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Do You Know How Others See You Right Now?

What insights—and blindspots—do people have about their own personalities?

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By Katherine Bourque

When describing themselves, people tend to talk about their personality traits in general—normally being polite or almost always being punctual. But a thoroughly self-aware person would also know what she’s like at a particular moment.

“If you’re not aware of your behavior from one moment to the next then it might be hard to know what kind of person you are in general,” says Jessie Sun, a Ph.D. student in psychology at the University of California, Davis, and co-author of a recent study on self-awareness. There are clearly potential advantages to having self-knowledge in the present. “If you were a jerk to someone just now and you realize it at that moment, you can apologize and make amends right away, instead of just ignoring it and letting any resentment build up.”

To gauge just how aware people are of momentary fluctuations in their characteristics, Sun and UC Davis psychologist Simine Vazire analyzed data from 248 students at Washington University in St. Louis who wore an audio recording device as they went about their daily lives. The research team coded 30-second snippets of sound, many of which included conversations, based on the degree of extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, and neuroticism they perceived in the participant at that moment. Each participant’s audio was analyzed by at least six different research assistants to get multiple points of view. The team then compared these codings to ratings the students had periodically made of their own personality characteristics at several points throughout the day.

For extraversion, the participants’ and researchers’ views on the situation largely matched—for the most part, people were aware of roughly how socially outgoing or quiet they were being. The same was found for conscientiousness: Participants tended to recognize fairly well whether they seemed reliable or lazy.

But in rating levels of neuroticism and agreeableness, participants’ and researchers’ perceptions differed to a greater degree. Sun believes that while neuroticism can be hard to quantify based on an audio recording alone—“it’s hard to tell how depressed one is just by listening to recordings of their behaviors,” she says—agreeableness is defined to a greater extent by behavior, so fluctuations should be more noticeable to observers.

For example, the coders contended with a participant who rated herself as agreeable around the time she said, “Her twin brother did not have her in his wedding, which is such bullsh*t.” Conversely, when a student said, “Trust me, breaking up helps. And you have a good support system here… You can come into me and Mel’s room, just have a glass of wine,” the coders rated her as more agreeable than she had rated herself as being.

“For agreeableness, how kind and considerate participants were, we think the observers are probably right, and this might suggest that participants don’t have as much self-knowledge about their momentary agreeableness,” Sun says.

There is nothing inherently negative about a person’s demeanor changing as a situation changes. But as these findings suggest, we may not always be so aware of how those changes come across to those around us—especially, perhaps, when it comes to how considerate or rude we seem.

Katherine Bourque is an Editorial Intern at Psychology Today.

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