The Oxford Handbook of Accurate Personality Judgment (2021) synthesizes contemporary theory and research on the accuracy of personality judgments, exploring relevant issues such as when we are most likely to make accurate trait inferences, and what we can do to improve our “people reading skills”.
- Exec Summary
- Full Summary
- People Are Generally Good At Assessing Others
- Models: Lens Model & RAM
- What Makes Good Judges
- What Makes Good Targets
- What Makes A Good Trait
- What Makes Good Information
- Things Can Do To Improve Your “People Reading” Accuracy
- Fundamental Issue of Trait Accuracy Research: What’s The “Objective Truth”?
- Meta Accuracy
- Reading Nonverbal Cues (Body Language)
- The Average Personality
- Stereotypes Are Often Accurate
- Partners Are Often Biased in Romantic Relationships
- More Wisdom
- Practical Applications
- People are generally good at assessing others
- Some people are better than others at assessing character traits
- It’s possible to improve our ability to read others
About the Authors:
The authors are multiple researchers in the study of personality judgment.
People Are Generally Good At Assessing Others
Much research supports the conclusion that judges can often make fairly accurate judgments of the personality traits of others (Brown & Bernieri, 2017; Colman et al., 2017; Connelly & Ones, 2010)
Models: Lens Model & RAM
The four moderators of accurate personality judgments are:
- Good judge: people differ in how accurately they judge others.
A good judge utilizes many valid cues, disregards the invalid ones, and is good at eliciting more cues.
- Good target: people differ in how easy it is to accurately judge them
- Good trait: personality characteristics differ in how easy it is to accurately judge and rate them
- Good information: information differs in how useful it is for making accurate judgments
- Information quantity (acquaintanceship): more information tends to result in more accurate judgments than having less information
- Information quality: some information may be very telling of someone’s personality, some may be only a small indicator, and some information may take up mental processing space but add no value or even confuse and lead astray
Brunswikʼs lens model provides a conceptual framework that can be applied to explain how lay observers make sense of personality characteristics of targets that are not directly observable.
The level of accuracy is determined by the multiplication of predictability, consistency, and sensitivity; that is, to achieve accurate judgments, all three need to be positive.
Dual Lens Model
the dual lens model differentiates more controlled versus more automatic aspects on all levels of the
lens model (i.e., personality self-concept, cues, personality judgments)
Realistic Accuracy Model (RAM)
The RAM was formulated as a corrective complement to error research, by focusing on how judgments could be accurate rather than inaccurate (Funder, 1987).
- Relevance indicates that there must be behavioral cues relevant to the trait or characteristic being judged.
The target primarily influences success at this stage, doing or not doing things that are relevant to and consistent with their traits
- Availability, indicates that the cues have to be available in the external environment
- Detection, or noticing the relevant and available personality cues. The judge primarily influences this stage’s success
- Utilization, or to correctly utilizing the cues to make an accurate judgment. Includes several sub-abilities, including:
- Determining which cues are relevant to the trait being judged,
- Giving appropriate weights to various cues
- Combining the cues with each other
- Other characteristics, such as those of the situation that may influence behavior
What Makes Good Judges
- Intelligence and cognitive ability. “One of the most consistent characteristics that differentiates good judges from those who are less skilled (Allport, 1937; Christiansen, Wolcott-Burnam, Janovics, Burns, & Quirk, 2005; Funder, 1999; Lippa & Dietz, 2000).”
- Dispositional intelligence, “very similar to the construct of emotional intelligence (see Mayer, Roberts, & Barsade, 2008), but rather than a focus on emotions, emphasis is placed on thoughts and knowledge about the interrelations among behavior, traits, and situations (Christiansen et al., 2005).“
- Knowledge of psychology, and how behaviors and personality are related
- Social skills, (e.g., knowledge about cue meanings)
- Higher motivation of judges, likely increasing attunement to social stimuli
- Perspective-taking and empathy
- Psychological adjustment
- Higher interpersonal orientation (e.g., agreeableness, extraversion, empathy)
- Social curiosity: A study found that judges with high social curiosity about “how other people behave, think, and feel” (Hartung & Renner, 2011, p. 796) made more accurate judgments of extraversion and openness following a 10-minute interaction with a stranger, than did judges with low social curiosity
There is also some evidence that good judges know of being good judges.
Women may also be slightly butter, but not by much:
Overall, if a gender difference in judgmental ability exists, it would likely favor women. That said, I caution against making any large and sweeping generalizations, since differences that were found were of rather small magnitude.
What Doesn’t Necessarily Make Better Judges
Reading others doesn’t seem to be a case of “it takes one to know one”:
a question that is sometimes raised is whether being high on a trait makes a person an expert at judging that trait in others. However, research to date has not found that judges who are higher on a certain trait typically make more accurate judgments
What Makes Good Targets
- High levels of psychological adjustment
- Behavioral consistency
- Social skills
- Emotionally stable
- Less deceitful
- Less self-defensive
- Less likely to keep others at a distance
Targets can and probably should do more to show their true colors:
Targets can facilitate being viewed in line with their true selves by providing a higher quality and quantity of information and delivering that information in a way that elicits greater judge attention and motivation to be accurate. In turn, being perceived in line with one’s true self may often feel inherently good and foster broader psychological and social well-being.
The cool thing is that it’s possible for targets to self-promote, and still facilitate a more honest assessment:
self-presentation of targets, often involving the aim to convey a positive but authentic impression (Schlenker & Pontari, 2000), may enhance observer attention and the accuracy of respective trait inferences (e.g., Human, Biesanz, Parisotto, & Dunn, 2012). For example, targets’ self-presentational goal of appearing smart led to more accurate observer impressions of individuals’ intelligence (Murphy, 2007).
What Makes A Good Trait
In general, traits that are more outwardly visible are easier to judge.
Extraversion, for example, can be considered as a “good trait,” as it often shows a high amount of behavioral manifestation (e.g., Borkenau & Liebler, 1995; Funder & Sneed, 1993). In contrast, traits such as neuroticism or self-esteem tend to show fewer behavioral manifestations and to be more internal in nature (Vazire, 2010).
Also, traits that are considered to be either positive or negative also tend to be more difficult to accurately assess:
Highly evaluative traits (i.e., low or high in social desirability), such as agreeableness, tend to be less accurately judged than neutral traits. This may be due to response factors that may distort targets’ self-ratings (e.g., individual differences in overly positive self-judgments) and observer judgments (e.g., individual differences in overly positive other-ratings) for evaluative traits (e.g., Konstabel, Aavik, & Allik, 2006), thereby, a ecting self- cue relations (cue validities) and cue-judgment relations (cue utilizations).
What Makes Good Information
Highly useful information includes information about general and specific behaviors, and thoughts and feelings (Andersen, 1984; Letzring & Human, 2014).
Things Can Do To Improve Your “People Reading” Accuracy
- Learn more about how traits are related to behavior
- Pay attention to the target to detect more cues (my note: albeit the book later says that more attention doesn’t always translate in better judgment)
- Be agreeable and socially skilled to make targets comfortable to reveal relevant information about themselves
- Learn to think about what targets are thinking and feeling
- Spend more time with the targets in a variety of situations
- Ask targets relevant questions
- Create situations that “test” the target and show the more hidden and honest cues
- Create situations for the specific trait: “the trait neuroticism expressed in more valid observable cues and could be judged more accurately by strangers in a neuroticism-relevant, socially stressful situation as compared to three less neuroticism-relevant situations.”
- Interact in unstructured situations rather than structured ones (ie.: do your job interview in a coffee shop, not in the office)
- Don’t be sad, “there is some indication that person perception accuracy decreases when judges are experiencing the state emotion of sadness (Ambady & Gray, 2002). Teaching judges how to regulate their own emotions as well as reduce their cognitive load before going into the judgment situation might improve accuracy”.
Become More Power-Aware
In one study (Letzring, 2008) it was discovered that judges’ use of basic social skills (e.g., eye contact, expressing warmth) and a lack of negative behaviors (e.g., seeking reassurance or advice, undermining or obstructing the target) were positively related to accuracy. It was concluded that such behaviors on the part of judges serve to increase targets’ comfort and increase their willingness to reveal information (i.e., cues) about their true selves, which can then be detected and utilized when making judgments of the targets
Get Training With Feedback (Consider PU)
. A 2012 meta-analysis of 30 experimental studies that tested dierent training approaches demonstrated that practice with feedback about performance was the most eective way to improve person perception accuracy (Blanch-Hartigan et al., 2012)
Simply telling people what to look for wasn’t nearly as effective:
Simply instructing people about what cues to look for on its own did not seem to be an e ective approach, a result consistent with a meta-analysis focused just on training in the domain of deception detection (Driskell, 2012). However, multiple training approaches used in combination with practice with feedback was more e ective than a single approach (Blanch-Hartigan, 2012; Driskell, 2012; Ruben, Hall, Curtin, Blanch-Hartigan, & Ship, 2015).
This is why we devised quizzes in Power University: to provide you with immediate feedback for learning.
Good training is about internalizing the skills
Making automatic, unconscious processing of trait judgments more deliberate and conscious might actually hinder trait judgment accuracy. For example, having more time to judge dominance from facial features does not necessarily improve accuracy (Rule, Adams, Ambady, & Freeman, 2012). The effectiveness of practice and feedback, especially compared to instruction alone, in general person perception research suggests that improving accuracy may mean internalizing feedback to make accurate judgments more automatic, but this needs to be further explored.
This is also our goal with Power University: the ultimate goal is to become a “natural”.
Fundamental Issue of Trait Accuracy Research: What’s The “Objective Truth”?
The fundamental problem in trait accuracy research is the absence of an objective, unmediated criterion for truth.
(…) social knowing is fundamentally different from object knowing: every person has psychological coordinates that are brought to bear on each social interaction that yields nontrivial, unique social knowing.
(…)Moreover, people do not behave identically in different dyads. This is why interpersonal knowing and associated relationship outcomes at the dyadic level have become increasingly important (Kluger & Malloy, 2019; Malloy, Kluger, & Martin, 2018).
The solutions to come up with an “objectively define” personality are:
- Self-rating by the target himself: “although self-judgments are not always perfectly accurate, the majority of studies suggest that self-judgments of personality have considerable validity. Self-judgments of both narrow, specic traits and the broad personality factors of the Big Five agree with judgments provided by knowledgeable others and predict personality-relevant states, experiences, behaviors, and consequential life outcomes“
- Psychological tests
- Third party evaluations
- By the researchers
- By the people who know the target well
Meta-perception refers to how others see us.
And meta accuracy refers to correctly assessing how others see us.
meta-accuracy is both a form of self- knowledge and social knowledge (Carlson & Kenny, 2012), as it relies on the successful detection and utilization of available cues relevant to both the self (e.g., self-views, self-observations of behavior) and others (e.g., feedback, normative knowledge).
Given that meta-accuracy is associated with positive social outcomes, learning how to improve meta-accuracy would likely be in people’s best interests.
Unluckily, there wasn’t much in terms of how one can improve his understanding of how others see him except that it relies on successful detection and utilization of available cues relevant to both the self such as:
- self-observations of behavior
- normative knowledge
Reading Nonverbal Cues (Body Language)
Nonverbal cues can help us assess people’s traits.
Say the authors:
Results of the included studies suggest that, for all traits, there are at least a few nonverbal cues that allow for accurate glimpses into one’s personality. For most traits (i.e., extraversion, openness, conscientiousness, intelligence) this is in line with research showing above chance judgment accuracies, even by strangers (for overviews see: Connelly & Ones, 2010; Connolly, Kavanagh, & Viswesvaran, 2007; Hall, Andrzejewski, Murphy, Mast, & Feinstein, 2008; Kenny, Albright, Malloy, & Kashy, 1994; Kenny et al., 1992). However, even for traits that are typically viewed as not easily observable (i.e., agreeableness, neuroticism) we find multiple valid cues.
However, be careful not to overestimate the validity of nonverbal cues, something that many people do and can result in lower accuracy.
Cues To Look Out For
Some of the valid cues for some of the major traits include:
The correct cues included:
cheerful facial expressiondominant facial expression, general facial expressiveness, forward leans, gestures, self-assured posture, relaxed posture, expressive/varying voice, uent speaking, pleasantness of voice, con dence of voice, loudness of voice, speech rate, amount of talking, attractiveness, neatness, stylishness, lack of eyeglasses, volume of mouth, hair length, and the lack of dark clothes.
The wrong cues observers thought related to extraversion but weren’t include: eye contact, body movement, and head movements.
only self-assured/open posture, pleasantness of voice, volume of speaking, and hair length were valid and utilized cues.
Less talking was related to actual openness, but observers did not use this cue.
Cheerful facial expression, small stride length, fluent speaking, attractiveness, and neatness of appearance were related to actual agreeableness and used by observers to judge this trait.
High-pitch and nondominant facial expressions were valid, but not identified by observers.
Cues that drove accuracy for conscientiousness judgments exclusively belonged to the domains of body language and appearance. These were self-assured/open posture, lack of self-touch, attractiveness, lack of distinctiveness in appearance, neatness, formality, and having shorter hair. Many more cues (e.g., fluent speaking, pleasantness of voice, wearing eyeglasses) were used when judging conscientiousness, but were not actually related with individuals’ conscientiousness (see Table 13.7).
Paralinguistic cues played the biggest role in explaining accuracy. Especially, easiness of understanding, pleasantness of voice, speech rate, and amount of speech were used by observers and at the same time related to actual (measured) intelligence. Cues that were used but not valid were (for example): eye contact, amount of gestures, powerful voice, and attractiveness.
Physical and Virtual Contexts Provide Plenty of Valid Cues
Research on judgment accuracy in physical and virtual spaces is has shown that in many cases trait specic accuracy (e.g., conscientiousness and openness to experience) is greater in these contexts than in face-to-face interactions
The Average Personality
Knowing the “average personality” is extremely useful.
One, because you can target the masses based on the average personality and be right with the majority of people.
And two, even with individuals, in the absence of any cues or idea, you can still be right more often than not if you know what traits are more common for most people.
Here is the average personality profile:
Say the authors:
Most people have at least some degree of explicit knowledge regarding the average personality, but there are a few who do not.
Stereotypes Are Often Accurate
For a long time, scholars labeled stereotypes as inaccurate.
However, albeit “national stereotypes” tend to not be very accurate, it seems now scholars jumped to conclusions without sufficient evidence.
Sum up the authors:
Rigorous empirical assessments of the accuracy of stereotypes began in the late 1970s, accelerated in the 1990s, and, now, with over 50 empirical studies published, has yielded a surprising conclusion: highly inaccurate stereotypes are the exception; moderate to high accuracy is common.
The accuracy tends to go up when we poll large groups of people (e.g., Surowiecki, 2004; Jussim, 2012) and when people have direct experience with the target group.
Say the authors:
Absent knowledge, stereotypes are likely to be inaccurate.
This may explain the pervasive inaccuracy of national character stereotypes of personality (as measured by the Big Five), inasmuch as most people have little direct contact with many individuals from lots of other nations. In contrast, most people do have extensive experience with men and women, and with the young and old—which may help explain the accuracy found by so many studies of gender stereotypes (Hall & Carter, 1999; Löckenho et al., 2014; McCauley et al., 1988), and age stereotypes (Chan et al., 2012).
Partners Are Often Biased in Romantic Relationships
The two major biases in relationships are:
- Simialirty bais, or believing our partners are more similar to us than they really are
- Positivity bias, or believing our partners are better than they really are
Among dating and married individuals, the majority of them believe their own partners are more virtuous than average or typical partners (e.g., Endo et al., 2000; Murray & Holmes, 1997) and are better than their friends’ partners (e.g., Murray, Holmes, Dolderman, & Gri n, 2000).
Interestingly, acquaintanceship length, relationship closeness, and number of shared activities did not moderate accuracy, but married couples had much higher accuracy compared to dating couples and friend dyads.
Biases Can Be Adaptive
Up to a certain point, positivity and similarity bias can be adaptive.
It’s when they become too much that they can turn maladaptive since the gap with reality would grow too wide and people would make the wrong decision or communicate poorly with each other.
Say the authors:
partners holding stronger positivity bias report higher p. 269 relationship satisfaction and better quality (e.g., Fletcher et al., 2000; Fowers, Lyons, & Montel, 1996; Martz et al., 1998; Murray et al., 1996a, 1996b; Murray & Holmes, 1997). Longitudinal research also has found that relationships are more likely to persist when intimates idealize their partners and relationships (Fletcher et al., 2000; Helgeson, 1994; Murray et al., 1996b; Murray & Holmes, 1997; Rusbult et al., 2000).
The fact that biases can be adaptive is something that has often been missed and ignored since the work of Kahneman and Tversky.
Looks May Provide Cues About Personality
Associations between personality and appearance can be traced back to a variety of mechanisms involving environmental and biological factors. For example, appearance and personality might be related due to common biological causes (e.g., testosterone inuences facial hair growth as well as a more aggressive personality) as well as common environmental causes (e.g., the choice for a specic grooming style is specic for individuals that share the same values). Furthermore, physical dierences could serve as some form of self-fullling prophecy (e.g., tall individuals are expected to behave more dominantly, they thus act accordingly) or they could reveal dierences in past behaviors (e.g., individuals that laugh a lot might develop laugh lines and are thus judged to be happy or extraverts; see Zebrowitz & Collins, 1997 for an overview of these four explanations).
Interview job candidates in multiple locations
Job interviews are a game of chess.
The interviewer wants to find out the truth, screen out poorer candidates, hire the best, and pay them as little as possible.
And the interviewee wants to be seen in the best light possible, get the job offer, and negotiate for the highest possible salary.
The authors suggest the following approach for interviewers:
By varying the interview venues, the quality of the information obtained from the job candidate should be richer. For instance, the candidates can be given a pseudo-tour of the organization while, unbeknownst to him/her, they are being interviewed. Most job candidates prepare for the structured job interview format, but rarely prepare for an unstructured format. Due to this lack of preparation for this format, many job candidates do not know how to conduct themselves because there is no scripted behavior to rely on or practice ahead of time. This is when nonverbal behavior that is indicative of lying or lack of integrity has the highest likelihood of appearing (Townsend et al., 2007). When a job applicant tries to lie they usually focus on preparing their upper body to mask what they believe are their facial clues to deceit (Ekman, 2009). But as Paul Ekman points out, many of the telltale clues of deceit can be seen below the target person’s waist in what is termed “leakage.” Target persons unconsciously use hand gestures below the waist called “emblems” that indicate their true feelings at the moment that may sharply contradict their facial and verbal messages. Interestingly, most interviews take place in an o ce in which the interviewer is positioned behind a desk, thus blocking their view of the job candidate’s entire body.
For more on how to win that game of chess, see:
To sound smart, focus on verbal cues
Intelligence, for example, has been shown to mainly manifest in auditory cues (e.g., speech rate, number of spoken words) compared with visual cues, allowing more accurate observer judgments based on targets’ audiotapes than visual material
To catch deception, focus on verbal patterns & inconsistencies…
… Rather than body language.
Judges across the world universally report targets’ gaze aversion as a signal to deception (Global Deception Research Team, 2006). Lens models suggest that people’s stated beliefs about deception cues and actual cues that indicate deception are not necessarily aligned (Hartwig & Bond, 2011). For example, despite judges’ beliefs, gaze aversion is not typically a valid cue to deception. Meta-analyses on training deception detection demonstrate that increased accuracy can result from training participants to focus on speci c cues (Hauch et al., 2016), such as verbal content indicators of truthfulness, which include that the statement is detailed and logically structured (Vrij, 2005).
Just a few notes of possible improvements areas in an otherwise great handbook:
- Remove some repetitions to streamline it: it’s great to have different authors with different expertise, but that model needs a good editor and a big chopping board. There were several instances where I felt same or very similar information was being repeated across chapters
- The science is still in its infancy, so there are several assumptions and lots of “more research is needed”. Not much the researchers and writers can do about it except doing more research 🙂
- More traits would have been good. While the book focuses a lot on the Big Five, I would have been interested in many more life-relevant traits. For example honesty, trustworthiness, loyalty, etc.
- More practical applications to be both textbook and self-development: for example, I was very curious to see what one could to influence other people’s perception, or what cues we can send out to display our good personality.
The Oxford Handbook of Accurate Personality Judgment is a great overview of the research literature on personality judgment.
The authors did a great job at presenting the available research in a way that is not only interesting and easy to read, but also provides some practical use cases in the real world (something that’s not always obvious with textbooks).