How Accurate Are You at Judging Personality?

New research shows who’s best suited to judge personality and why.

Posted Jun 17, 2017

Source: AlessandroBiascioli/Shutterstock

It’s a well-known fact that you form impressions of people within seconds of meeting them. Over time, these impressions may shift, but they’ll remain biased toward that snap judgment you made. One of the most important judgments you make involves gauging other people’s personalities. It may take a bit more time to feel you understand someone well enough to form a distinct understanding of such features as conscientiousness, extroversion, or emotional stability. Yet, even as these impressions shift around, they remain central to your relationship with this person. New research comparing self-with-other judgments of personality provides insight into how this process takes place, as well as clues for improving your people-judging skills.

Cornelius König of the Universität des Saarlandes (Germany) and colleagues investigated the question of how closely the ratings by other people of personality match the ratings that people provide of themselves. The research team focused on personality ratings within the organizational setting, based on the premise that these judgments help in personnel decisions made by managers of their employees and by human relations staff during the job application process. In particular, within job settings, the attribute of conscientiousness (or the “will-do” factor) seems as important as aptitude (the “can-do” factor). Typically, job applicants complete self-report personality tests, but once hired, their personalities come up for evaluation by their supervisors. In many cases, job applicants must provide recommendations from previous employers, so observer ratings can also come into play during the hiring process.

The German researchers point out that observer ratings have greater validity than self-ratings due to the fact that people try to cover up their flaws when completing a personality test, especially when the job hinges on their scores. Observers should have less of a bias. On the other hand, observers can “fake good” as well, especially if they have a good relationship with the person they’re rating and want that person to succeed.

The judgments of personality that you provide of the people in your life can similarly be influenced by your relationship with them. If you’re judging someone you’re in love with, you’re likely to give a pass on some of their less desirable attributes. When you’re judging people you don’t know very well, you might be swayed by features of their appearance, including attractiveness, but also the way they move, how well they’re dressed, and what their body language communicates. How many times have you been duped by a person you thought was reliable but who, instead, left you hanging or took advantage of you?

König and his collaborators conducted two studies, both in Swiss companies, in which supervisors rated the personalities of subordinates. In the first study, supervisors provided ratings of employees who, they were asked to imagine, were leaving their jobs for personal reasons. In this circumstance, the “faking good” condition, the researchers reasoned that supervisors should be motivated to provide more glowing evaluations than they would if the goal were to be accurate. Two weeks later, the supervisors were asked to provide “honest” evaluations of the same employees. In this condition, there was no incentive for the supervisors to be overly flattering, the researchers believed.

The components of personality the supervisors rated were three aspects of conscientiousness — achievement striving, self-discipline, and cautiousness — as well as the assertiveness facet of extraversion. Achievement-striving was indicated by the item “turns plans into action,” self-discipline by “is always prepared,” and cautiousness by “rushes into things” (reversed). Assertiveness was rated by “waits for others to lead the way” (reversed). The supervisors needed to state that they knew their employees well enough to rate them, but the choice of which employee to rate was based on last name rather than familiarity or liking.

As predicted, supervisors gave more glowing ratings of their employees under the faking good condition than in the honest condition. The ratings were consistently higher, but not by much. The employees did not rate themselves, though, so the only conclusion that could be drawn was that supervisors may be motivated to distort their ratings of those who work for them as much as people distort their own self-ratings. In the second study, this problem was corrected as participants (this time, working students) rated themselves, as did their supervisors. Both the employees and their supervisors provided ratings under the two conditions of faking good and honesty.

Armed with the two sets of ratings under the two conditions (faking versus honest), the researchers demonstrated that, in contrast to what we know about self-report bias, the supervisors actually rated their subordinates higher than the subordinates did themselves. The Saarlandes researchers believed this surprising result occurred because the study was done in Switzerland, “a country where modesty is considered a desirable trait.” (p. 189) The participants didn’t want to give themselves more credit than they felt they deserved.  

These studies' findings suggest that your ability to judge other people (and perhaps yourself) in personality traits is biased heavily by your motivations. The supervisors in this study could have preferred to view their employees in a positive light because to do so reflected positively on them. If this were a real-world situation, an additional bias might come from supervisors wishing to avoid being sued should the employees find that negative evaluations prevented them from being hired in their next job. You’ve probably been in a situation yourself, whether it’s with a babysitter or the person who painted your home.

To become a good judge of personality, the König and colleagues' study suggests that you remove those biased blinders that make you “want” to like, or dislike, the person. Try to throw aside those potentially misleading external clues which have nothing to do with personality and instead drill down into qualities such as reliability, loyalty, and honesty. Think back on what the person’s actually done, and be as specific as possible.

In seeking fulfilling relationships with others, we look out for a variety of personal qualities, not just the types of traits evaluated in this study. Recognizing how easily you can be biased, no matter what it is you’re judging, can help ensure that you’ve identified the people most likely to provide you with that fulfillment.

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Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne 2017


König, C. J., Thommen, L. S., Wittwer, A., & Kleinmann, M. (2017). Are observer ratings of applicants’ personality also faked? Yes, but less than self‐reports. International Journal of Selection And Assessment, 25(2), 183-192. doi:10.1111/ijsa.12171