Your Perception of Others

When describing others, we assume similarity between them and ourselves.

Posted Feb 25, 2019

 Image by geralt on Pixabay.
Source: Image by geralt on Pixabay.

From partners and close friends to co-workers and famous people, what affects how we perceive other people?

One line of research suggests that we tend to assume similarity between others and ourselves—irrespective of how similar these others and we actually are. That is, we tend to overestimate the similarity between others and our own personality. Importantly, though, recent studies show that this phenomenon, called assumed similarity, occurs for some traits only.

More precisely, several researchers have used the HEXACO Model of Personality—comprising the basic traits of Honesty-Humility, Emotionality, Extraversion, Agreeableness, Conscientiousness, and Openness to Experience (in the following: Openness)—as a framework to better understand assumed similarity. Here is the gist of some of the findings (disclosure: I was part of most of the described studies):


In which traits do people assume similarity between others and themselves?

Michael Ashton and colleagues investigated assumed similarity in (Canadian) dyads of well-acquainted people, e.g., friends, romantic partners (N = 2,134). They found substantial assumed similarity in Honesty-Humility and Openness, but not in any other HEXACO trait. Focusing on intimate relationships, Jie Liu and colleagues looked at assumed similarity in a sample of Chinese romantic partners (N = 118 couples). Again, they found that people assumed similarity between their partner and themselves in Honesty-Humility and Openness, but not in another trait. And in a related line of investigation, Jie Liu and colleagues asked singles in four countries (China, Denmark, Germany, and the US) to describe their ideal partner (total N = 590). Here, results once more suggest that singles desire a partner that is similar to themselves in two traits in particular: Honesty-Humility and Openness.

Moving completely away from close (desired) others, Isa Thielmann and colleagues asked people to describe themselves and strangers (e.g., others they met for the first time, completely unknown individuals shown on a photo). Across eight studies (N = 1,350), they found assumed similarity in Honesty-Humility and, albeit to a somewhat smaller degree, Openness. But, again, there was no evidence for consistent assumed similarity in any of the remaining HEXACO traits.

So, studies considering different “others” (from intimate partners to complete strangers) across countries show that people tend to assume (or desire) similarity only in Honesty-Humility and Openness—and not in any other basic personality trait—consistently. But why is this the case?

Why is there assumed similarity in Honesty-Humility and Openness only?

Image by geralt on Pixabay.
Source: Image by geralt on Pixabay.

From several theoretical accounts suggested, most support has been accumulated for the so-called value account as originally proposed by Kibeom Lee and colleagues. This account rests on the finding that Honesty-Humility and Openness are the basic personality traits that are most strongly linked to personal values. As such, people deem the personality characteristics comprised by Honesty-Humility and Openness as particularly relevant for their identity. The value account states that people tend to believe that others share their values, and it seems that this does not only apply to close acquaintances or (desired) partners, but even to strangers. Thus, people might be motivated to assume similarity in the traits that are relevant for their values and identity in particular: Honesty-Humility and Openness.

Note that there are still some puzzling questions around assumed similarity and the value account. For instance, assumed similarity seems to be stronger and more consistent in Honesty-Humility than in Openness. Further, it might be that assumed similarity occurs in other traits in populations in which such other traits are more strongly linked to one’s values and identity.

But such open questions notwithstanding, the next time you think about someone else, you might wonder how much your perceptions are actually accurate, or a look in the (Honesty-Humility and Openness) mirror only.

Photo by Alex Powell from Pexels.
Source: Photo by Alex Powell from Pexels.

References

Ashton, M. C., Lee, K., & De Vries, R. E. (2014). The HEXACO Honesty-Humility, Agreeableness, and Emotionality factors: A review of research and theory. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 18, 139–152. http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/1088868314523838

Liu, J., Ludeke, S., Haubrich, J., Gondan-Rochon, M., & Zettler, I. (2018). Similar to and/or better than oneself? Singles’ ideal partner personality descriptions. European Journal of Personality, 32, 443–458. https://doi.org/10.1002/per.2159

Liu, J., Ludeke, S., & Zettler. I. (2018). Assumed similarity in personality within intimate relationships. Personal Relationships, 25, 316–329. https://doi.org/10.1111/pere.12246

Thielmann, I., Hilbig, B. E., & Zettler, I. (in press). Seeing me, seeing you: Testing competing accounts of assumed similarity in personality judgments. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Advance online publication. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/pspp0000222