It’s a common belief among psychologists that people’s perceptions of themselves should be taken with a grain of salt, because they’re often thought to be positively biased and less accurate than the judgments supplied by others. But you really do know yourself best, according to a new paper published in the journal Psychological Science.
The new research found that people are actually better at judging their own personalities than scientists previously assumed — and, if anything, people tend to view themselves more negatively than others do.
“I honestly went into this research thinking, ‘Yeah, we’ll find big effects for self-enhancement,’ and that wasn’t the trend at all,” says study co-author Brian Connelly, an associate professor of management at the University of Toronto-Scarborough.
That conclusion is based on a review of more than 150 prior personality research samples, which the researchers scoured to find average differences in how people self-reported their personalities compared to the how others described them.
While individuals vary in their tendencies, the researchers found that on average, people are unlikely to overhype their traits more than their family, friends or colleagues. (They did find that self-reports were often more positive than assessments from strangers, who may judge someone both inaccurately and unfairly harshly.)
Of the “Big Five” personality traits — emotional stability, extraversion, openness/intellect, agreeableness and conscientiousness — the researchers found that on average, individuals’ self-assessments tracked closely with or were even harsher than those supplied by outsiders. People’s ratings of their own emotional stability and conscientiousness were especially likely to be more negative than what their peers said.
The researchers only found a consistent positive bias in how people rated their own openness, relative to others’ descriptions. Even there, the effect was small and confined to a few sub-measures of openness, such as tendency to be reflective, explore artistic pursuits and experience new things.
But Connelly says the discrepancies in the ratings you supply for yourself versus those provided by others might have more to do with other people than with you. It’s difficult for people to understand and accurately judge another person’s innermost self, which may lead to skewed results. “Being open and thoughtful and reflective is something that people don’t necessarily see,” Connelly says. “It’s something that’s harder for them to guess, so other people may not know when it’s happening. In the same way, feeling lots of negative emotions, like anxiety and depression, are hard things to see, unless somebody talks about it.”
There’s also a well-known psychological phenomenon called the fundamental attribution bias, which says that people are more likely to blame someone else’s failings on that person’s personality, while they chalk their own shortcomings up to situational circumstances. With all of these tendencies at play, Connelly says, it’s difficult for anyone to be truly accurate and objective when it comes to assessing personality, even their own.
“Who knows personality truly and without bias? We don’t necessary know that ourselves. Other people don’t necessarily know it. But if you ask a lot of people, you’re probably getting at least a pretty good and accurate view of someone,” Connelly says. “As a whole, that means that we generally will balance out toward having accuracy in how we perceive ourselves and what we predict about ourselves.”