Most of us have some insight into our personality traits, but how self-aware are we in the moment?

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Correlations between momentary self-views and observed behaviour, from Sun and Vazire, 2018.

By guest blogger Jesse Singal

Your ability to accurately understand your own thoughts and behaviour in a given moment can have rather profound consequences. If you don’t realise you’re growing loud and domineering during a heated company meeting, that could affect your standing at work. If you react in an oversensitive manner to a fair and measured criticism levelled at you by your romantic partner, it could spark a fight.

It’s no wonder, then, that psychology researchers are interested in the question of how well people understand how they are acting and feeling in a given moment, a concept known as state self-knowledge (not to be confused with its better-studied cousin trait self-knowledge, or individuals’ ability to accurately gauge their own personality characteristics that are relatively stable over time).

In a new study available as a preprint on PsyArXiv, Jessie Sun and Simine Vazire of the University of California, Davis adopted a novel, data-heavy approach to gauging individuals’ levels of personality state self-knowledge (i.e. their personality as it manifested in the moment), and it revealed some interesting findings about the ways in which people are – and aren’t – able to accurately understand their own fleeting psychological states.

The study, provisionally titled “Do People Know What They’re Like in the Moment?” had two main components. First, 434 Washington University of St. Louis students were texted four times a day for 15 days and asked to rate themselves on four of the Big Five personality characteristics based on how they had felt and behaved during the previous hour: Extraversion, Agreeableness (only “if they reported that they were around others during the target hour”), Conscientiousness, and Neuroticism. Of these 434 participants, 311 also wore a recording device paired with an iPod touch that recorded for 30 seconds every nine and a half minutes from 7 a.m. to 2 a.m. every day, generating a huge amount of audio data. (Before researchers had full access to the recordings, students were allowed to listen to them and erase anything they didn’t want the researchers to hear, but only 99 files were deleted from a cache that became “152,592 usable recordings from 304 participants.”)

Second, a veritable small army of research assistants – more than a hundred – listened to the recordings and rated the speakers on the same four personality states they had previously rated themselves on. For a subset of the study participants, then, researchers had three useful pieces of information: recordings of them going about their lives, participants’ rating of their own personality states during those periods, and outside observers’ rating of those same states. This allowed the researchers to measure the extent to which self-ratings correlated with other-ratings – that is, did Tom’s view that he was quite extroverted during a given hour match up with how others who heard him on audio interpreted his behaviour during snippets of that period?

And measure they did, generating a pretty cool series of graphs (see above). The more acute the positive, upward slope, the more there was agreement between self- and other-ratings. So as you can see, Extraversion was, by a significant margin, the personality characteristic for which people seemed to have the most accurate self-knowledge. This shouldn’t necessarily be a surprise. For one thing, while intuition isn’t always an accurate guide on such matters, common sense would suggest that people are well aware of the extent to which they are actively and enthusiastically engaging in social activity, and that we’re all pretty good at judging others’ level of extraversion as well. Second, the authors note that this finding is “consistent with a large body of literature demonstrating high self-observer agreement on trait extraversion across a wide range of conditions.” The state with second-highest subject-observer agreement, as the graph shows, was Conscientiousness (again, perhaps because in-the-moment conscientious behaviour is pretty easy for both the self and others to discern).

What about the two other personality states, where there was significantly less subject-observer agreement? The tricky part about interpreting these findings, as the authors point out, is that there are two possible explanations: the first is that the subject really does lack insight into their temporary psychological states and that the external observers’ observations accurately captured this; and the second is that the observer was wrong because they only had access to a limited slice of audio that simply might not be enough to accurately gauge the subject’s state at that moment (remember, the raters had no visual information to go on – no body language, facial expressions, or anything else). 

So when it comes to Agreeableness and that rather flat line – meaning little agreement between subjects and observers – the authors argue that “it is plausible that people have less self-insight into their momentary agreeableness,” because Agreeableness has so much more to do with external, observable behaviours, and with other people’s perceptions of your warmth, than with internal “thoughts and feelings” (meaning that other people might naturally be better judges of this personality state). Neuroticism, on the other hand, is different – it’s a state much more characterised by internal feelings than by outward behaviour. So in that case, Sun and Vazire argue that their findings alone shouldn’t be seen as supporting the idea that people are bad at self-rating their present level of Neuroticism – rather, it’s more likely the audio just didn’t give the observers enough to go on.

As is probably clear, this is a complicated topic, and it seems likely that people are much better at understanding their present personality states in some ways than others. Sun and Vazire’s study was quite ambitious, and it offers a useful path forward for researchers hoping to learn more about an important issue. In the meantime, their general takeaway? “Our findings show that we can probably trust what people say about their momentary levels of extraversion, conscientiousness, and likely neuroticism. However, our findings also call into question people’s awareness of when they are being considerate versus rude.” Useful information – and probably not a surprise to anyone who has dealt with a bullying coworker who doesn’t seem to understand the impression he’s making on his colleagues.

Do People Know What They’re Like in the Moment? [This paper is a preprint and the final peer-reviewed version may differ from the version that this report was based on]

Post written by Jesse Singal (@JesseSingal) for the BPS Research Digest. Jesse is a contributing writer at New York Magazine. He is working on a book about why shoddy behavioral-science claims sometimes go viral, for Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

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