Thursday, August 19, 2010

The personality echo

Psychologists have known for a while about something called perceiver effects, which refer to general tendencies to judge others in a particular way. For example you may tend to see people as generally self-serving or selfless, open-minded or closed minded, etc.

It turns out that these perceiver effects say something about you. For example, one of the ways Machiavellianism is measured is by asking whether you generally see a lack of sincerity or integrity in others. In a sense, the judgments you make about others echo back and, when interpreted properly, can say something about your personality.

In the July 2010 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Wood, et al. describe the results of several studies of this phenomenon. Most of the previous studies have used an "assumed similarity" paradigm, where the researchers have attempted to confirm that how one views themselves is assumed to transfer to how one views others.

This study, on the other hand, made no such assumptions. The researchers were interested in what impact self-ratings of personality had on perceptions, regardless of whether it was the same trait. The primary relationship they looked at was the correlation between how one scored on a personality inventory and how they tended to rate others.

In three different studies of college students, the strongest trend was related to agreeableness: those that rated others high in agreeableness tended to rate themselves high in the same trait (r's of .19 to .29 depending on the sample).

The second highest was conscientiousness, and in the same direction, but for different traits: those that rated others high in conscientiousness tended to rate themselves high in agreeableness (r's varied from .10 to 25). Rating others high in openness was also associated with higher self-rating scores of agreeableness (r's from .12 to .27).

Interestingly, in the third study the authors also identified moderate positive correlations between perceiving others in a positive light and several individual characteristics, including self-rated agreeableness, fit with peers, and organizational goals, and negative correlations with need for power, social dominance orientation, and depression.

So what does this mean? Essentially this study suggests that if someone (say, a job applicant) tends to describe others in a positive light--specifically, as agreeable, conscientious, and open--there is a significant chance that they themselves will rate highly on agreeableness. Anyone that's ever interviewed someone who makes negative stray marks about previous co-workers likely has intuited this.

There are several important caveats:

1) The effect sizes (correlations) were modest

2) The sample was restricted to university students

3) There are likely important differences between jobs, impacting both the value of agreeableness as well as how these attitudes are formed.

By the way, an in press version is available here.

1 comment:

Gina said...

Always interesting to read about personality issues- especially when they relate to the workplace.