999) and a risk factor in developing future anxiety (MacLeod & Hagan, 1992). Finally, such results set the stage for treatments for anxiety based on altering patterns of selective attention (MacLeod, 1999). Implicit personality measures, these results suggest, are more malleable than self-reported personality traits. Thus, an implicit science of personality both (a) captures tendencies not revealed by self-reported traits and (b) offers mechanisms that can be changed, thereby altering behavior and experience.

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Do Not Panic

This guide Don't Panic has tips and additional information on what you should do when you are experiencing an anxiety or panic attack. With so much going on in the world today with taking care of your family, working full time, dealing with office politics and other things, you could experience a serious meltdown. All of these things could at one point cause you to stress out and snap.

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