tom XXV / numer 3Dorota Turska, Implicit personality theories (IPTs) and the dispositionism of teachers with varied teaching experience

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Theoretical background

The term implicit personality theories (IPTs) was first proposed by Bruner and Tagiuri (1954) to identify the individual’s set of expected relations among traits and attributes of other persons as well as oneself. IPTs are called “implicit” because they are rarely explicitly articulated, and they are called “theories”, since, as scientific theories go, they establish some framework for making predictions and judging events in one’s world (Chiu, Hong, Dweck, 1997). Unlike grand scientific theories, IPTs refer to a person’s commonsensical explanations for everyday events. For this reason, IPTs are sometimes also called “naive” or “lay” theories (Plaks, Levy, Dweck, 2009). It is worth bearing in mind that the latter terms are more used in social psychology (e.g. Kruglanski, 1990) while IPTs can be found in educational and developmental psychology (e.g. Blackwell, Trzesniewski, Dweck, 2007).

People use IPTs specifically in situations where they try to invest complex and ambiguous behaviour with importance, notably when they have limited information about others (Bruner, Tagiuri; 1954; Schneider, 1973). Apparently, the concept of IPTs has been a topic of interest to cognitive social researchers in the 1960s and 1970s (cf. e.g. Łukaszewski, 1997). Researchers referred to IPTs in order to describe two timeless phenomena, i.e. the general bias in judgments exhibited toward others (e.g. stereotyping and prejudice) and individual differences in person perception (e.g. impression formation) (Wang, 1997). A new interest in IPTs, reported since the end of the 20th c., can be ascribed to a research project by Dweck et al., as announced in a scientific paper by Dweck and Leggett (1988), now considered as seminal (Lüftenegger, Chen, 2017).

As defined by the authors themselves (e.g. Dweck, Chiu, Hong, 1995), implicit theories refer to two different assumptions people may make concerning the malleability of key attributes of the human nature, specifically intelligence and personality. One of these assumptions stresses the supremacy of a conviction that said attributes account for a malleable quality (incremental theory). It follows that they can undergo change and develop. According to the other theory (entity theory), human attributes are fixed and form a nonmalleable entity. As regards intelligence, entity theorists claim that intelligence is an innate quality. Hence, each of us has a higher or lower level of intelligence which remains unchanged. In contrast, incremental theorists believe that intelligence is a malleable quality (Dweck, 1996, cf. Turska, 2012). As regards IPTs, entity theorists underline the importance of traits to explain human conduct; the nature of these traits is fixed. In contrast, incremental theorists perceive traits as dynamic constructs and, therefore, place lesser importance to them as explanatory factors of human behaviour. Instead, they highlight the importance of needs, aims, and emotional states which, together with situational factors, determine such a complex phenomenon as human behaviour (Dweck, 2008). The results of numerous studies by Dweck (e.g. 2000) demonstrate regulatory consequences of a certain belief about the malleability of human attributes. In other words, IPTs constitute the basis for drawing social inferences. This idea was originally articulated as follows: “The perception of a target will tend to be imposed on the stimulus person by the perceiver; the missing link in the inference chain will be supplied by the perceiver’s own ‘theory’ of personality” (Jones, Thibaut, 1958, p. 166).

An apt exemplification of the nature of social inferences, caused by diverse IPTs, is shown in the study by Hong (1994, after Hong et al., 1997, p. 298). The scholar asked college students to explain a set of behaviours such as “Alexis stole some bread from the bakery shop”. The participants of the study were to make casual attributions for the behaviours by completing the sentence “This probably occurred because…”. Entity theorists tended to formulate explanations relying on central personality traits suggesting that “Alexis was a thief” or that “Alexis was dishonest”. Incremental theorists, however, were far more processoriented offering psychological-state explanations such as “Alexis was hungry” or “Alexis was desperate”. Arguably, exposing such essential dissimilarities in person cognition provides reasonable grounds on which to justify the title of one of the studies by Dweck, Chiu, Hong (1995), i.e. “A world from two perspectives” . It follows that each theory does not act alone. “Instead, each is associated with a set of allied beliefs, the sum total of which cohere into two distinct meaning systems. (…) These meaning systems produce systematic differences in a range of fundamental social cognition processes” (Plaks, Levy, Dweck, 2009, p. 1069). It seems that dispositionism holds a prominent position in the afore mentioned “meaning system”.

As explained by Ross and Nisbett (1991), personality theories, both academic and those established by laypersons, are based on two broad assumptions concerning human behaviour. The first and arguably basic assumption is that the majority of social stimuli trigger distinctly different reactions of different people. The second assumption is that individuals tend to demonstrate a considerable level of consistence, and, therefore, their reactions to different situations are more predictable. “Putting these two assumptions together gives the core proposition of dispositionism – that is, that the variability in responses we witness when different people react to a given situation is a reflection not of randomness or indeterminacy but of the distinctive and enduring personal attributes that the various actors bring to that situation” (Ross, Nisbett, 1991, p. 72).

In a nutshell, a suggestion that the kind of IPTs a person holds is related to the tendency to use dispositionism seems justifiable. It follows that the tendency to use traits as basic units of analysis in social perception would be greater among entity theorists than among incremental theorists. Furthermore, a question of inferential practices appears, which is linked to both the entity theory of personality and dispositionism. Drawing on the classic stand of Ross and Nisbett (1991), inferential practices, linked to dispositionism, include a belief about the transsituational consistency of behaviour resulting from the underlying dispositional trait (behaviour in one situation → behaviour in a new situation) and a belief that behaviour in a specific situation can be predicted on the basis of a known trait (dispositional trait → behaviour in a new situation). It is worth bearing in mind that entity theorists see their role in the person perception as diagnosing specific traits on the basis of behavioural data. Since these traits are fixed, the diagnosis made at one time should help predict later behaviour. Incremental theorists, in contrast, see their role in the person perception as understanding the dynamics of behaviour rather than disposition diagnosing (Dweck, Chiu, Hong, 1995). Thus, they manifest a weaker tendency to draw trait interferences and are more sensitive to the effects of a situation on human behaviour.

These assumptions were confirmed in five studies whose participants included American and Chinese students (Chiu, Hong, Dweck, 1997).

Author’s own research programme

The studies mentioned above (Chiu, Hong, Dweck, 1997) have been an inspiration to the author’s own research programme carried out in the context of education. At this point, it is essential to explain that the vast majority of studies on the role of IPTs in the field of education adopt a student perspective (cf. Rissanen et al., 2018). Researches on teachers’ IPTs are rather scarce. There are few studies on teachers’ implicit theories including those on creativity (Gralewski, Karwowski, 2018), on the gifted (Baudson, Preckel, 2013) or about teaching morally and teaching morality (Rissanen et al., 2017). Surprisingly, research on the link between teacher’s IPTs and dispositionism is nowhere to be found. Such research seems viable, since it is the teacher who determines the quality of the educational process. Evidently, this state of affairs comes from the lack of symmetry in the process described: compared to students, teachers have more authority to define the prevailing meaning of a given situation (Wojciszke, 2001, p. 88). Therefore, teachers’ social inferences may lead to social consequences, and, primarily, to the self-fulfilling prophecy in education (Rattan, Good, Dweck, 2012).

It should be emphasized that student perception operates in a situation where teachers are overloaded with the stimuli of a social nature (Turska, 2018). These stimuli result from day-to-day interactions with individual students and from the need to oversee the dynamics of classes that changes each year and is largely unpredictable (Hamachek, 1995). It can therefore be assumed that with teaching experience gained, teachers increasingly apply adaptation mechanisms that are typical of information overload, and, specifically, automation (Ledzińska, 2002). Automatic interpretation of student behaviour should translate into an increased role of IPTs which, operating as an interpretation matrix, help teachers to relieve their attention. It is therefore justified to undertake studies on the role of teaching experience in teacher’s social inferences with due consideration for implicit theories.

The following hypotheses have been formulated on the basis of the state of research and relevant literature review:

Hypothesis 1. IPTs of teachers explain the manifestation of dispositionism in the form of the following beliefs concerning a) trans-situational consistency of behaviour, b) possibility to predict behaviour in a specific situation based on the recognition of a relevant trait (a stronger main effect of IPTs),

Hypothesis 2. Teaching experience explains manifestations of dispositionism indicated (a weaker main effect of years of service),

Hypothesis 3. IPTs determine manifestations of dispositionism depending on years of service (the effect of interaction).


Subjects and procedure

The research conducted in the years 2017–2019 covered economically active teachers (N = 241; 186 women), participants of Postgraduate Qualification Studies at Maria Curie-Sklodowska University in Lublin. Teaching experience of the respondents varied from less than a year to 12 years (M = 3.71; SD = 2.96).

The research comprised three stages. During the first one teacher IPTs were measured. The remaining two stages focused on the diagnosis of manifestations of dispositionism as defined by Ross and Nisbett (1991), i.e. trans-situational consistency of behaviour (Stage Two) and a conviction that the knowledge of a relevant trait helps predict behaviour in a given situation (Stage Three). The interval between subsequent stages of research ranged from 3 weeks to a month. The procedure adopted aimed at minimising possible distortions between earlier and later responses of the respondents. An individual approach was used, and responses were anonymous (pseudonyms were used).

The study was approved by the Ethics Committee at Maria Curie-Sklodowska University, Approval No. KE-22/2017.

Research tools

Stage One: In order to measure IPTs a Polish adaptation (Lachowicz-Tabaczek, 2004) of the Implicit Theory Scale developed by Dweck (2000) was used. The survey is an 8-item measure that assesses, in equal parts, how much people believe their personality is fixed (e.g. “The personality of a person is something very basic and cannot be changed”) and how much people believe people can change (e.g. “Whether a person can change depends entirely on one’s resolve”). Respondents used a 6-point scale (1 = strongly disagree; 6 = strongly agree) to show how much they agree with these statements. In order to calculate the final score, the results of entity theory diagnosing items need to be recorded. The higher the score (at the theoretical dispersion level of 8–48), the stronger the incremental theory.

The reliability of the Polish version of the IPTs Scale, measured by means of Cronbach’s α is satisfactory and stands at α = .72 (Lachowska-Tabaczek, 2004).

Stage Two: In order to assess a belief concerning the trans-situational consistency of behaviour, the Behaviour-to-Behaviour Scale by Kunda and Nisbett (1986) was used. The scale comprises four responses to the target’s behaviour in a specific situation and a question addressed to the respondent. Each question asks for predictions on the behaviour of a person in another future situation on the basis of knowledge about the present behaviour. Two of these questions ask for predictions in the social domain (honesty and friendliness), and two ask for behavioural predictions in ability domains (academic performance and performance in basketball game). Example: Suppose you observed Jack and Joe in one particular situation and found that Jack was more friendly than Joe. What do you suppose is the probability that in a completely different situation, you would also find Jack to be more friendly than Joe? (Kunda, Nisbett, 1986, p. 210).

Respondents are asked to indicate their predictions on a probability scale from 0 to 100%.

In preparing the Polish language version, a true and accurate translation of the procedure was used (Drwal 1995) on the assumption that all the items have a similar sense in the original and target cultures. The scale was translated into Polish by two independent translators whose work demonstrated a high degree of similarity. The final Polish version was agreed on and translated back into the original. The comparison of the original English version and the back-translated one did not disclose any dissimilarities.

The value of the reliability coefficient of the Polish version (Cronbach’s α) was .74. As expected, the scale is a two-item measure (item 1: honesty and friendliness; item 2: academic performance, performance in a basketball game). Both items account in total for 79% of result variances.

Stage 3: In order to measure a conviction that it is possible to predict the behaviour in a given situation knowing relevant traits, the Trait-to-Behaviour Scale by Kunda i Nisbett (1986) was employed. The adaptation procedure used was similar to that described in Stage Two. Four items concerning trait information about a target were used. Respondents were asked to predict a target’s behaviour in a particular situation.

Example: Henry is more aggressive than Edward on average. What do you suppose is the probability that Henry would act more aggressively than Edward in a particular situation? (Kunda, Nisbett, 1986, p. 210).

Respondents had the same probability scale as in Stage Two. The 4 items covered 2 positive (conscientiousness, helpfulness) and 2 negative traits (aggressiveness, boastfulness).

The value of the reliability coefficient of the Polish version (Cronbach’s α) was .83. The scale is a two-item measure (item 1: positive traits; item 2: negative traits). Both items account in total for 84% of result variances.


With reference to IPTs, the results obtained fell in the 17–46 band (M = 31.12; SD = 4.15). Further analyses rest only on those results that clearly demonstrate one of the two IPTs. The adopted classification criterion for the compared groups was the average result +/− standard deviation. The entity theorists group (N = 107) was formed by those whose results fell in the 17–27 band; those whose results were in the 35–46 range were classified as incremental theorists (N = 92). The results of 42 people (17.5% of all respondents) were not subject to analysis, which complies with Dweck’s assumption (Yeager, Dweck, 2012, p. 304) under which approximately 20% of people are not clearly in favour of any of the two views. Furthermore, the comparative groups established had the same number of people (chi2 = 2.13; df = 1; p = .15).

The other clarifying variable, i.e. teaching experience, was employed in a dichotomic manner. The average for the analysed sample (N = 199) served as a division criterion. With division criterion at 3, teachers with insignificant teaching experience (N = 111) were on a par with those with rich teaching experience (N = 88) (chi2 = 3.07; df = 1; p = .08).

In order to verify the proposed hypotheses, a variance analysis 2 (IPTs) x 2 (years of experience) was performed. Table 1 shows the results of inferencing for the variable in question, i.e. a strong belief in the trans-situational consistency of behaviour relating to social domain and ability domains.

Table 1. Variance analysis results – trans-situational consistency of behaviour

The results obtained (Table 1) indicated a statistically significant main effect of IPTs both for the social domain {F(1,192) = 81.46; p < .001} as well as for ability domains {F(1,192) = 17.98; p < .001}. It follows that IPTs differentiate a belief concerning the trans-situational consistency of behaviour (M for incremental theorists = 110.49 vs M for entity theorists = 149.24; Cohen’s d = −1.6; large effect). A statistically significant main effect was also obtained for the teaching experience variable with respect to both domains, i.e. {F(1,192) = 11.53; p < .001} and {F(1,192) = 5.00; p < .01} respectively. Teaching experience is also a factor that differentiates analysed convictions (M for insignificant experience = 122.67 vs M rich experience = 137.05; Cohen’s d = .69; above average effect). Furthermore, the effect of interaction between the analysed variables was proved significant. It follows that the effect of IPTs has a different value on two levels of the experience variable (cf. Figure 1–2) . With a high level of IPT (incremental theorists) the length of teaching experience does not differentiate the convictions analysed in social domain (p = .33) and in ability domains (p = .88). A statistically significant difference occurs in the group of entity theorists. It follows that the simultaneous analysis of a low level IPT and rich teaching experience demonstrates a higher belief in the trans-situational consistency of behaviour: large effect for social domain (Cohen’s d = 1.1) and above average effect for ability domains (Cohen’s d = .76).

The aggregated results for both models under analysis stand at .40% for social domain of the total variance of the variable clarified and 15% for ability domains. The biggest share, albeit domain-dependent belongs to the IPT variable (Eta2 = .39 and .13).

The results of similar inferencing relating to beliefs about possible predictions of behaviour in a specific situation based on the knowledge of a specific trait (dispositional trait → behaviour in a new situation) are included in Table 2.

Figure 1. Beliefs about inter-situational consistency of behaviour (social domain) and IPTs of teachers with varied teaching experience

Figure 2. Beliefs about inter-situational consistency behaviour (ability domains) and IPTs of teachers with varied teaching experience

Table 2. Results of variance analysis – possible prediction beliefs: dispositional trait → behaviour

The results presented (Table 2) indicated a statistically significant main effect of the IPT variable both with regard to positive traits {F(1,192) = 37.46; p < .001} and negative ones {F(1,192) = 59.25; p < .001}. IPTs differentiates the convictions described (M for incremental theorists = 126.69 vs M for entity theorists = 164.53; Cohen’s d = −1.3; large effect). A statistically significant main effect of the experience variable was also obtain with regard to both types of traits, i.e. {F(1,192) = 14.01; p < .001} and {F(1,192) = 16.29; p < .001} respectively. The length of teaching experience is a differentiating factor regarding the convictions analysed (M for insignificant experience = 132.67 vs M for rich experience = 152.03; Cohen’s d = .71; above average effect). Furthermore, the effect of interactions between the analysed variables also proved significant. In the case of negative traits (in relation to positive ones) the value of F for the interaction effect was bigger while the level significance remained similar. It follows that the IPT effect has a different value on two levels of the experience variable (cf. Figure 3–4). With a high level of IPT (incremental theorists) the length of teaching experience does not differentiate the convictions analysed relating to positive traits (p = .43) and negative traits (p = .41). A statistically significant difference occurs in the group of entity theorists. It follows that the simultaneous analysis of a low level IPT and rich teaching experience demonstrates stronger beliefs in dispositional trait → behaviour in a new situation; i.e. a large effect for positive traits (Cohen’s d = 1.2) as well as for negative ones (Cohen’s d = 1.6).

Both tested models offer the following aggregate results: positive traits = 23% of the total variance of the variable clarified and negative traits = 33%. The biggest share, albeit trait-dependent belongs to the IPT variable (Eta2 = .22 and .31)

Figure 3. Possible prediction beliefs: dispositional positive trait → behaviour and IPTs of teachers with varied teaching experience

Figure 4. Possible prediction beliefs: dispositional negative trait → behaviour and IPTs of teachers with varied teaching experience


The study described adopts a teacher perspective as the participant in educational interaction with greater “interpretative power” (Wojciszke, 2001) as compared to that of students. After all, it is teachers who decide whether a specific behaviour of their students is assessed as inadmissible or improper although justifiable; teachers may also withdraw from or discontinue their relation with students where the original assumptions of the former are not confirmed. The aim of the study went beyond confirming accepted claims of the link between IPTs and dispositionism (Chiu, Hong, Dweck, 1997). An attempt was made to determine the dependencies described in order to show their implications in education.

The results obtained confirm the hypotheses formulated. It was determined that IPTs of teachers provide strong clarification of their dispositionism in both analysed manifestations. As regards beliefs about trans-situational consistency of behaviour, all analyses performed indicated the biggest disparity between incremental and entity theorists (Stage Two). Such a strong leaning towards dispositionism of teacher entity theorists refers primarily to social inferences. This result is additionally reinforced in the light of a comparison with insignificant (actually the lowest differentiation in all the analyses performed) differentiation of dispositionism in ability domains, and notably in relation to game performance {basketball game – another team game; F(1,192) = 4.49; p < .05}. It should be emphasised that the results obtained are consistent with those reported by Kunda and Nisbett (1986). In their seminal work aptly titled The psychometrics of everyday life, the researchers argued that a target’s perception in ability domains takes place in the context of precise indicators. However, in the social sphere interpretation of behaviour cannot draw on such unambiguous criteria.

In the search for such a strong preference of entity theorists for dispositionism in the behaviour-to-behaviour context, it should be underlined that adequate diagnostic items (see Research tools) refer to the direct observation of a student by the teacher. As already mentioned, such observation is usually short and is performed under the conditions of an overload of social stimuli; there is no possibility to learn about the factors that precede a given behaviour or those that follow in the aftermath. Potentially unreliable, observation remains the most accessible method of getting to know a student available to the teacher. A strikingly different interpretation of data obtained through observation by entity theorists vs incremental theorists also seems to refer to a different meaning attributed to the need of orientation, a fundamental human need (cf. Lachowicz-Tabaczek, 2004). By accepting a belief that human behaviour is unchanged (due to the underlying dispositional traits) teachers are inclined to make a diagnosis concerning a student’s personality. Once made, such a diagnosis organises social reality stressing what is fixed and, therefore, predictable. What comes as an obvious benefit to teacher entity theorists is reducing social uncertainty and determining an unambiguous course of action towards students. “Arguably, entity beliefs gratify orientation needs while incremental beliefs frustrate these needs” (Lachowicz-Tabaczek, 2004, p. 138). Indeed, incremental theorists who try to perceive a student’s behaviour as a dynamic phenomenon triggered by motives (and not personality traits) as well as external circumstances may give smaller weight to satisfying orientation needs. They also tend to be certain of their prediction to a lesser degree (Ross, Nisbett, 1991).

A belief held by teacher entity theorists that “after all, they are good judges of people” (Turska, 2018) helps understand a somewhat lesser role of IPTs in clarifying the other manifestation of dispositionism, i.e. the trait-to-behaviour approach (Stage Three). Referring to the content of relevant diagnostic items again (see Research tools), clearly, the knowledge of personality traits of a student does not necessarily stem from a teacher’s own observations, and, as such, can be adopted from others. Hence, a diagnosis formulated in such a manner can be less reliable than a diagnosis built on inferences drawn from one’s own observations. Despite that, entity theorists accept an “impersonal diagnosis” as a reliable source of behavioural predictions, specifically with respect to negative traits. This conclusion based on the research conducted compiles with the now classic presentation made by Skowronski and Carlston (1989). These scholars argue that there is an informa tive link between a negative trait and the corresponding behaviour irrespective of circumstances while the sheer occurrence of a positive behaviour does not reflect unambiguously a positive personality trait (see also Wojciszke, 2001).

The practices of social inferencing used by teacher entity theorists become more explicit with years of service. Such a phenomenon was expected to occur as an effect of an ever increasing overload of social stimuli caused by classes that keep changing year in, year out (Hamachek, 1995). This is yet another argument confirming that entity beliefs demand gratification of orientation needs. It is worth noting that at the same time they do not offer any opportunities to satisfy other basic human needs, i.e. influence and agency. Beliefs about an unchanged nature of student personality reduce the scope of intended effects of a teacher’s actions. In the case of a clear educational failure, such beliefs prevent teachers from losing trust in their own professional competencies which simply could not be employed where the object of the educational process, i.e. the student, has permanently “limited”.

In view of the above, there appear to be at least three implications for education. Firstly, it seems that such a strong predilection of teacher entity theorists for reducing social uncertainty is fostered by a particular tendency to detect data consistent with predictions and to reject inconsistent data. This is the only way in which teacher entity theorists can maintain their supreme conviction that it is possible to determine a student’s personality on the basis of a single type of behaviour. This is also a classic mechanism with which to trigger a self-fulfilling prophecy in education (Rosenthal, Jacobson, 1968), specifically with respect to students who “cause educational problems” (the Golem effect, Babad, Inbar, Rosenthal, 1982). Since the effects of a self-fulfilling prophecy do not occur automatically, moderators of this phenomenon play an important role (Brophy, Good, 1974). It is worth bearing in mind that the lists of such variables, formed on the basis of empirical data (e.g. Trusz, 2010), do not include IPTs of teachers. It is, therefore, justified to undertake research with a view to verifying a theoretically advocated increase – in the case of entity theorists – in the intensity of relation between teacher expectations and student reactions. Such a proposition has been verified, albeit in few studies, with respect to beliefs about fixed intelligence (Lee, 1996).

Secondly, it should be underlined that teacher beliefs about fixed / malleable personality not only form an overriding interpretation framework for social events in the classroom but also they are passed over to students, for instance, in the form of feedback. Messages from teachers shape a general view of children about the soc at large and themselves (Yeager, Dweck, 2012). In this respect, it is only justified to agree with the conclusion of Rissanen et al. (2018) that IPTs of teachers have multiplying effects, which provide a good reason to formulate the third implication. Implicit theories should become part and parcel of teacher training academic syllabi to help prospective teachers understand the relations between their own beliefs and their teaching practice.


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PDF Abstrakt

Rocznik: 2020

Tom: XXV

Numer: 3

Tytuł: Implicit personality theories (IPTs) and the dispositionism of teachers with varied teaching experience

Autorzy: Dorota Turska

PFP: 277–292

DOI: 10.14656/PFP20200301