Rick Brown, a PhD candidate in psychology at U of T at Scarborough, found that the way people process behavioural information can lead to a personality trait becoming associated with an improper inanimate target. "For example, people could start associating the trait 'superstitious' with a banana because the banana happened to be there when they learned about the superstitious behaviour of a person," says Brown, lead author of the study published in the January 2002 issue of the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. "Due to the automatic nature of this brain process, we may not be able to prevent these nonsensical trait associations."
In their study, Brown and psychology professor John Basilli examined a phenomenon known as spontaneous trait transference (STT), where speakers are perceived by their listeners as possessing the same traits they describe in others. For example, someone who describes another person as honest may be perceived as being honest themselves. Using psychology students as volunteer subjects, Brown and Basilli found people not only unconsciously transfer traits from the intended person to other human beings, as shown in previous STT research, but they also transfer them to inanimate objects. Their study confirms what other research has suggested: that STT is something people's brains do automatically.