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Do we really know what others think about us? UTM researchers have the answer

Forming metaperceptions — some people are better than others
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CHRISTINA/UNSPLASH
CHRISTINA/UNSPLASH

As humans, we are inherently social beings. Even if we claim not to care about what others think about us, we still want and need to fit into the social world, which can provide us with valuable personal and professional relationships and opportunities for growth. People are quick to form judgments and impressions about others, and those impressions can determine our status in our social groups.

This may be the reason why we are so interested in how other people see us, which leads us to try to gauge what impressions we leave on people we interact with. Research has shown that such judgments, known as metaperceptions, tend to be quite accurate.

A recent study led by U of T researchers found that some people are better at forming these metaperceptions than others. Researchers also discovered that it also matters whose impressions we are judging, as some people are more transparent than others.

It takes two to perceive

We know that the cues we receive from other people can affect the accuracy of our metaperceptions, but can both interaction partners play a role in metaperception accuracy? There might be something about the interaction dynamics that can affect metaperception accuracy, or meta-accuracy.

Erika Carlson, an assistant professor at UTM’s psychology department; Norhan Elsaadawy, a PhD student in Carlson’s lab; and Lauren Human of McGill University set out to answer that question.

The authors propose that there are three main sources of meta-accuracy: your general skill as a metaperceiver, as someone forming judgements about what other people think of you; the perceiver, or the person whose impression you are judging; and how both individuals interact. They conducted three studies involving more than 1,000 participants in total to test the role of each of those sources.

In the first of three separate studies, groups consisting of four to eight unacquainted undergraduates were given three minutes to get to know one another. Then, they provided impressions and metaperceptions of each member in a round-robin design.

The second study focused on a speed-dating event at a university bar, where participants shared their impressions and metaperceptions of each person with whom they interacted.

In the final study, students enrolled in the same class were randomly divided into groups. The first meeting consisted of an ice-breaker activity, after which participants reported their self-perceptions, metaperceptions, and impressions of each group member. 

Throughout the semester, the groups engaged in structured, in-class discussions about the lecture material. At their last meeting, participants reported their impressions of themselves and each group member as well as metaperceptions again.

The perceptions and metaperceptions were based on personality measures such as the Big Five Inventory, which is a test that breaks personality down into five dimensions: extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, emotional stability — also known as neuroticism — and openness. Interestingly, previous research has established that meta-accuracy for Big Five traits is higher than meta-accuracy for other traits, such as dominance.

Metaperception accuracy varies

There was significant variance in meta-accuracy in all three studies, suggesting that some people are more skilled at making accurate metaperceptions. The researchers also found evidence for positivity and transparency bias in metaperceptions. In other words, some people tended to think that others saw them more positively and in ways more congruent with their own self-perceptions than they actually did.

The researchers caution that being a good metaperceiver does not make a person better at judging all impressions people have of them. The manner in which an accurate metaperception is formed is surprisingly subtle, making further research necessary. 

For example, some people are more self-aware than others — and naturally better judges of how they are likely to be perceived — but others may simply be better at reading expressions from those perceiving them.

The effect of perceivers on meta-accuracy was small but still significant. This suggests that some people communicate their impressions a bit clearer than others. 

Finally, in the first two studies, which focused on pairs, the interaction’s dynamics significantly affected meta-accuracy. This was more prevalent in one-on-one contexts than in group settings. Accordingly, the researchers propose that some group environments may prevent people from forming distinct impressions of other people.