If you’re like most people, you’ve probably got a firm idea about your own personality – whether you’re outgoing or shy, nervous or calm, and so on. But how far do you think other people’s impressions of your personality match your own assessment?
The happier you are, the less insight you may have
Psychologists studying this question have found that most of us do have a degree of what they call “meta-accuracy”. But at the same, we have some blind spots – there are certain things that lots of other people consistently think about us that we know nothing about. In fact, the more well-adjusted you are, the less insight you may have into what other people think.
One of the most thorough investigations of whether people know what others think of them was published in 2011 by researchers at Washington University in St. Louis and Wake Forest University. Across several studies, Erika Carlson and her colleagues asked hundreds of undergrads to rate their own personality (the main traits like extraversion, but also other characteristics like honesty, funniness and attractiveness), and then to put forward friends and family who would also rate their personality. Finally, the participants estimated how they thought these other people would rate them.
One way to calculate what other people think of you is just to consider how you see yourself and use this as the basis for estimating what others think, under the assumption that if you think you’re an extravert (or not), and so on, other people will too. But Carlson and her colleagues accounted for this, finding that even after factoring out what participants thought of themselves, there was a correlation between how the participants thought other people perceived them and how these people actually did perceive them – their ‘public image’. In fact, the participants’ estimates of what other people thought of them better reflected their ‘public image’ than the personality scores they’d given themselves.
The researchers said these results provide evidence for what they called true ‘meta-insight’ – it suggests we are able to look beyond our self-perceptions to figure out what other people think of us, and that we can do so with some success. This was also true when the procedure was repeated with strangers whom the participants had only chatted with for five minutes.
So you probably do have some idea what other people think of you, but later research suggests your insight is far from perfect, as a team of German psychologists showed in a study from 2013. Sixty-five students rated their own personalities through agreement with 37 statements (such as “I treat people fairly” and “I am lazy”) and they also put forward several friends and family to rate their personalities on the same items (each student put forward at least three; one student invited 35 people to play this role!). Finally they estimated how they thought these other people would rate them.
Crucially, the researchers found there were some consistent judgments made by friends and family about the participants (such as that they all agreed the person was lazy) that were different from how the students rated themselves, and that were missing from the students’ estimates of how they thought other people perceived them. The researchers called these gaps “blind spots” and they said the findings show that “the typical person is not aware of some of the unique ways in which he or she is consensually perceived by others.”
The socially anxious among us might not be too surprised by this revelation – in fact, we probably spend a lot of time worrying about these blind spots. But actually it turns out that it’s more psychologically well-adjusted folk who have the least insight into what other people think of them.
In a study published just this year, a pair of psychologists at Martin-Luther University in Germany asked students to form groups of four with their classmates, to rate their own personalities, those of their group members, and finally to estimate how their group members would rate them. The students also completed measures of their psychological adjustment, including questions about their self-esteem and items tapping signs of personality disorder.
The more psychologically well-adjusted students showed less insight into what other people thought of them – they relied more on what they thought of themselves when making these estimates, and this was especially true for classmates with whom they were better acquainted. In other words, the more emotionally stable and confident you are, the more likely it is that you just assume your friends see you how you see yourself (which if you’re like most people, is in a positive light). This finding is consistent with the broader literature on depression that’s shown people who are more depressed exhibit fewer self-serving biases – in other words, that they see the world more realistically.
These blind-spots may be particularly prominent on social media. In today’s world, we increasingly present ourselves to the world online, rather than in person, and psychologists have recently started investigating these new ways for us to misjudge how others might be perceiving us. Another study published this year looked at this issue specifically in the context of selfies – the photos that we take of ourselves frequently for the purpose of putting them online.
Nearly two hundred undergrads visited a psychology lab, took a selfie, and then had their photo taken with the same phone by a researcher. The students then rated how they thought they looked in the photos, in terms of attractiveness and likeability. The researchers at the University of Toronto found that the frequent selfie-takers among the students thought that they looked more attractive and likeable in their selfie than in the photo of them that the researcher took. But when a separate group of raters recruited online looked at the two sets of photos, they made completely the opposite judgment – rating the students as more likeable and attractive in the researcher photos than the selfies. Perhaps something to bear in mind next time you’re about to upload your latest me-shot.
In light of all these findings, it seems that if you really want to know the complete picture of what other people think of you, you’re best off asking them. So long as your friends and family are honest with you, you may discover you’re not quite the same person you thought you were, at least not as seen through the eyes of others. On the other hand, if you’re happy with yourself and how you think you come over, maybe it’s best not to ask too many questions. Ignorance really may be bliss.
Dr Christian Jarrett edits the British Psychological Society's Research Digest blog. His latest book is Great Myths of the Brain.
Join 600,000+ Future fans by liking us on Facebook, or follow us on Twitter, Google+, LinkedIn and Instagram.
If you liked this story, sign up for the weekly bbc.com features newsletter, called “If You Only Read 6 Things This Week”. A handpicked selection of stories from BBC Future, Earth, Culture, Capital, Travel and Autos, delivered to your inbox every Friday.