You're in a new environment. You don't know anyone. You look around the room and try to size people up. Who should you talk to? Who is likely to like you? Some people immediately rub you the wrong way. Others seem more attractive. Everyone else at that party is doing the same thing. You know you are being judged, just as you are judging others. Welcome to the fascinating world of social perception.

Social perception is complex, but actually quite accurate. People are typically (but certainly not always) correct in their perceptions of personality, even after meeting for someone for only a few seconds (e.g. Back, Stopfer et al., 2010; Borkenau, Brecke, Mottig, & Paelecke, 2009; Gosling, Ko, Mannarelli, & Morris, 2002; Levesque & Kenny, 1993; Watson, 1989). It still remains a mystery though what factors enter into our (often unconscious) complex calculations.

Recent approaches are allowing us to dig deeper into social perception and pinpoint the factors that influence popularity at first sight (e.g., Borkenau & Liebler, 1995; Brunswik, 1956; Funder, 1999; Kenny, 1994). A new approach that holds particular promise is the Social Relations Lens Model, which integrates a number of prior approaches. The Social Relations Lens Model allows researchers to investigate the components of interpersonal attraction, and make a more finely-grained analysis of the personality traits and cues involved in the perception process.

Adopting this framework, Back, Schmukle, and Egloff (2010) conducted a comprehensive study, that included multiple personality traits and behavioral cues. The experiment was conducted at the beginning of a freshman introductory psychology class. 73 German students (52 female and 21 male) were randomly assigned a seat as they entered the classroom. One by one, each student went to a marked spot on the floor and briefly introduced themselves. The introductions, which lasted from 4 to 21 seconds, were videotaped. Each person was then evaluated by the rest of the freshman on two dimensions: liking ('How likeable do you find this person?, 'Would you like to get to know this person?'), and metaperceptions of initial liking ('How likeable will this person find you?', 'Will this person like to get to know you?').

Each freshman were also given a questionnaire to complete at home. Among other personality traits, the personality battery included 35 items related to self-centered values (e.g., social power, forgiveness, success, courtesy, ambition), which were combined to form an overall dimension of self-centered vs. self-transcendent values. Afterwards, all videotapes were coded by independent observers for observable physical, nonverbal, and audible cues.

Who is Popular?

Those high in neuroticism and low in self-esteem expected to be disliked, when in reality neither neuroticism nor self-esteem were related to popularity. It seems then that neurotic people and those with low self-esteem have inaccurate perceptions of reality. Extraverts, on the other hand, were more liked and were also expected to like others more. In reality though, extraversion was not related to being a liker or expecting to be liked.

Most alarmingly, those who reported more self-centered values were also expected to like others more. In reality though, self-centered people actually disliked others more, evaluating their peers more negatively! There was also a positive but not significant correlation between self-centered values and expecting to be liked. Therefore, while self-centered people may be perceived as more friendly, they are actually less friendly.

Why were extraverts and self-centered individuals evaluated more positively? What cues were they broadcasting that influenced their popularity?

Extraversion was related to cues that had a positive effect on popularity: fashionable appearance, speedy, energetic and self-assured body movements, friendly facial expressions, strong voice, and original self-introduction. Those with self-centered values tended to display similar cues: fashionable body and dress, speedy and energetic body movements, self-assured body movements, extensiveness of behavior, friendly facial expressions, and original self-introductions.

Prior research has linked the popularity of the extravert to their desire to captivate the attention of others, their expresive behaviors, verbal humor, and fashionable dress (Ashton, Lee, & Paunonen, 2002; Borkenau & Liebler, 1992; Riggio & Riggio, 2002; Scherer, 1986). This study shows that both extraverts and self-centered people share similar behavioral cues. Prior research has linked these cues to emotional expressivity and social dominance (Butler, Egloff, Wilhelm, Smith, Erickson, Gross, 2003; DePaulo, 1992; Grammer, Keki, Striebel, Atzmuller, & Fink, 2003), so it seems extraverts and self-centered people both are signaling these traits, and these traits influence popularity.

Independent of personality, the researchers also found that friendliness of facial expression (amount of smiling) and pleasantness of voice were the best predictors of liking and metaperceptions. Unsurprisingly, prior research has also found that similing plays an important role in attraction (Friedman, Riggio, & Casella, 1998; Reis et al., 1990; Shrout & Fiske, 1981). Additionally, students with baby faces were perceived as likers.

Birds of a Feather

The researchers also looked at similarity effects. According to Baumeister (1998), the influence of similarity on attraction is 'one of the best known findings in social psychology'.

Participants who had similar preferences regarding subcultural scenes (e.g., punk) and clothing (e.g., outlandish) were prone to like each other and expected to be liked by each other. This worked in both directions: more normative beauty-oriented perceivers (those into 'fitness and wellness') specifically tended to like dressed-up (as opposed to outlandishly-dressed) others. No similiarity effects were found for the Big Five personality traits, interest similarity, or self-concept similarity.

They also found that the greater the fit between the perceivers' preferences and the target's physical appearance (e.g., fashionable dress, stylish hair), the more the person reported liking the other person and the more that person reported they would expect to be liked by the other person.

Why are Self-Centered People Attractive At First Sight?

The finding that Extraversion is related to popularity at first sight is not surprising. Neither is the finding that those with higher levels of neuroticism and lower levels of self-esteem expect to be unpopular. Prior research by the same researchers (also adopting the Social Relations Lens Model) found that men with a long-term mating orientation (which is correlated with reduced levels of Extraversion) and shy men (which is correlated with higher levels of neuroticism) get the short end of the stick in rapid mate-selection settings such as speed dating ("Speed Dating: Is It Worth It?"). Other research has shown that extraverted people fare better in a speed dating context (see Luo & Zhang, 2009). The reason is pretty straightforward: at first encounter, extraverted people are more likely to reveal their personality than introverts; extraversion acts as an amplifier of human traits. As for those with high levels of neuroticism and low levels of self-esteem, they may come across as more socially anxious and make others feel uncomfortable at first meeting. Note that the opposite of extraversion is not shyness. Many introverts may not be noticed at first sight, but are OK with that, as they simply aren't as interested in the social stimulation.

While alarming, the finding that self-centeredness is related to popularity also isn't terribly surprising. Prior research has found that narcissists, well actually, the very worst kind of narcissists- those who enjoy exploiting and manipulating others- are the most popular at first sight (see Why are Narcissists (Initially) so Popular?). The real world bears this out; everywhere I look, it seems like self-centered people are the most popular. Those with humanitarian ideals are appreciated, but aren't flashed across the television screen. That makes sense. People seek entertainment, and self-centered people provide entertainment for some people. I'm a fan of Kanye West's music, even though his self-aggrandizement annoys the heck out of me.

The most interesting and perhaps surprising thing about the Back and colleagues study is the finding that extraverts are virtually indistinguishable from self-centered individuals at first sight. Both extraverts and self-centered people displayed self-assured body movements, friendly facial expressions, and made original self-introductions.

This finding has important implications when it comes to the domain of intimate relationships. How we are perceived at first sight plays a crucial role in mating and dating. I assume most people are attracted to the Extraverted aspects of the self-centered individual, not the actual self-centeredness. But how can a person tell the difference without more interactions with that person? This also poses a problem for people who are shy or more introverted. People who aren't flashy and attention-grabbing aren't as popular. This is a shame. I've had meaningful relationships with people who aren't particularly alluring at first but who are awesome people once I've gotten the chance to know them.

A potential criticism of the Back and colleagues study is that it was conducted on college students, and college students aren't representative of the rest of humanity. There is some truth to this: this generation is particularly narcissistic, spending a lot of attention on superifical aspects such as style of dress (see Twenge & Campbell, 2010). Future research should certainly look at a wider range of ages and in a wider range of contexts (although as the researchers also point out, more variance in personality and cue scores could lead to even larger correlations).

Still, I think their effects do trancend age. In their prior speed dating study ("Speed Dating: Is It Worth It?"), their results held even after controlling for age (their age range was 18-54).

So what are people to do? I still have the same advice I had before ("Why are Narcissists (Initially) so Popular?"):

To everyone:

1. Before getting too involved with a person, observe them in multiple contexts first.

2. Give people who seem shy or who aren't particularly flashy at first sight a chance.

To shy people and introverts who want more social stimulation:

1. Work on amplifying your best traits. Whether we like it or not, perception at first sight matters.

I don't expect the world to change. But hopefully our understanding of people perception can help us all become more self-aware.

What are your thoughts?

© 2010 by Scott Barry Kaufman


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