Laura Kressel


Research Overview

In 1906 the Swiss Neurologist, Edouard Claparede, concealed a pin in the palm of his hand and greeted a patient with a handshake. The patient, who suffered from Korsakoff’s syndrome and lacked the ability to form episodic memories, winced in pain and immediately withdrew her hand. A few moments later the episode was gone from her mind but the patient refused to shake Claparede’s extended hand. When asked to explain her reluctance, the woman commented, “Doesn’t one have the right to withdraw her hand?” The patient had no conscious recollection of the event but it guided her behavior towards Claparede nonetheless (Claparede, 1951/1911). This is perhaps the first scientic description of implicit impression formation-- the formation of intuitive, nonverbal impressions that exists independent of explicit memory for the episode on which the impression is based.

Now, consider the sentence, "Sally solved the mystery halfway through the book". Most people who read this sentence automatically infer the trait "clever" and subsequently rate Sally as more clever than the average person (although they will not remember the sentence from which this inference was made). These "spontaneous trait inferences" occur outside of conscious awareness and nearly two decades of research has demonstrated their ubiquity(Uleman, Saribay & Gonzalez, 2008).

But what is the functional significance of personality traits that are inferred subconsciously? Are they mere descriptions of actors or are they more sophisticated inferences that function as explanations for a person's behavior? Do people's consciously held beliefs about the causal determinants of behavior influence trait representations and does manipulating people's beliefs about the causal determinants of behavior influence the types of spontaneous social inferences a person makes?

These are the core questions addressed by my dissertation research. I use different experimental paradigms to test the hypothesis that traits and actions (e.g. clumsy-stumble, shy-blush, gullible-believe) are causally (not associatively) linked in semantic memory and that trait-action pairs are represented in a manner analagous to nonsocial, mechanistic causal concepts (e.g. spark-fire, acid-corrosion, etc.). Recent experiments measure the relationship between causal (versus associative) trait representations and spontaneous trait inference tendencies.


Kressel, LM, & Uleman, J.S. (2010). Personality Traits Function as Causal Concepts. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 46(1), 213-216.

Kruger, J., Burrus, J., & Kressel, L.M. (2009) Between a Rock and a Hard Place: Damned if you do, damned if you don't. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 45(6), 1286-1290.

Kressel, L.M, Chapman, G.B. & Leventhal, E. (2007). The Influence of Default Options on the Expression of End-of-Life Treatment Preferences in Advance Directives. Journal of General Internal Medicine, 22(7), 1007-1010.

Kressel, L.M, & Chapman, G.B. (2007). The Default Effect in End-of-Life Treatment Preferences. Medical Decision Making, 27 (3), 299-310.

Other pages of interest

Here are some small caps: i am in small caps.