[Note. Anna Hartley and I wrote this essay together].
Humans are hyper-social animals. They quickly form impressions of one another. To illustrate the human facility with person perception, we invite you to watch a funny clip that is popular in Germany and the Scandinavian countries. There, it is a cherished tradition to watch Dinner for one every New Year's Eve. When done watching and laughing, return to this post and read on.
Part of our social intelligence is to decode humor without effort. Another part is to form impressions of individuals, including individuals who aren't even there. Let's begin with Miss Sophie. We notice her age, we infer her social standing from the surroundings (obviously, this is her place), and we get an inkling of her education and what used to be called "breeding." Then, there's James, also advanced in years, eager to serve, ready to do whatever it takes to please Miss Sophie, while being aware of the challenges and willing to put up with them.
James impersonates, channels, and stands in for four of Miss Sophie's late friends, late meaning deceased, not late for dinner. James captures each of them with body language, tone of voice, and choice of words when toasting Miss Sophie. Quite a feat. As Sir Toby, he limits himself to saying cheerily "Cheerio!" But James also lets us know that Toby wants to drink more than he is first offered. As Admiral von Schneider, James strikes a Prussian pose with clicked heels and intones "Skol!" Mr Pommeroy seems delicate, particularly in comparison with the other symposiasts. Finally, Mr Winterbottom seems like a boon companion with a booming voice.
We showed the clip to a class of 26 undergraduate students and gave them a rating sheet with 5 pairs of trait-descriptive adjectives. They rated each of the 6 characters on each trait pair, using a scale from 1 (strongly disagree) to 5 (strongly agree). For Miss Sophie, the survey looked like this:
I see Miss Sophie as someone who...
(1) (2) (3) (4) (5) is extraverted and enthusiastic.
(1) (2) (3) (4) (5) is anxious or easily upset.
(1) (2) (3) (4) (5) is critical or quarrelsome.
(1) (2) (3) (4) (5) is dependable and self-disciplined.
(1) (2) (3) (4) (5) is open to new experiences and complex.
The trained eye notices that the each pair of adjectives represents one dimension of the so-called "Big Five" personality domains. From top to bottom, we have Extraversion, Neuroticism, Agreeableness, Conscientiousness, and Openness to New Experiences. The particular trait terms come from a brief inventory developed by Gosling, Rentfrow, & Swann (2003).
The 6-panel figure shows the results, presented as 6 character profiles of average ratings over the 5 domains. The bars refer to the standard errors of the means, and each SD (standard deviation) refers to the variability of means over the respective profile.
What do the numbers tell us? Starting with Miss Sophie, we see that she is perceived as distinctively low in openness, where distinctive means that her lack of openness stands out in comparison to her other traits and in comparison to the other individuals on the same trait. It is easy to see how this perception arose. Miss Sophie represents tradition and repetition. "The same procedure as every year, James!"
Sir Toby is perceived as extroverted, probably thanks to his cheery declamation of "Cheerio!", but little else. The Admiral is also perceived as extroverted, like everyone else, and curiously low in neuroticism. Perhaps military discipline buffers against neurosis. Drs. Seligman, Peterson, Fowler, and General Casey take heart; perhaps what we have here is a clue as to how positive psychology can create the invincible army (see the January 2011 issue of the American Psychologist for more on the pursuit of happiness in combat).
Pommeroy, poor Pommeroy, has a sucker's profile; high on Agreeableness and downhill from there. An inhibited, neurotic person trying to be nice. James made it seem so when whispering "Happy birthday, Sophie," on his behalf. Winterbottom seemed to get drunkest and scored high on extraversion. Like the others, a party animal.
Finally, there's James, the master impersonator. Our raters gave him his due credit. Scoring high on all four positively-keyed domains and low on the one negative domain (neuroticism), James comes off as the perfect person, which is all the more remarkable as the raters had to exhume James's personality through the veil of his four impersonations.
Additional analyses suggest that the data are "well-behaved." First, the raters agreed pretty well with one another, suggesting that there's a there there (i.e., judgeable stimuli). Second, the average ratings on the five domains were fairly independent of one another, which should be so, as the Big Five taxonomy was erected on that premise. Third, the average ratings of the six characters were fairly independent of one another, which should be so from a script-writing point of view. Redundant characters are a waste.
So what have we learned? We managed to reconstruct why the ratings were what they were by linking perceptions to the cues that gave rise to them. We cannot claim that a hypothesis was tested. Nor was there anything non-obvious, counter-intuitive, or depth-psychological. Yet, much of contemporary personality psychology rides on person perceptions encoded in trait language. And some complain that social psychology is in the business of formalizing folk psychology (Brannigan, 2004, see this post for a reply, and McGuire, 1973, see here for a reply). Perhaps they missed the target by a few inches.
In all fairness, personality assessment must, at least in part, rely on observations of behavior and the inferences observers draw. The Big Five taxonomy happens to be the most general framework to organize perceptions. When the behavior of individuals is observed in structurally different contexts (e.g., a party vs. an office) systematic variations in behavior can be studied, and a more textured understanding of the person, the situation, and their interaction can emerge (see Hartley, Zakriski, & Wright, 2011).
Brannigan, A. (2004). The rise and fall of social psychology. New York, NY: De Gruyter.
Gosling, S. D., Rentfrow, P. J., & Swann, W. B., Jr. (2003). A very brief measure of the Big Five personality domains. Journal of Research in Personality, 37, 504-528.
Hartley, A. G., Zakriski, A. L., & Wright, J. C. (2011). Probing the depths of Informant discrepancies: Contextual Influences on divergence and convergence. Journal of Clinical Child & Adolescent Psychology, 40, 54-66.
McGuire, W. J. (1973). The yin and yang of progress in social psychology. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 26, 446-456.