Fictional stories are replete with villains and heroes with an almost magical ability to discern other people’s characters – think Hannibal Lecter or Sherlock Holmes. In real life, too, many people (including certain world leaders) seem to think they have this skill. Question-and-answer sites like Quora are filled with posts like: “I can read people’s personalities and emotions like a book. Is this normal?
But do any of us really have an exceptional skill for judging other people’s personalities?
Psychologists call such people – or the idea of them – “good judges”. And for more than a century, they have been trying to answer the question of whether these good judges really exist.
Until recently, the conclusion was that the concept is essentially a myth. Most of us are pretty gifted at determining each other’s characters, the evidence suggested. But there is barely any variation in the skill from one person to another.
However, an intriguing new paper has forced a rethink by providing new, compelling evidence that good judges do exist after all. But their skill only becomes apparent when they are reading expressive people who reveal honest cues to their characters. “Simply put,” write Katherine Rogers at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and Jeremy Biesanz at the University of British Columbia, “reports highlighting the demise or irrelevance of the good judge may have been greatly exaggerated.”
Good judges of character and personality may exist after all (Credit: Hartswood Films/BBC)
One of the first attempts to identify good judges was published by US psychologist Henry F Adams in 1927. He asked eight teams of 10 young women, who knew each other well, to rate each other’s personalities. He also requested that they rate their own. He averaged the ratings each volunteer received from the others to obtain their ‘true’ personality – then he crunched the numbers to see if some individuals had an unusual ability to perceive character accurately, other people’s or their own.
Good judges tend to be touchy, quick of temper, glum and moody – Henry F Adams
What he found was that being a good judge of other people didn’t necessarily make you a fun person to be with. Though mentally quick and agile, he said they tend “to be touchy, quick of temper, glum and moody, and lacking in courage”. Adams’ theory was that, paradoxically, good judges of others are egocentric: they only see other people as tools for their own ends. (Those women who were good judges of themselves, by contrast, he considered “tactful, polite and popular” and more interested in how they could be of service to others.)
But by the 1950s, the concept of the good judge was beginning to look shaky. First came a devastating critique of the methods used by Adams and others to identify good judges. Then data was published suggesting that the superior abilities of supposed good judges failed to transfer from one situation to another. Over the ensuing decades, further attempts to demonstrate the existence of good judges were inconsistent at best.
One study suggested that people who were a good judge in one situation may not be in the next (Credit: Alamy)
This is where Rogers and Biesanz come in. They think there are two key reasons for the flaky evidence for good judges. First, researchers have been inconsistent in what they mean by a good judge. Sometimes they’ve meant the ability to read personality, but other times they’ve looked at something like reading emotions or spotting lies, which is significant because there’s evidence these are distinct skills. Second, researchers have failed to take into account the part played by the person whose personality is being read.
The pair’s revelation is that there are not only good judges, but also “good targets” – people who make relevant and useful cues to their personality available. The abilities of the good judge will only manifest when reading good targets. “Much the same way a new calculus book on Amazon that does not make sample content available online will not be understood and evaluated any better by a calculus teacher than a student struggling with arithmetic, a calculus book with chapters provided online will be understood exponentially better by a calculus teacher than the same arithmetic student”, they write.
Recent research assessed participants’ ability to judge someone’s character within three minutes of meeting them (Credit: Getty Images)
To test their argument, Rogers and Biesanz recruited thousands of college students to either chat to an unfamiliar person for three minutes or watch a video of someone they didn’t know for three minutes, and then to rate that person’s personality. The students’ personality estimates were then compared to the target persons' “true personality” based on their own self-description and ratings given by a friend or relative who knew them well.
Crucially, as well as analysing the data to see if some participants were exceptionally accurate at judging other people’s personalities, Rogers and Biesanz also categorised those having their personality scrutinised as either good or bad targets (based on how accurately, on average, the participants were able to judge them).
Good judges of character do exist – but their talent only exists when judging individuals who give strong cues (Credit: Getty Images)
The data showed that there were good judges – a minority of participants who were significantly better than average at accurately judging the personalities of others. But it also showed that this was only true in the context of judging good targets.
The ability to somewhat magically discern the personality of others is not supported here – Katherine Rogers and Jeremy Biesanz
“We found consistent, clear and strong evidence that the good judge does exist”, Rogers and Biesanz concluded. But their key finding that this skill only applies when judging certain open individuals means that “the ability to somewhat magically discern the personality of others, as displayed in characters like Sherlock Holmes or The Mentalist, is not supported here.”
Characters like Sherlock Holmes, who can read someone’s ‘true’ personality with the most minor of clues, may only exist in fiction (Credit: BBC)
By comparing good judges’ performance in live interactions and videos, the researchers also were able to consider whether the good judges’ skill lies purely in detecting revealing cues or in influencing the target to reveal those cues. Here the results were equivocal – mostly, the skill seems to be in reading cues, although performance was modestly higher in live interactions, suggesting also some part played by the ability to extract those cues. At least for short interactions, then, the good judges’ “primary tool is the ability to appropriately detect and utilise information provided by the good target”, they said.
What’s exciting about these new findings is that we now know that good judges probably do exist and how to better identify them (they need to be tested with “good targets”). This means that more investigations can be opened up into how they do it, what kind of people they are – and whether their skills can be taught.
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, Culture, Capital, and Travel, delivered to your inbox every Friday.