Interpersonal Understanding as an Aspect of Interpersonal Interaction

Felknor, Jerry E. (Ph.D., 1977)

Thesis directed by Associate Professor Peter G. Ossorio

This study was concerned with the general topic of person perception or interpersonal understanding. The currently dominant conceptualization of the phenomena was outlined, and an alternative conceptualization derived from Ossorio's "Descriptive Psychology" (1966) was presented. The alternative formulation represents the phenomena of interpersonal understanding explicitly and systematically as an aspect of the more general phenomenon of interpersonal interaction, i.e., persons' behavior with regard to one another. Within the formulation attention is drawn to a distinction between two sorts of descriptions (or judgments) that persons make, both in general and in their understandings of one another. Appraisative descriptions are characterized as personalized and functional descriptions which carry tautologous motivational significance for the describer's choices of behavior. Categorical descriptions are depersonalized and classificatory in nature and carry essentially no motivational significance. Appraisative descriptions are formulated as the normal, indispensable, and fundamental form of interpersonal understanding.

The set of hypotheses posited was to the effect that a person's categorical descriptions and his appraisative descriptions of the same other persons and particular occasions of their behavior would differ. In addition, a person's "preparedness" to treat (and hence to make certain sorts of appraisative descriptions of) other persons with regard to content taken to be of high relevance (e.g., hostility) was also examined.

The experiment was designed to confront subjects, in successive phases of the procedures, with circumstances which would elicit their categorical and appraisative descriptions, respectively, of the same other persons. Appraisative descriptions were elicited by leading experimental subjects to anticipate imminent future interaction with the persons of whom they were to give descriptions. Subjects were asked to give both descriptions of other persons' behaviors (Behavior descriptions) and their personal characteristics (Person descriptions) regarding the same content. Subjects gave their descriptions in the form of ratings (on a 100-point scale) with regard to specified content, e.g., exploitative, hostile, amusing, etc. The content was selected as being more or less relevant to the nature of the anticipated interaction. Control subjects, who were not led to anticipate future interactions, were also utilized. The content "Hostility" was given special attention in the analyses of the data as representative of more relevant content.

The results indicated that changes in subjects' ratings from categorical to appraisative descriptions tended to be larger with regard to content specified as more relevant than to content specified as less relevant. Little difference, however, was observed in the amount of such changes between the Experimental and Control groups. This result raised questions about (a) the influence on experimental subjects of their anticipation of interaction, especially regarding the original specifications of relevancy of content, and (b) whether control subjects also had shifted from categorical to appraisative descriptions in the absence of anticipation of interaction. Supplementary data suggested that there was little difference between the rated relevancy of content regarding relevancy to interpersonal relations generally and to the specifically anticipated interaction task.

The hostility analyses indicated that all subjects, regardless of their degree of preparedness, tended to decrease their ratings of hostility from categorical to appraisative descriptions. Although subjects classified as most prepared did take others to be less hostile under appraisative descriptions than under categorical descriptions, they still took others to be more hostile than did least prepared subjects. These results suggest that there may be a normative tendency for persons to "downplay" the presence of hostility when they may have to deal with it.

The discussion raised issues pertaining to the utility of traditional assessments of reliability regarding appraisative descriptions, and the difficulties of eliciting and maintaining from persons categorical postures of descriptions. [190 pp.]