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Self-perception and reality usually line up when it comes to judging our own personality: U of T research

Brian Connelly is an associate professor in U of T Scarborough’s department of management.(photo by Don Campbell)

When it comes to self-assessment, new University of Toronto research suggests that we have a pretty good handle on our own personalities after all. 

“It’s widely assumed that people have rose-coloured glasses on when they consider their own personality,” says Brian Connelly, an associate professor in U of T Scarborough’s department of management and the Rotman School of Management.

“We found that isn’t necessarily the case, that on average people don’t show any trend in rating themselves more favourably than they’re rated by their peers.”

Self-report questionnaires are the most commonly used personality assessment. There have, however, been long-standing concerns that the results are biased – that there is “self-enhancement,” where people rate themselves more favourably.

For this research, Connelly and his colleagues did a large-scale meta-analysis of 160 independent studies to see whether self-enhancement exists in personality assessments. 

They found strong support that self-reporting is accurate, and those findings held across the big five personality traits: openness to experience, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness and neuroticism. 

In other words, a good majority of the time our perception of our own personality matches that of our peers.

“We make personality judgments of ourselves and others all the time, and a popular notion is that self-reports are more positively biased … but we find little support for that in the literature,” he says. 

As for why people generally don’t self-enhance, Connelly says it may come down to there being strong incentives to be aware of what other people think of us. This is especially true given that personality has been shown to be a strong predictor of success in life.

“People are generally attuned to the impressions they convey,” says Connelly, pointing to past research showing how distressing it can be when someone close sees you differently that you see yourself. 

“Some people may stray toward self-enhancement, or in the opposite direction with self-effacement, but there are social costs associated with both that makes the general trend for people to be accurate.”

Having a good handle on self- and peer-perception of personality is important in understanding how people function, says Connelly. While much of his research deals with how people function at work and in school, he says these perceptions can help us better navigate all social situations.

The one important exception in their findings involves self-perception versus the perception of strangers.

“There’s only a small pool of studies that look at this effect,” says Connelly, who is an expert on how organizations can best use personality measures to address workplace challenges.

“It suggests that people are much more critical of those they’re unacquainted with,” he says, adding that the effect didn’t hold with co-workers, only those who are complete strangers.

Connelly plans to explore what accounts for individual differences in self-enhancement, particularly the things that people tend to overestimate about their behaviour at work.

“It’s important to know if self-enhancers perform worse on the job or have more trouble in school,” he says.

“It could be they don’t internalize negative information about themselves or even totally forget about it altogether, both of which could have negative outcomes.” 

The research, which received funding from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC), is published in the journal Psychological Science.