I have been examining the differences between psychological judgments made by professionals and everyday lay judgments of personality.  I began by distinguishing thoughtful judgments by early psychologists and other insightful people, on the one hand, from more superficial observations by others (see here for background).

This week, I turn to the work of William B. Swann of the University of Texas, Austin, who offered a different perspective on professional judgment of personality in an influential article in 1984.

His article in the journal Psychological Review characterized the research in the field of "Person Perception" -- how people perceive one another -- up to that time. To understand Swann's perspective, it helps to follow his description of the research viewpoints of the time.  According to Swann, "...the person perception process is designed to allow perceivers to attain their interaction goals, such as courting favor...preserving the relationship,...[or even] exploiting their partner...". As Swann summarizes: "Simply put, an accurate belief is an instrumental belief." -- which is to say that accuracy allows attaining goals.

Swann argued that:

"...it is noteworthy that over the last 100 years virtually every major school of psychology has modeled its approach to perceptual processes after the approach of researchers in object perception... (p. 458)."

Unlike the perception of objects such as desks, pencils, and fire hydrants, Swann points out that people who are being perceived react to the perceptions being made of them -- agreeing or disagreeing with the judgments, acquiescing even if the evaluations are wrong (sometimes when it is unimportant, for example), or encouraging misperceptions if they are favorable, as in the case of many public figures. 

Between two people, a perceiver and a target person being perceived, there can be a negotiation as to what the target is like. Targets may argue with a perception, saying, "I have changed," or "I am not who you think I am." Conversely, they may encourage perceptions: "You understand me better than anyone else."

Swann wrote at a time when researchers had elaborated a number of errors in how people perceived one another. He featured, among other topics, ongoing research that indicated that perceivers tended to see people as more "all good" or "all bad" than they really were -- a halo bias. Perceivers also tended to cling to their beliefs about other people, tended to overlook information that contradicted their views, and tended to underestimate the influences of situations on people's behaviors.

Swann also summarized disturbing information regarding clinical judgments.  Some landmark studies of the time had investigated clinical psychologists' abilities to arrive at a likely diagnosis of a patient, based on the patient's demographic and psychological test results. To many people's considerable surprise, highly trained clinical psychologists were regularly outperformed by simple mathematical formulae based on the same information. Moreover, additional information about a given patient increased the clinicians' confidence -- but not the accuracy of their diagnoses. 

Given such a dismal track record, Swann noted:

"The uniformly unflattering image of the social perceiver emerging from these... literatures could lead one to wonder how people ever manage to muddle their way through their social relationships."

Swann attempted to address this unflattering view.  To do so, he suggested that everyday people obtained accuracy in their judgments by emphasizing "circumscribed accuracy," whereas experts sought "generalized accuracy."

Swann's argument was that everyday people seek to understand and predict others in ways that are relevant to their limited needs and perspective. For example, we might succeed at understanding and predicting our boss's personality while she is at work, a single context over a circumscribed period of time in her life. Alternatively, we might try to predict our child's behavior, but chiefly when the child is at home with us. Our predictions about our child's behavior might be accurate in the context of home and family life, but not necessarily reflect the child's behavior with peers or teachers. Swann pointed out that such predictions were limited as to the people involved (i.e., how my child behaves with me), by time (before and after school) and by context (i.e., at home).

Swann drew an intriguing distinction between the predictions of everyday people and the aims of professional judges such as psychologists:

"Contrast, for example, the unique goals of professional person perceivers, such as clinicians, personnel officers, and guidance counselors, with those of everyday person perceivers. Because professional perceivers must often predict the behavior of targets under a wide variety of conditions, they often aspire to...global accuracy."

This idea of aspirations toward global accuracy was a new one for the times, and worth adding to the list of what might make professional judgments of personality unique.


Swann's comments on people reacting to being judged is made explicit on p. 460. Quotes from Swann (1984): "it is noteworthy that over the last 100 years..." (p. 358). "...the person perception process...." p. 460; "Simply put, an accurate..." p. 461. The types of contextual accuracy are outlined on p. 462 and the quote, "Contrast, for example, the unique goals..." is from p. 462. "The uniformly unflattering..." (p. 459).

All these are from: Swann, W. B. (1984). Quest for accuracy in person perception: A matter of pragmatics. Psychological Review, 91, 457-477.

Copyright © 2010 by John D. Mayer

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