New Research Reveals Why We Tend To Underestimate How Likable We Are

Researcher Norhan Elsaadawy discusses why we display a negative bias in our understanding of how others perceive us.

By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | November 24, 2023

A new study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology reveals that our knowledge of how others view us may not be as accurate as we think. Instead, we tend to show a "metabias," leading us to believe that we make worse impressions than we actually do.

I recently spoke to Norhan Elsaadawy of the Department of Psychology, University of Toronto, researcher and lead author of the paper to dissect the underpinnings of this perceptual bias and understand its impact in different social contexts. Here is a summary of our conversation.

Could you briefly describe metaperception and metabias? What inspired you to investigate them?

Metaperceptions are our beliefs about what others think of us. If you ever find yourself thinking: "My friends think I'm funny," "My mom thinks I'm irresponsible," or "My date doesn't like me very much"–those are all metaperceptions. Such metaperceptions might shape how you feel about your relationships with these individuals and how you feel about yourself.

As such, it's important to investigate whether our metaperceptions tend to be spot on (i.e., accurate) or biased. For example, you might overestimate or underestimate how much people like you or how positively they see you. We call this a metabias.

Research has found that we tend to underestimate how much people like us after we meet them for the first time. This research got my co-author, Erika Carlson, and I wondering whether this tendency for a negative metabias was specific to liking and to first impressions or whether we tend to underestimate how positively we are seen in general.

What was the methodology of your study? What attributes were you interested in for testing bias?

In this research, we analyzed data from six studies. In these studies, participants met and interacted with new acquaintances for the first time in a lab setting and/or they nominated friends and family members to complete a survey about them.

For each new acquaintance or close other, participants reported on their metaperceptions of them and, in turn, each new acquaintance or close other reported on their impressions of the participant.

For example, after interacting with a new acquaintance, a participant might rate how much they agreed with the item, "This person sees me as someone who is extraverted, enthusiastic," on a scale of 1 (strongly disagree) to 7 (strongly agree). The new acquaintance would also rate how much they agreed with the item, "[The participant] is someone who is extraverted, enthusiastic," on a scale of 1 (strongly disagree) to 7 (strongly agree).

We were interested in testing whether, similar to metaperceptions of liking, metaperceptions of personality traits were also negatively biased. As such, we tested metabias on all the common attributes rated by participants across the six studies, which included: extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, neuroticism, openness to experience, humor, intelligence, honesty, attractiveness, and likeability.

What were your key findings?

We found that people underestimate how much they are liked. They also tend to underestimate how positively they are seen on most personality traits by individuals they have just met and by the people they know well.

The main exception to this pattern was the trait extraversion, which captures how sociable, outgoing, and talkative someone is. We found that when participants met someone for the first time, they underestimated how extraverted that person thought they were if they met them in a small group, but they overestimated how extraverted that person thought they were if they met them one-on-one.

This might be because being in a group can highlight how little one speaks relative to others, while speaking to one person involves a great deal of work to keep a conversation going, highlighting one's extraversion.

What explains metabias in different social contexts? Could you offer some insight into why people do not understand how positively others see them?

One reason why people might not appreciate just how positively others see them is because they often assume that others see them similarly to how they see themselves. Generally, how people see themselves tends to be less positive than how others see them.

This is especially true for friends and family members who tend to see the best in us. As a result, projecting their self-views on to close others and assuming that close others see them similarly to how they see themselves tends to negatively bias people's metaperceptions of their close others.

With new acquaintances, people's self-perceptions of their personality did not explain metabias. In fact, we were unable to fully explain the metabias we observed with new acquaintances.

However, part of why people underestimated how positively they were seen by new acquaintances was because they viewed their behavior in an interaction less positively than their interaction partner did. One reason for this might be that they focused too much on what they did wrong in an interaction, while their interaction partner was actually much more likely to give them the benefit of the doubt.

What additional factors were involved in metabias developed around new acquaintances?

We suspect that with new acquaintances, another factor that might play a role in metabias is uncertainty. Take Morgan and Taylor as an example. After meeting Morgan briefly for the first time, Taylor has some idea of what Morgan is like but there are likely still gaps in their knowledge.

To fill in these gaps, Taylor likely draws on their ideas about what people are like on average, ideas that tend to be positive. In contrast, if Morgan is unsure of what kind of impression they made on Taylor following a brief first meeting, they are likely to err on the side of humility. Together, this would result in a negative metabias.

Your findings indicate that participants exhibited negative, accurate, and positive metabias at different levels. What factors could be contributing to this diversity of metabias?

We found that, on average, most people (48% of the participants in our samples, to be exact) exhibited a negative metabias, meaning that most people underestimated how positively others saw them.

That being said, there were some people (34%) who were accurate and some (18%) who were positively biased. This variability across people might be due to individual differences.

For example, instead of being negatively biased like most people, narcissists might be positively biased about the first impressions they make on others and accurate about the impressions they make on close others.

In follow-up research, we are planning to investigate individual differences in metabias to better understand who tends to be negatively biased, who tends to be positively biased, and who tends to be accurate.

Do you have any words of wisdom for people looking to have a more positive or accurate self-perception?

If your negative self-views are based on a fear that others see you negatively, then don't fret! Chances are people see you more positively than you think they do. Remember that we often judge ourselves a lot more harshly than other people do.

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