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Three Levels of Knowing a Person

How do we really know someone?

Key points

  • There are three levels of knowing someone that are particularly familiar to personality psychologists.
  • Level 1 of knowing someone involves understanding their general traits, almost as a stranger would, such as introversion vs. extroversion.
  • Having level 2 knowledge of someone means seeing what someone wants in life and the strategies they employ to get it.
  • Level 3 knowledge of a person refers to having a nuanced understanding of their identity.

I have been examining how professional judgments of personality might differ from those made by people who are untrained in perceiving others. I am asking whether there is something that a psychologist (or psychiatrist, social worker, or other insightful person) knows about someone else that most of us miss in our everyday interactions with one another (see here for background).

In a 1996 article, Dan McAdams, a professor at Northwestern University, noted that " ... personality psychologists must seek first and foremost to know persons." With that professional goal in mind, he asked the following elegant question: "What do we know when we know a person? What does it take to know a person in a scientific way?"

In his article, McAdams answered that as psychologists learn about someone, they progress across "three levels of knowing," steadily building an understanding of another person as they move from one stage of knowing to the next.

Level 1

McAdams' Level 1 is a description of a person's broad, general traits, such as how shy, outgoing, intelligent, or warm someone is. He writes:

"Knowing where somebody stands on extraversion or neuroticism is indeed crucial information in the evaluation of strangers and others about whom one knows very little. It is the kind of information that strangers quickly glean from one another as they size one another up and anticipate future interactions. It is the kind of information that people fall back on when they know little else about the other who is being observed."

According to McAdams, " ... the ultimate outcome of a good trait analysis would appear to be little more than a systematic psychology of the stranger."

Level 2

Level 2 provides a description of an individual's personal concerns — descriptions of personal strivings, life tasks, strategies of defense and coping, and similar matters that involve the specific times, places, and endeavors of the person's life. As McAdams puts it:

"They [personal concerns] speak to what people want, often during particular periods in their lives or within particular domains of action, and what life methods people use (strategies, plans, defenses, and so on) to get what they want or avoid getting what they do not want over time, in particular places, and/or with respect to particular roles."

Level 3

As a psychologist moves from an analysis at Level 1 (general traits) to Level 2 (personal concerns), their sense of knowing the other person increases. There is one more level:

"As one moves from Level 1 to Level 2, one moves from the psychology of the stranger to a more detailed and nuanced description of a flesh-and-blood, in-the-world person, striving to do things over time, situated in place and role, expressing herself or himself in and through strategies, tactics, plans, goals, and so on...So what is missing? The answer stems from the...mindset of...individuals [who] are expected to create selves that develop over time and that define who they are...what is missing is identity."

A contemporary person, according to McAdams, creates an identity through a process McAdams somewhat whimsically refers to as "selfing" — composing one's personality and personal story by weaving together an overall self-definition. This sense of mature identity is unique to thinking adults. As McAdams put it rather provocatively — (and here I have abridged and omitted much material):

"...8-year-olds are too young to have identities in this sense because they are generally not able to experience unity and purpose as problematic in their lives...But not so for a modern adult. Although the question of "Who am I?" may seem silly or obvious to a young child, modern men and women are likely to see such a question as...challenging, ego-involving, and so on...[they] construct...more or less coherent, followable, and vivifying stories that integrate the person into society..."

That is, people construct stories of themselves to convey who they are (e.g., "I was born on a farm in Oklahoma, but was irresistibly attracted by Manhattan's bright lights...My move to New York was the beginning of my life in the arts...").

Editors often advise writers to use specifics when they write (see here), such as providing details of a story-character's life, so as to make their narratives more alive and real-seeming. This may be an example of how providing specific life events creates in us a sense of knowing another person.

Does gaining knowledge across these three levels make psychologists, other professionals, and insightful people special in their knowledge of others?

As I read McAdams' article, he provides a second answer to the question of how scientists get to know someone — an answer that he himself mentions just in passing. This answer is about the scientific method. He wrote:

"In personality psychology, observations and measurements of persons are generally made in systematic and structured ways through the use of standardized questionnaires, laboratory investigations, interviews, ethnographic inquiries, content analysis, and so on. These observations and measurements must then be organized in terms of constructs and propositions, and these constructs and propositions should be further organized into an integrative framework ... "

In my opinion, this method, brought up by McAdams, also helps to assure that the professional person-perceiver's analysis of personality is as close to the reality of the person as is scientifically possible.

The use of the scientific method along with the inclusion of more details of a person's life (e.g., McAdams' Level 3) may create not only a sense of knowing, but a systematic, organized collection of information from which good descriptions can be made of an individual's personality.

Copyright © 2010 by John D. Mayer



Quotes and pages: "What do we know when we know a person? What does it take to know a person in a scientific way?" (p. 301). "selfing" (p. 302); "Knowing where somebody stands on extraversion or neuroticism...", and , "...the ultimate outcome of a good trait analysis would" (p. 303) "They speak to what people want, often during particular periods in their lives or within..." (p. 304); "As one moves from Level 1 to Level 2, one moves from the psychology of the stranger to a more detailed and nuanced..." and "...8-year-olds are too young to have identities..." (p. 306); "In personality psychology, observations and measurements of persons..." and "But what about...must be explained?" (p. 301). All from: McAdams, D. P. (1996). Personality, modernity, and the storied self: A contemporary framework for studying persons. Psychological Inquiry, 7, 295-321.

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