Trait knowledge forms a common structure across social cognition


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.

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Fig. 1: Conceptual illustration of theoretical and analytic approach.
Fig. 2: Trait inferences across social cognition mirror conceptual knowledge.
Fig. 3: Individual differences in conceptual knowledge predict social perception.
Fig. 4: Conceptual associations directly shape trait inferences and space.
Fig. 5: Social perception and trait inferences influence conceptual trait space.

Data availability

Experiment materials information and all experiment de-identified data are publicly available at The materials used in this study are widely available.

Code availability

Data analysis script notebooks are publicly available at


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We thank M. B. Meshar, J. A. Chwe, B. Barnett, H. Woo and C. Cogley for assistance in materials development and data collection. This work was supported in part by research grants NIH-F31-MH114505 (R.M.S.) and NSF-BCS-1654731 (J.B.F.). The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish or preparation of the manuscript.

Author information

R.M.S., E.H. and J.B.F. developed the theoretical perspective. R.M.S. developed the study concepts. All authors contributed to the study design. Testing and data collection were performed by R.M.S. R.M.S. and E.H. performed the data analysis and interpretation. R.M.S. drafted the manuscript, and all authors contributed to edits and revisions. All authors approved the final version of the manuscript for submission.

Correspondence to Ryan M. Stolier or Jonathan B. Freeman.

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Stolier, R.M., Hehman, E. & Freeman, J.B. Trait knowledge forms a common structure across social cognition. Nat Hum Behav (2020).

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