Most people won’t admit it, but we size up other people’s characters all the time. In fact, research suggests that it takes just 30 seconds to make up our minds about someone’s intelligence and personality (we make other assessments even faster) and that these evaluations are surprisingly accurate.
In one study, researchers showed participants short videos of different couples interacting, and participants were able to detect which individuals had cheated on their partners. Likewise, observers watching videos of randomly selected speed daters were able to infer participants’ level of romantic interest. Even when the people being evaluated are children, observers can infer their character with a similar degree of accuracy than the children’s parents do. So the idea that you can’t judge a book by its cover is inconsistent with the evidence: People, it seems, are fairly transparent and we can see through them pretty easily and accurately.
That said, not everyone is equally competent at judging others’ character. Like any other talent, the ability to read other people is what researchers would call “normally distributed” in the overall population, which means that most people are average, some people are really good, and others are totally clueless.
And although people who are good at this are generally aware of it, too many people in the average and clueless groups think they are good at it, too–a circumstance that’s consistent with the finding that most people overestimate their social skills, especially when they’re really poor. So how then can you work out whether you’re as good a judge of character as you think you are? Here are three key factors to consider.
Contrary to what many people think, emotional intelligence (EQ) is a personality trait. And people who have more of it tend to be cool-headed, optimistic, and altruistic. They worry less and are generally less disrupted by stress. The essence of EQ is being more agreeable, emotionally stable, and extroverted, and people with these characteristics tend to be better at examining other people’s characters–perhaps because they’re less focused on themselves.
Conversely, no matter how insightful and observant people with lower EQ may be, they have a tendency to pay less attention to the people they interact with, especially in stressful situations. It’s also worth noting that lower emotional intelligence tends to enhance the negative feelings we experience during social interactions, further hindering character judgments.
When it comes to evaluating others, the ultimate measure of accuracy isn’t whether the person you evaluate agrees with your assessment of them but whether it predicts their future performance. This makes sense. It’s often said that we are what we repeatedly do, so when you grasp somebody’s essence, you’re more likely to know how they’ll behave in the future.
Our brains intuitively create implicit models of personality to predict people’s behaviors, but not all brains are equally effective at this type of model building. And not all people are equally predictable.
Think about the people you know best–your partner, your close relatives, your best friends–no doubt they’re pretty predictable to you. You can work out when they’re going to show up late, when they’ll be interested in something, and how they’ll respond when you ask them something important. The proof that you know them is that you can predict them.
So you can apply this same rule to your evaluations of others–work colleagues, distant friends, and even social media contacts you may know less well. If you’re an accurate forecaster of those folks’ behaviors, too, you’re more likely to be a good judge of character overall.
Ultimately, our characters exist in the public domain–they’re the basis of our reputations. We’re generally all hired, fired, married, and promoted according to what other people think of us, and how much other people trust depends on their perceptions of what we do and who we are, rather than what we actually do.
This is why aggregate character evaluations–consensual ratings, by a group of people–are the most powerful predictor of what we will do in the future (as opposed to one-off assessments by individuals). If the most advanced knowledge you can have on somebody is to predict what they’ll do, then the average opinion that everybody has on us may better reflect who we are than our own opinion does. Or as David Bowie once put it, “I guess I am what the greatest number of people think I am.”
So one way to evaluate whether you’re a good judge of character is to see if you can infer what most people think of someone. For instance, you may introduce a new acquaintance to your group of friends and try to predict how well they’ll like them–or, while you’re at it, try and predict the results of political elections or forecast the arc of a celebrity’s reputation.
Needless to say, each of these factors also apply to others when they’re trying to understand you. There are clearly instances where this can hurt our own interests, for instance when we’re trying to conceal our intentions or influence people. Still, more often than not we benefit from letting others know who we are, what we want, and what we stand for.
And when we aren’t sure, others may be able to tell us.