You Are How Others See You…

June 17, 2012 by Ken Nowack

“Be more concerned with your character than your reputation, because your character is what you really are, while your reputation is merely what others think you are. “
John Wooden

Psychologist Robert Hogan and others have written extensively about the difference between identity (how we view ourselves) and our reputation (the impression others have of us). Sometimes they merge and other times we find people with the “no clue” gene. With my colleague Dr. Sandra Mashihi, we have even written a book called Clueless: Coaching People Who Just Don’t Get it to describe some ways to help these individuals become more effective at work and in life1.

What Do Others See When they Evaluate Us?

New data from Susan Fiske and colleagues (2007) from Princeton University suggest that within 1/5th of a second when we interact with others we make a determination of that individual being either a “friend” or “foe.” This recognition has an evolutionary advantage that confers survival but has implications for interpersonal interactions with others.

Fiske and her colleagues confirm these two universal dimensions of social cognition: warmth and competence. Their data suggests that people perceived by others as warm and competent elicit uniformly positive emotions and behavior, whereas those perceived as lacking warmth/empathy and competence elicit uniform negativity (e.g., those low in social and emotional competence).

People classified as high on one dimension and low on the other elicit predictable, ambivalent affective and behavioral reactions.2. At the end of the day, we basically size up others on these two major personality traits (Agreeableness and Conscientiousness).

Their findings suggest that our reputation might be weighted not by our intellectual capability, successes or character but more by our level of emotional intelligence and achievement orientation.

Are We Tuned into Our Reputation?

Just how accurate are most people in judging how others really see us? Is this a way of evaluating emotional competence and the self-insight or self-awareness cluster of traits?

Carlson and her research team wanted to determine to what extent the perceptions of people who are full of themselves varies based on how they view themselves, how they are seen by others, and how they believe others see them.

One experiment looked at 110 college students (41 men, 69 women) who worked in small groups once a week throughout a semester. During the first and last week they met, each group rated its members on 10 personality traits and classmates also completed self-evaluation forms called the Narcissistic Personality Inventory. This assessment asks people to agree or disagree with such paired statements as “I am a born leader” or “Leadership is a quality that takes a long time to develop” and “Sometimes I tell good stories” or “Everybody likes to hear my stories.”

The students acknowledged that those people would indeed see them as self-absorbed and probably annoying. But they also believed that their close friends continued to see them as funny, smart and successful. In fact, those friends — while they might once have had those impressions — no longer did.

A second experiment included 274 Air Force recruits (154 men, 120 women) who had spent six weeks together in basic training. These study participants knew each other and Carlson and colleagues used a more exhaustive 101-question survey that measured narcissism.

The recruits who ranked highest in narcissism made favorable initial impressions and also rated themselves high. But by the end of the training, they had lost a lot of their appeal in the eyes of others, and they knew that too.

They reported that their classmates saw them as more arrogant, more difficult to deal with and more inclined to exaggerate their skills. However, their high opinion of themselves didn’t change — even as others’ opinion of them did.

These results suggest that indeed, people seem to have some genuine insight into their reputation and how they come across to others but aren’t apparently motivated or able to change3.

Friedrich Nietzsche once said, “It is easier to cope with a bad conscience than with a bad reputation.” Just tell that to someone who is a narcissist–they will apparently understand it, agree with it but in the end they still behave the same….Be well…

  1. Mashihi, S. & Nowack, K. (2011). Clueless: Coaching People Who Just Don’t Get it. Envisia Learning, Santa Monica, CA []
  2. Fiske, S. (2007). Universal dimensions of social cognition: Warmth and competence. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 11, 77-83 []
  3. Carlson, E. et al. (2011). You probably think this paper’s about you: Narcissists’ perceptions of their personality and reputation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 101, 185-201 []

Kenneth Nowack, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist (PSY13758) and President & Chief Research Officer/Co-Founder of Envisia Learning, is a member of the Consortium for Research on Emotional Intelligence in Organizations. Ken also serves as the Associate Editor of Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research. His recent book Clueless: Coaching People Who Just Don’t Get It is available for free for a limited time by signing up for free blog updates (Learn more at our website)

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