People Don’t Know When They’re Being Jerks

June 21, 2019

How well do you know yourself? New research suggests that people are pretty good at knowing how they behave, with one exception: whether or not they’re jerks.

According to a study published on PsyArXiv, a psychology preprint server, people are more accurate at all times about whether their behavior is outgoing or shy. They were also good at judging whether their behavior was serious and reliable or rather sloppy. But people weren’t so good at gauging whether they were rude.

“There may be some biases that keep people from recognizing their own consenting or disagreeing behavior,” says study co-author Jesse Sun, a graduate student in psychology at the University of California-Davis.

Know yourself.
Sun told Live Science that most previous research on how well people understand themselves has looked at long-term personality traits. But Sun and her graduate advisor, Simine Vazire of the University of California, Davis, wanted to explore the extent to which people understand their behavior from one moment to the next.

Finding the answers took hard work and nine years of work. The researchers asked college students to spend time wearing a tape recorder that would automatically activate every 9.5 minutes between 7 a.m. and 2 a.m. to record 30 seconds of audio each. These participants then received four email or text message surveys a day asking them to recall how outgoing, agreeable, serious or neurotic (a measure of their level of worry) they had been during a particular hour of the day.

While researchers collected data from more than 400 participants over several years, the current study used data from 248 participants, all of whom answered questions about their day-by-day characteristics over a two-week period and wore an audio device during one of those weeks.Sun said it took five years just to transcribe the audio and have an outside observer rate the behavior of the first year’s data.

The limits of self-awareness
Six lab assistants rated each participant’s audio clips to see how their observations compared to people’s self-awareness. The six raters were generally consistent about how the people they observed behaved: 93% of the change in extraversion ratings, 76% of the change in conscientiousness ratings, 73% of the change in neuroticism ratings, and 62% of the change in agreeableness ratings were due to real change, rather than differences between raters or other statistical noise.

Participants’ ratings of their own behavior, in terms of extraversion, or how extroverted they are, and in terms of conscientiousness, or how reliable and responsible they are, are consistent with those of external observers.

However, for neuroticism and agreeableness, participants were much less consistent with the external observer.

Some of this may be because the external observers only had audio, and they couldn’t read cues such as body language, Sun said. But there may be some other reasons to consider, she said. Neuroticism is not necessarily an obvious trait – a person can be anxious and worried on the inside and not show it on the outside. Thus, she and Wazir suspect that the participants accurately assessed their own level of neuroticism, but that the trait was invisible to an outside observer.

Agreeableness, on the other hand, is not so hidden.

“People should be able to hear when a participant is being kind and rude,” Sun says. The weaker alignment between how participants perceive themselves to be behaving and what observers hear may be because people get defensive about whether they’re jerks and would rather deny it. On the other hand, Sun says, errors go both ways. Some participants perceive them to be rude, while observers perceive them to be kind and polite. These may be particularly likeable types of people who can’t hold themselves to high standards in their daily interactions, Sun suggests.

Awareness and Reflection
It could be interesting in the future to find out what kinds of mistakes people make on their sense of self, Sun says. The findings are also important for psychology researchers, who often rely on self-reports in their studies.

“We can trust these measures of extraversion and conscientiousness, and maybe neuroticism,” she says, “but maybe not consensuality.”

Another question, Sun says, is whether people can be prompted to recognize and perhaps reflect on their behavior from moment to moment, moment to moment. If you’ve acted like a jerk, she says, it’s usually useful to recognize your mistakes quickly so you can make an apology. That’s why it’s important to understand a person’s short-term behavior – not just their overall personality, she says.

“It’s a much more useful form of self-awareness than knowing that, generally speaking, you’re an asshole,” Sun says.