By Brad Bell
Imagine you are taking a psychology class and most of the students ask questions and participate in class discussions. However, some students are very quiet and rarely ask questions or participate in class discussions. Would you infer that they are quiet people and attribute their quietness to their personality, or would you attribute it to them being bored with the class? If you attributed their behavior to their personality, what personality characteristics do you feel they would have?
In a study I conducted (Bell, 1995), participants were randomly assigned to read a brief description of a hypothetical student who was described as either very quiet or very talkative in a particular psychology class. The description involved several other things about the student (e.g., has a 3.2 overall GPA and attends several parties each month). The sex of the student was also varied in this study (by the name of the student). After reading the brief description of the student, the participants evaluated the student on how talkative, shy, friendly, creative, sincere, intelligent, helpful, dynamic, and honest they perceived him or her to be. The hypothetical student was perceived to be more talkative, friendly, creative, and dynamic when described as very talkative than when described as very quiet. Moreover, the hypothetical student was also judged to be less shy when described as very talkative than when described as very quiet. There were no statistically significant effects for the sex of the hypothetical student.
It is not clear whether these findings reflect negative beliefs about people who are quiet, positive beliefs about people who are talkative, or both. However, other research findings suggest it might be more of a negative view of quiet people than a positive view of talkative people. Daly, McCroskey, and Richmond (1976) had people evaluate a hypothetical person who varied in the percentage of time he or she was described as talking in a small group. They had them answer questions pertaining to the hypothetical person that reflected a number of dimensions (e.g., sociability, competence, and composure). The vocal activity varied from 0 to 95 percent. On some dimensions, the effect clearly appears to be more of a negative perception of quiet people than a positive view of talkative people. For example, the mean for the sociability measure was 9.6 for the 0 percent vocal level, 20.0 for the 50 percent vocal level, and 20.8 for the 95 percent vocal level.
In my study (Bell, 1995), the student was described as being very quiet or very talkative in only one particular class. The participants did not know how the student behaved in other situations. Yet participants made judgments about the student’s personality based on this one situation. The participants in the study may have dismissed plausible situational explanations for the student’s behavior. The possible situational explanations would include being bored with the class and having personal problems that reduced their normal level of talkativeness.
The findings are important because expectations about students can affect the scoring of essays (e.g., Chase, 1979). It’s possible that students who are very quiet in a class may be judged as less creative in their written work. If they are judged to be less creative, they may receive lower grades for their papers. Thus, it is important that teachers be aware of this possible bias. Being aware of the possible bias may help to reduce it.
Bell, B. E. (1995). Judgments of the attributes of a student who is talkative versus a student who is quiet in a class. Journal of Social Behavior and Personality, 10, 827-832.
Chase, C.I. (1979). The impact of achievement expectations and handwriting quality on scoring essay tests. Journal of Educational Measurement,16, 39-42.
Daly, J. A., McCroskey, J.C., & Richmond, V. P. (1977). Relationships between vocal activity and perception of communicators in small group interaction. Western Journal of Speech Communication, 41, 175-187.