Personality Judgment: A Realistic Approach to Person Perception (2)

I’ve finished the book. I ended up at three stars on goodreads; the book has less to say about ‘the really interesting stuff’ than I’d have liked, and although part of the reason for this was that the research simply didn’t exist at the time of publication it was still a little disappointing. Funder provides some ideas in the second half about where to go look for interesting questions and their answers in this area, but actual answers were few in numbers when he published the book. I have been wondering along the way how much of this stuff has been looked at since he wrote the book – I don’t know, but I’m getting a bit curious and I may have a closer look at this stuff at a later point in time.

So anyway I ended up liking the book overall somewhat less than I thought I would while I was reading the first chapters. It is interesting, but many of the answers people reading a book like this are probably looking for in all likelihood aren’t in there. Much of the book, especially the second half of it, is centered around a simple signalling model used to conceptualize various elements which are part of the personality judgment process. The model (he calls it RAM – realistic accuracy model) is quite similar to standard signalling models known from e.g. microeconomics; you have a sender and a receiver, and you have noise as well as various variables (relevance, availability, detection and utilization) that impact the information exchange process. It should be noted that the question being asked is not whether or not information gets from A to B, but whether or not a correct inference about the sender is made by the receiver, and one might also observe that it is not critical that the sender deliberately supplies the information in question to the receiver; we often send signals about our behavioural patterns and traits that other people might use to get a better understanding of us without actually being aware of the fact that we’re doing it (‘extroverts talk in a louder voice than introverts’ – yep, in case you didn’t know they seem to do that…). He talks a lot about the model and tries to frame relevant questions so that they fit somewhere into the model, but he doesn’t do any actual work with the model, it’s just a way to present his way of thinking about these things (i.e. there are no derivations of equilibria under given conditions or stuff like that).

A few words should perhaps be included here about the variables mentioned above. Relevance relates to whether or not behaviour is relevant to personality perception. Some behaviours are more relevant to specific trait judgments than are others; you learn more about someone’s courage by observing whether or not he enters a burning building to save a child than you do by observing how he behaves in the grocery store. Situational factors play a key role here. Availability relates to whether or not the information provided becomes available to the observer. If the observer/judge is not around when trait-relevant behaviour takes place, he or she cannot use that information. On a related note, different people have different relationships with other people, and so have access to different types of information. A close friend for instance has more (relevant) information available to judge you from than does the local grocery store clerk. In general more information is available to people who have known a person for a longer amount of time and have observed the individual in a wider variety of social contexts; there’s both a quantity and a quality aspect to familiarity. As for the next variable, not all available information gets picked up on by the receiver, and so this is where the detection stage becomes relevant. Even though a friend you’ve known for a while has seen you in a lot of different contexts, that doesn’t mean much if the friend, say, didn’t pay attention. Traits we possess ourselves (or at least believe ourselves to possess) are incidentally often easier for us to detect in others; a person who prides himself on his intelligence may be more likely to look for cues of intelligence provided by the sender during a social interaction than may the person who doesn’t think of himself as being particularly intelligent, but rather prides himself on his conscientiousness (I think he mentions this in the book, but stuff like this was certainly covered in Leary & Hoyle. Note that the reverse is true as well: “Research has shown that traits that are central to a person’s self-concept or are seen by the individual as ‘‘personally relevant’’ tend to be easier for others to detect”). The last of the variables, utilization, relates to the receiver’s interpretation of the sender’s signal/observed behaviour; people often have relevant information available to them which they detect, yet misinterpret. Two major problems people encounter when trying to utilize the information provided to them which Funder mentions in this context are that the relevance of a given behaviour depends on the situational context (the exact same behaviour may in one situation be highly relevant to a given trait and in another situation be completely irrelevant), and that any given behaviour may be affected by/motivated by more than one trait at the same time. Something that doesn’t help is that personality traits vary in how easy they are for others to observe (“traits like extraversion and agreeableness are the ones most likely to become visible in overt social behavior” – this dimension is rather important when it comes to the effects related to getting to know people better: “As Paunonen (1989) showed, even less visible traits become more judgable when the judge and the target are closely acquainted. To know somebody longer is not necessarily to learn more and more about how extraverted they are. With longer acquaintance, more and more subtle aspects of personality slowly become visible.”). Naturally an implication of the model is that “any efforts to improve accuracy, to be effective, must have an effect on relevance, availability, detection, or utilization.”

Having talked about the general model Funder then proceeds to talk about moderator variables, variables that affect accuracy. These can be subdivided into four classes: Accuracy is affected by properties of the judge, properties of the target (the person who’s sending information), properties of the trait that is judged, and properties of the information supplied. As for the judge, three variables are brought up: “The capacity to detect and to utilize available cues correctly can be divided into three components: knowledge, ability, and motivation.” Other new variables are introduced when talking about the other moderator variables. Various forms of variable interactions are also covered later in the book (to take one example, people are generally poor at judging people they don’t like – this relates to the judge-target interaction term). Much of the discussion is somewhat theoretic because the research had yet to be performed when Funder wrote the book, but the discussion is helpful even so.

I’ve added a few more observations from the book below.

“Social psychologists have frequently observed that female friends spend much of their time discussing emotions and relationships, whereas male friends are more likely to engage in work or play activities or to discuss less personal matters such as sports or politics […] If this observation is combined with Andersen’s (1984) findings, that conversations that reveal more personal information yield better information on which to base personality judgments, the following prediction can be derived: Well-acquainted women ought to judge each other with more accuracy than do well-acquainted men. Data relevant to this prediction are surprisingly rare, but a sex difference in the predicted direction has reported by Harackiewicz and DePaulo (1982) as well as in a recent study by Vogt and Colvin (1998). The general (albeit small) superiority of women over men in the detection of emotional states is a long-standing staple of the literature”

“At a very basic level, there is a particularly powerful reason to expect one’s own personality to be particularly difficult to see: It is always there. Kolar, Funder, and Colvin (1996) dubbed this the ‘‘fish and water effect,’’ after the cliché that fish do not know that they are wet because they are always surrounded by water. In a similar fashion, the same personality traits that are most obvious to others might become nearly invisible to ourselves, except under the most unusual circumstances. […] In their experimental study, Kolar et al. obtained personality judgments from subjects’ close acquaintances as well as from the subjects themselves. In nearly every comparison, the acquaintances’ judgments manifested better predictive validity than did the self-judgments. For example, acquaintances’ judgments of assertiveness correlated more highly with assertive behavior measured later in the laboratory than did self-judgments of assertiveness. Although the differences were sometimes quite small, the same finding appeared for talkativeness, initiation of humor, physical attractiveness, feelings of being cheated and victimized by life, and several other traits of personality and behavior. A further study by Spain (1994) showed that the degree of difference in accuracy between the self and others depends on the criterion used. When the criterion for accuracy was the ability to predict overt, social behavior, this latter study found, self-judgments held no advantage over judgments by others (no advantage for the others was found in this study). But when the criterion was on-line reports of emotional experience, self-judgments of personality afforded better predictions than did peers’ judgments.

The bottom line seems to be this: Notwithstanding the obvious advantages of self-observation, in some ways it may be surprisingly difficult. […] Other people have a view of your social behavior that is as good as and sometimes even superior to the view you have of yourself.”

“The tendency to view different situations as similar causes a person to respond to them in a like manner, and the patterns of behavior that result are the overt manifestations of traits. The interpretation of a trait as a subjective, situational-equivalence class offers an idea about phenomenology—about what it feels like to have a trait, to the person who has it […] The answer is that ordinarily it doesn’t really feel like anything. The only subjective manifestation of a trait within a person will be his or her tendency to react and feel similarly across the situations to which the trait is relevant. […] A sociable person does not ordinarily say to him- or herself, ‘‘I am a sociable person; therefore, I shall now act in a sociable fashion.’’ Rather, he or she responds positively to the presence of others in a natural, automatic, unselfconscious way. An unsociable person, who perceives the presence of others differently, accordingly also responds differently. And a highly emotional person is too busy experiencing strong emotions to notice that his or her very emotional responsiveness may be one of his or her strongest, most characteristic and (to others) most obvious personality traits.”

“The improvement of relevance can be attempted in two ways. […] First, the judge can take care to observe the person being judged in the contexts that are most informative for the trait in question […] To judge social traits, one must observe the target person’s behavior in interpersonal situations. To judge occupational competencies, one must observe the target person’s job behavior. This seemingly obvious point is often neglected. People too often infer traits from the observation of behavior in contexts where no relevant information could be expected to occur. […] A second way to improve relevance is to do something to create the appropriate observational context. Some kind of stimulus might be created that will lead the target person to emit a behavior that is relevant to the behavior that the judge wants or needs to evaluate. This is not as unusual a tactic as might first appear. The simple act of asking someone a question is an example. […] People who are better judges of personality might, to an important degree, be those who know how to ask better questions. A good question, in this sense, is one that elicits relevant data about personality, an informative answer. […] It is also possible to set up social contexts in which more informative behaviors are likely to appear. If a situation is relaxed and informal, for example, people are more likely to be their real selves”

“The improvement of availability […] requires the judge to observe more behaviors in a wider variety of contexts. [again, remember that there’s both a quantity and quality aspect to this and that some settings may be more informative than others] […] there are at least a couple of things that a judge can do to improve detection. First, the judge can simply watch closely. […] This does not come without cost, however, so it should be done judiciously. […] In a similar vein, a distracted judge will garner less information […] Perhaps the most important thing a judge can do to improve the detection stage is to learn what is important to detect. […] Unfortunately, our knowledge of the cues that are […] informative about personality, though beginning to develop, is still far too thin. […] Even if psychologists were to gear up an intensive program for teaching people how to judge personality more accurately, on surveying the research literature they would find they still have surprisingly little of use to teach.”

“The utilization stage of accurate judgment involves thinking. The relevant and available information has been detected, and now the judge must do some interpretational work to figure out what it all means. […] Research indicates that this work is best done alone. When people get together to talk about their judgments before rendering them, apparently factors of group dynamics rather than valid inferential reasoning take control of the judgmental output. People discussing their judgments become concerned about self-presentation, saving face, politeness, making friends, achieving dominance, and a host of other issues that are irrelevant to accuracy. As a result, personality judgments are more accurate when made by individuals working alone than by those who have discussed their judgments with others first […] To optimize accuracy, these independently formulated judgments can then be combined arithmetically into an average that is much more reliable than any one of them would be.”

“[One way] to improve the intuitive judgment of personality is for anyone who would judge his or her peers to acquire as much practice and feedback as possible. Get out more, be an extravert […] The same advice applies to those who would improve their self-knowledge […] Mix with many different people in a wide range of social settings. Travel. Meet the kind of people you do not ordinarily meet. Most important, be sure to seek feedback. The lack of good feedback is the missing link in much ordinary social experience (Hammond, 1996) and may be the reason many of us are not as good judges of personality as we should be. If we give up on a new acquaintance because we think we will not like him or her over time, we lose the chance to learn whether this prediction was right. […] if we fail to let our acquaintances feel free to express themselves, perhaps because we interrupt, are easily offended, or just fail to show interest, we will be cutting ourselves off from potentially useful knowledge about what they, and people like them, are really like. Unless the people we encounter feel free to be themselves, we will never be in a position to learn about what they are really like. By the same token, if we would know ourselves, we should encourage and be open to feedback from others concerning the nature of our own personalities. […] the general perspective of RAM implies not one, but two general prescriptions for improving the accuracy of personality judgment. […] the judge needs to use the available information better, but also needs for better information to be available.”


March 20, 2014 - Posted by | Books, Psychology

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