Three studies explored mental representations of the organization of acts into traits, and how such mental representations influence person perception. Specifically, we investigated whether acts vary in their degree of trait-category membership (prototypicality), what determines an act's prototypicality, and whether acts' prototypicalities influence conclusions about observed acts. By drawing on research on prototypicality-based models of mental representations (Osherson, Smith, Wilkie, López, & Shafir, 1990), five hypotheses were proposed about the nature of mental representations of traits and how they influence person perception. In Study 1, subjects rated three aspects of several acts: how prototypical of the trait they are, how similar they are to other acts in the trait, and how extreme they are. Subjects showed substantial agreement on all three ratings. Additionally, an act's similarity to other acts in the trait was predictive of how prototypical the act was, but the act's extremity was a stronger predictor of its prototypicality. Study 2 investigated how the prototypicality of an actor's observed acts influences person perception. Subjects were more willing to describe an actor's acts with a trait when the acts were prototypical or similar to each other than when the acts were not prototypical or not similar to each other. Study 3 investigated the prototypicality of predicted acts. Results showed that predictions of acts were not influenced by the prototypicality of the predicted acts. Together, the three studies suggest that mental representations of traits are consensual and that they influence person perception.
Fleeson, W., Zirkel, S., & Smith, E. E. (1995). Mental representations of trait categories and their influences on person perception. Social Cognition, 13, 365-397. https://doi.org/10.1521/soco.1922.214.171.1245