Accuracy Of Person Perception Research Paper

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The accuracy of person perception (also called personality judgment) refers to the connection between judgments people make of the psychological attributes of others, and the actual status of those attributes in the persons who are judged. The psychological attributes may be another person’s personality traits, or his or her thoughts and feelings at a given moment. The ability to judge personality has concerned psychological researchers, off and on, for more than a half-century (see Allport 1937, Funder 1999, Kenny 1994). The ability to guess what someone is thinking and feeling, called empathic accuracy, is a newer topic that has begun to receive increasing attention (Ickes 1997). Research on either topic entails special difficulties because the notion of ‘accuracy’ raises thorny questions concerning how accuracy is to be conceptualized and evaluated. Despite these difficulties, research since 1980 can report important empirical and theoretical progress.



1. The Importance Of Accuracy

The accuracy of person perception has obvious practical importance. Employers and other people in everyday life rely heavily on their perceptions of other persons’ attributes such conscientiousness, intelligence, friendliness, dominance, and many others. It is an everyday occurrence to make decisions concerning other people as a function of beliefs about what those people are like. Moreover, clinical assessment typically relies heavily on the impressions of a psychiatrist or psychologist concerning a person of interest. Interpersonal judgments and sociometric ratings are also often used as data for psychological research. The accuracy of these perceptions is critical for the quality of the data and the research that is based on them.

The accuracy of personality judgment is also important for theoretical reasons. Accurate person perception implies knowledge about the connections between observable behaviors, on the one hand, and personality traits, on the other hand. Thus, to understand the accuracy of person perception would be to understand the ways in which personality affects behavior. Person perception is a traditional topic of social psychology and the connections between personality and behavior are traditionally studied by personality psychology. The topic of accuracy in person perception transcends the boundaries between these traditionally separate sub-fields of research.

Finally, the oldest topic in philosophy, and one of humankind’s most ancient concerns, is the relationship between perception and reality. Research on the accuracy of person perception is driven by curiosity concerning just this issue.

2. Difficulties In Accuracy Research

In the light of the importance of the accuracy of person perception, it may be surprising to learn that researchers have neglected the topic for long periods of time (e.g., the years 1955–85), and some psychologists with relevant interests (e.g., in person perception) continue to shy away. This avoidance has been caused by several considerations. The most important consideration is the topic’s inherent difficulty. At a general level, the topic of accuracy is difficult to conceptualize or to operationalize, because it requires the development of some criterion by which interpersonal judgments can be evaluated as right or wrong. Some psychologists have considered the development of such criteria to be either impossibly difficult or in principle impossible, and therefore turned their attention to other topics. At a more specific level, an important series of articles by Lee Cronbach (e.g., 1955) revealed complex and hitherto-unsuspected technical difficulties inherent in evaluating accuracy in terms of agreement among different judges. Rather than leading to improved methods, this research paper and related critiques managed to shut down a then-lively field of research, and appeared to intimidate a subsequent generation of researchers from addressing the topic (see Funder 1999). A further obstacle to accuracy research was the widespread influence of a set of attitudes that seemed to discourage interest in the topic. The ‘person situation debate’ in personality psychology (Kenrick and Funder 1988) led many researchers to believe that the connections between personality and behavior were few and weak. If this were true, it would make little sense to attempt to investigate the accuracy of person perception. At about the same time, the increasing popularity of research on ‘errors’ in person perception (e.g., Nisbett and Ross 1980) led to a widespread belief that human judgment is characteristically, even fundamentally mistaken. If this were true, investigations of accuracy would seem to hold little hope.

3. Resolving The Difficulties In Accuracy Research

Research on accuracy was able to move forward only after these difficulties began to be resolved.

First, views concerning the existence and importance of personality traits, and the abilities of human judgment, began to change during the 1980s. The person situation debate was resolved as reiterating the importance of stable attributes of personality (Kenrick and Funder 1988). Research on the errors of human judgment was reinterpreted in a broader context in which it was less often seen as implying that human judgment is always or fundamentally wrong (e.g., Swann 1984). Studies of error identify important shortcuts (‘heuristics’) and other processes of human cognition. However, they do not imply that judgment is inept, because the processes that produce errors in the laboratory often lead to correct judgments in real life. Moreover, research on error is fundamentally limited because it can illuminate only how judgments fail to achieve perfection, rather than how correct judgments are ever achieved. The methodological issues identified by Cronbach and others also received a reexamination during the 1980s (e.g., Funder 1980, Kenny 1994). This reexamination yielded more sophisticated analytic techniques that allowed the methodological complications to be bypassed or specifically incorporated into analytic designs. David Kenny’s ‘Social Relations Model,’ a data-analytic technique that accounts for effects of judge, target, and their interaction on interjudge agreement, was an important breakthrough in this regard.

Notwithstanding the issues just summarized, the thorniest issue in accuracy research is the criterion problem. By what standard can a judgment of personality be evaluated as right or wrong? The answer to this question depends on exactly how accuracy is conceptualized.

4. Conceptualizations Of Accuracy

The accuracy of person perception is conceptualized somewhat differently by three major approaches that developed during the 1980s and 1990s.

The pragmatic approach, based on some early ideas by William James, has been espoused by William Swann (1984). This approach defines accuracy as the ability to make judgments that allow for success in life. The index of whether a judgment is accurate, in this view, is whether it is adaptively useful.

The constructivist approach, based on postmodernist viewpoints that have become widespread in academia, has been espoused by Arie Kruglanski (1989) and others. This approach either states or implies that no criterion for a person’s judgmental accuracy exists beyond other judgments by other people. For example, Kenny (1994) has sometimes conceptualized accuracy as the mean judgment of all possible observers of a person. The index of whether a judgment is accurate, in this view, is whether it agrees with the judgments of others.

The realistic approach is consistent with the writings of Egon Brunswik (1956) and has been espoused more recently by Funder (1995). This approach assumes that psychological attributes of people really exist, though they are only probabilistically knowable through cues of uncertain validity. The real nature of a person must then be ascertained, as well as possible but always with less-than-certain validity, through multiple sources of evidence including the person’s self-judgment, judgments by others, and his or her relevant behavior. The index of whether a judgment is accurate, in this view, is the degree to which it converges with these multiple criteria.

5. The Degree Of Accuracy

When research on accuracy in person perception revived during the early 1980s, one of its first orders of business was to dispel the impression left by research on error, that human social judgment is always or fundamentally mistaken.

A large number of studies documented the accuracy of personality judgment in two ways. The most common method was to show that different judgments of the same person tend to agree. Research examined self-other agreement and agreement among judges and found that significant agreement was the rule rather than the exception across a wide band of personality traits, even after brief periods of acquaintance (e.g., Borkenau and Liebler 1992). Evidence concerning the ability of personality judgments to predict behavior is more difficult to gather and therefore was slower in coming, but eventually showed that layperson’s personality judgments have an impressive ability to predict independent observations of an individual’s behavior (Funder 1999).

The overall degree of accuracy in person perception is difficult to characterize, because it depends upon a number of factors including the ability of the judge, the judgability of the target, the trait that is judged, and the amount and kind of acquaintance between target and judge (see next section). But while it is for these reasons an oversimplification, it is also a fair characterization to state that the usual correlation among criteria for accuracy is in the range 0.30–0.40. This translates to the statement that one person’s perception of the personality of another is correct roughly two times out of three.

6. Moderators Of Accuracy

Research since 1980 has found that the degree of accuracy in person perception depends upon four moderator variables.

6.1 The Good Judge

The search for the ‘good judge of personality’ is one of the oldest concerns in the accuracy literature. This search motivated many investigators during the 1930s to 1950s and it was their failure to find consistent results that contributed to the three-decade hiatus that followed (Schneider et al. 1979). Part of the reason for this failure may be the presence of methodological flaws in many early studies, and another part may be that judgmental ability may not be robust. That is, a good judge of one kind of person or trait may not be a good judge of other people, other traits, or in other contexts. Research continues to address this topic but at present the ‘good judge’ has yet to be conclusively found.

6.2 The Good Target

The search for the good target of judgment, or the ‘judgable’ person, has had more success. As Gordon Allport noted years ago, some people are relatively open books whereas others are difficult to understand even after years of acquaintance. According to research by Colvin (1993), the judgable person is one who has an integrated, well-adjusted personality. The consistency among such a person’s actions, thoughts, and personality leads them to be coherent overall, and relatively easy to judge.

6.3 The Good Trait

An even more robust phenomenon is the difference among traits in their judgability. Relatively observable traits, like sociability and talkativeness, are much easier to judge accurately than more hidden traits like ruminativeness and anxiety. Some evidence also suggests that traits that are extremely desirable or undesirable to possess are more difficult to judge accurately than traits more neutral in evaluative connotation.

6.4 Information

The accuracy of a judgment also depends critically upon the information upon which it is based. The information variable has two facets, quantity and quality.

The quantity variable pertains to the acquaintance effect, the tendency to judge someone more accurately the longer one has known him or her. The straightforward expectation would be that more information is likely to produce more accurate judgment. Perhaps surprisingly, this has turned out to be a controversial proposition, with some investigators finding evidence for the acquaintance effect, and others doubting its existence on theoretical and empirical grounds.

The quality variable pertains to the kind of context in which one person observes another. Current research is pursuing the idea that, even holding amount of acquaintance constant, different contexts may produce different degrees of accuracy.

7. Theoretical Development

Historically, research on accuracy has been long on empiricism and short on theory. This imbalance is beginning to be remedied with the development of theories of how accurate judgments come about. One theory, Kenny’s ‘PERSON’ model, conceptualizes personality judgments as the result of multiple influences including the judge’s response proclivities, his or her knowledge of people in general, the actual personality of the target, and other factors. Another theory is Funder’s Realistic Accuracy Model (RAM, Funder 1995). RAM conceptualizes an accurate personality judgment as the result of a process that begins with the target emitting relevant information (e.g., performing a relevant behavior), which then must become available to a judge, who then detects it and utilizes it correctly in reaching an accurate judgment. Both the PERSON and RAM models can be used to rationalize the moderators of accuracy that have been found to date, and suggest new ones for investigation in future research.

8. Conclusion

The accuracy of person perception is an important topic that, after periods of neglect, is becoming a mature field of research and a mainstream concern of personality and social psychology. The combination of empirical and theoretical progress in this area makes it a good candidate for becoming even more central within psychology in the twenty-first century.


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