Do People See You The Way You See Yourself?

Psychologist Marie-Catherine Mignau examines how accurately individuals can perceive the personality of others in first impressions.

By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | May 24, 2022

A new study published in the Journal of Research in Personality compares how accurately an individual believes his or her personality is being perceived by others in initial interactions to the reality of how accurately others are actually able to perceive the person's personality.

I recently spoke to co-author Marie-Catherine Mignau from McGill University in Canada to better understand these concepts. Here is a summary of our conversation.

What inspired you to examine the topic of expressive accuracy awareness and its link to well-being?

In our research, we consistently find that expressive accuracy, or the tendency to have one's unique self-aspects accurately perceived by others, is associated with a variety of positive personal and interpersonal processes such as greater self-esteem, life satisfaction, and being considered as more likable.

So we wondered, given these positive correlates, whether people are conscious of the extent to which they accurately express what is unique about them.

A potential implication, we thought, was that this awareness could provide people with the necessary feedback to adjust the extent to which they reveal who they are based on contextual goals, such as a job interview, or more broadly to reap personal and interpersonal benefits.

How did you study it and what did you find?

To examine whether someone has a general tendency to accurately express what is unique about them, we must look at the extent to which someone is accurately perceived across a number of perceivers.

To do that, we invited previously unacquainted people into the lab to participate in a form of platonic speed-dating, in which every participant gets acquainted for a few minutes with every other participant and rates their interaction partner's personality after each interaction.

Then, to get a given person's global expressive accuracy, we wanted to see the extent to which perceivers' impressions match the person's "actual personality."

There is no perfect benchmark for "actual personality," but in our research, we approximate this "actual personality" indicator by combining self-reports with close other reports, such as family members, close friends, or romantic partners.

Next, once we have each person's tendency to be accurately perceived, we can ask: do people know if they have a tendency to be accurately perceived?

In our first study, we asked people right when they arrived at the lab to rate how much they believed that they were the type of person who tends to be accurately perceived in first impressions.

Then, we examined if this belief mapped onto how they indeed tended to be accurately perceived.

It turned out that people did show this global awareness, such that they seem to walk around the world knowing if they are like an open book in first impressions, or more mysterious.

In our second study, we wanted to know if people are aware of the extent to which specific interaction partners view them accurately or not.

So, instead of asking people for their global tendency at the beginning of the lab visit, we asked them after each getting-acquainted interaction, if they felt that their interaction partner viewed them accurately.

In this context, people were also aware of the extent to which specific interaction partners saw them accurately.

In addition, we found that across studies, expressive accuracy was related to personal and social well-being above and beyond belief or awareness, suggesting that awareness may not be necessary for people to reap expressive accuracy benefits.

Why did your study choose to study expressive accuracy awareness in the context of first impressions as opposed to more long-term, existing relationships?

Both contexts are very interesting and likely come with unique implications.

The reason we focused on getting-acquainted contexts is that people vary widely in their tendency to be accurately perceived in first impressions, with some people being like open books and others, quite hard to decipher.

Given these important individual differences in expressive accuracy, we were wondering whether people know where they stand on this tendency.

In contrast, in existing relationships, the accuracy of personality perceptions tends to be very high, potentially limiting the variability in personality accuracy in this context.

In fact, we recently conducted research in existing platonic and romantic relationships examining a different facet of accuracy awareness: "feeling understood."

In this context, it appears that people feel understood when they are viewed by a relationship partner in line with their emotions, not their personality, and more specifically when viewed in line with their more positive, socially desirable emotions.

This could partly be due to both the greater relevance and greater fluctuation of emotions in existing relationship contexts, providing greater room for variability in accuracy and a stronger association with feeling understood.

Although we used a different awareness indicator here, these two lines of research show important contextual differences, and as such, I think both contexts are important to study independently.

Your research speaks of normative and distinctive accuracy. Could you describe how these two thought processes manifest?

Any agreement between a target's self-ratings and a perceiver's impressions could in part be due to similarity to the average person, because most people will be similar to the average person.

To ensure that we are looking at a perceiver's accuracy about a specific target, we need to control for normative accuracy, the degree of agreement that could be due to this similarity to the average profile, as it could be driven by true accuracy or just by chance.

For example, if I report that I am more friendly than tense, and then you also rate my personality as more friendly than tense, this may be because you accurately perceive how I am, but it could also be because you and I are both rating my personality in line with the average person, who tends to be more friendly than tense.

So, what we really want to know is whether you can accurately perceive what makes me unique, distinct from the average person: that is, can you see how much more friendly than tense I am compared to the average person?

The extent to which a perceiver accurately views what is unique and distinct about another person is what we consider most reflective of accuracy, and we term this type of accuracy distinctive accuracy.

In what situations might an individual find it difficult to express themselves accurately to others?

It is possible that in higher stakes contexts people might find that revealing what is unique about them, especially what is most socially evaluative about them, to be risky.

For example, in the context of a job interview, candidates might readily reveal the extent to which they are introverted or tend to be nervous, because these self-aspects tend not to elicit a strong reaction from others.

However, they may wish to hold back on revealing characteristics that may be considered "deal breakers," such as the extent to which they are lazy or quarrelsome.

Beyond job interviews, being in a position of lower-status more generally may be constraining, such that lower-status people (e.g., employees) may not have as much freedom and opportunity to express the full range of their personality as higher-status people (e.g., managers).

For example, employees may be more focused on accurately perceiving aspects of their employer than accurately expressing themselves, and they may not be given as much space or permission to talk about themselves.

In your opinion, what are some of the reasons that high levels of well-being allows people to express themselves more accurately and the interchanging effect of well-being and accurate self-expression?

In our research, we have found that those high in well-being tend to behave in daily life in a way that aligns to a greater extent with who they are.

In turn, this tendency to behave more congruently with one's personality relates to being more accurately perceived in first impressions.

In other words, those high in well-being consistently behave in a way that provides more relevant cues about who they truly are. But why?

I am only speculating at this stage, but it may be that high stable well-being leads to being less emotionally reactive to the context, and as such, allows for behavior that is less variable, less context-dependent, and more aligned with one's stable traits.

It is also possible that, in being satisfied with themselves, those high in well-being do not feel as much a motivation to overly enhance or conceal certain self-aspects.

Did something unexpected emerge from your research? Something beyond the hypothesis?

It was interesting to observe that, across studies, the links between expressive accuracy and well-being did not weaken much when controlling for people's beliefs.

That is, feeling accurately perceived was not a necessary experience for people to reap the well-being benefits of being accurately perceived.

Perhaps, the positive interpersonal contact that is generated from being accurately perceived leads the person to feel good and reap personal benefits, without needing to know why.

Alternatively, given that self-disclosure is in and of itself found to be a positive experience, it could in parallel both lead to being accurately perceived, and to greater well-being.

Of course, given that this is cross-sectional data, it may be that well-being is causing high expressive accuracy levels, which could explain why it doesn't depend on high expressive accuracy beliefs.

What practical advice do you have for individuals who struggle with being expressively accurate around new people?

We recently found that giving participants simple instructions to be yourself led them to be more accurately perceived in first impressions.

This was the case even for those lower in self-esteem, such that increasing one's tendency to reveal one's true self may be achievable, even for those who struggle with it the most.

There are a variety of contexts in which being oneself is shown to bear benefits, such as with close peers, in established romantic relationships, in platonic first impressions, and in job interviews.