Analysis: new research shows that context plays a critical role when we assess another person's personality 

By Claire CampbellUlster University and Helen WallEdge Hill University

The judgments we make about a person's personality plays an important role in how we understand their past behaviour and predict their future behaviour. Making accurate personality judgments is a difficult task because we often need to make these judgments in less than ideal circumstances. For example, we often have limited information about the person and no way of verifying what they have said. This is further complicated by the wide range of situations where we make personality judgments, ranging from informal settings like a bus stop, gym class or bar to such formal settings as a workplace, courtroom or job interview.

The personality judgments we make about others shape our behaviour and decisions in important ways, and therefore it is important that they are correct and accurate. Past research has shown that personality judgments can determine the types of people we make friends with, who we trust, who we date, who we will work with and who we will employ. In some circumstances, the ability to make accurate personality judgments may also impact on how effective we are in our jobs - for example, people working in police forces, sales, Human Resources, to name a few.

Psychologists tend to think about personality as divided into five key traits or stable dimensions that capture differences in thoughts, feelings and behaviour. These are Extraversion, Agreeableness Conscientiousness, Neuroticism and Openness to Experience

"The context we make a personality judgment in may change the amount or type of information we have available to us" Photo: iStock

Simply put, extraversion refers to how outgoing and sociable a person is, agreeableness describes how easy-going and trusting a person is and conscientiousness refers to a person’s attention to detail and goal-orientation. Neuroticism describes a person’s emotional stability and tendency to experience negative emotions such as anxiety, while openness to experience refers to a person’s creativity and willingness to try new experiences.

People have varying levels of these traits. For example, a person high in neuroticism is more likely to worry a lot, but a person low in this trait is more likely to be calm and collected. Similarly, a person high in conscientiousness is more likely to make-long term plans, while a person low in this trait is more likely to act more impulsively. 

So what do we know about personality judgements? Some research has found that the characteristics of the person making the judgement are relevant, such as their motivation or extroversion. Other researchers have found that some people can be very difficult to judge, such as people who engage in self presentation who present a different self to the outside world. More researchers have found that the type of information a person reveals about themselves, such as emotion or non-verbal behaviour or language, can be useful when judging another’s personality.

"The trait of Conscientiousness was best judged via an online chat" Photo: iStock

A critical question to emerge, and the focus of our research, is whether personality judgements are dependent on context. Interestingly, the context we make a personality judgment in may change the amount or type of information we have available to us.

We explored this by looking at personality judgments in three different everyday contexts that we use to communicate with people: (a) "chatting" in an online forum, where we can only look at what a person says and how fast they respond; (b) a telephone call where we also have access to other information like tone of voice and how loud or fast a person speaks and (c) a face-to-face interaction where nonverbal behaviour, body gestures and facial expressions can also be seen.

We found that the trait of Extraversion was judged best in face-to-face interactions relative to online chats, indicating that access to nonverbal behaviour is important in judging this trait accurately. However, the trait of Conscientiousness was best judged via an online chat suggesting that although judges in online contexts do not have access to nonverbal behaviour, the context focused them on (or increased the relevance of) written cues that might in part reveal this trait, such as attention to detail in language.

The traits we can judge well seem to depend on context 

To sum this up, social traits such as Extraversion appear to be easier to detect in face-to-face contexts where visual cues are high. However conscientiousness, which is not a social trait and is more concerned with a person’s level of dependability and attention to detail, appears to be easier to detect in online contexts where people are not bombarded with visual cues and can instead hone in and pay attention to critical language cues. 

A second study looked at whether the role a person plays in an interaction impacts on accuracy. For example, if a police officer was interviewing a suspect and another police officer was watching the interaction through mirrored glass, who would make more accurate personality judgments? Our study found that people who observed an interaction were better at judging the traits of Conscientiousness and Openness to Experience than people who took part in an interaction.

We also found across the board that observers used different types of information to make their personality judgments than interactants. Interactants tended to notice their partner's interpersonal style - such as whether they smiled, laughed or complained - but observers also noticed more about the dynamics of the conversation (e.g. if the person tended to take charge or was quick to understand). For the traits of Extroversion, Agreeableness and Neuroticism there was no difference in accuracy between interactants and observers. This suggests that observers may have the upper hand when making personality judgments.

Overall, our research highlights the complexity of personality judgements and the critical role that context can play when assessing another’s personality that can have important practical implications. The traits we can judge well seem to depend on context and we may be able to increase our chances of making accurate personality judgments by using what we know so far. For example, it may be better to observe a conversation rather than take part in it and to consider using the communication best suited to the trait you are interested in judging. To put this in reverse, when your next promotion is looming, maybe you should demonstrate your conscientiousness in an email to your boss rather than a conversation.

Dr Claire Campbell is a lecturer in social psychology at the School of Psychology at Ulster University. Dr Helen Wall is a senior lecturer in psychology at the Department of Psychology at Edge Hill University.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ