You’re Probably Pretty Bad at Knowing What People Think of You

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The aphorism “Know thyself” may be sound advice, but it’s also a hopelessly vague command — what is it, exactly, that you are supposed to know? Perhaps self-knowledge stems from being in touch with your feelings, or having the confidence to do what you want, unfettered by worries about what other people will think.

Or maybe it’s more outward-looking — maybe part of knowing yourself is knowing how you appear to the rest of the world. And in that regard, at least, all of us are a little bit screwed. At BBC earlier this week, Christian Jarrett highlighted a hard truth, one borne out in research time and time again: We can be pretty bad at understanding what other people think of us.

In psychology, the ability to know how we come off is called “meta-accuracy” — it’s what happens when our ideas about how others see us match up with their actual opinions. “One way to calculate what other people think of you,” Jarrett wrote, “is just to consider how you see yourself and use this as the basis for estimating what others think, under the assumption that if you think you’re an extravert (or not), and so on, other people will too.”

But a self-declared extravert does not an extravert make, and this strategy often yields some mismatched results. In one 2013 study, for example, volunteers who had filled out surveys about their personalities then asked family members and friends to rate them using the same criteria, and guessed what their responses would look like:

Crucially, the researchers found there were some consistent judgments made by friends and family about the participants (such as that they all agreed the person was lazy) that were different from how the students rated themselves, and that were missing from the students’ estimates of how they thought other people perceived them. The researchers called these gaps “blind spots” and they said the findings show that “the typical person is not aware of some of the unique ways in which he or she is consensually perceived by others.”

And a 2014 study focused on selfies — one of the most popular tools for curating an online persona — yielded similar results: People tended to think they were more attractive and likable in photos they’d shot of themselves, while other people thought they came off better in portraits the study authors had snapped on their phones.

Here’s the biggest bummer, though: The price to pay for meta-accuracy, according to one study Jarrett highlighted, may be your own happiness:

The more psychologically well-adjusted students showed less insight into what other people thought of them – they relied more on what they thought of themselves when making these estimates, and this was especially true for classmates with whom they were better acquainted. In other words, the more emotionally stable and confident you are, the more likely it is that you just assume your friends see you how you see yourself (which if you’re like most people, is in a positive light).

In part, he explained, this may be because people with depression tend to have fewer “self-serving biases” — in other words, they tend to see the world and themselves through the lens of cold, hard truth. Knowing thyself, the forgotten part of that saying goes, isn’t always fun.