A research-backed reason not to worry about what your peers think of you

A model is seen reflected in a mirror during a fashion show rehearsal
A model is seen reflected in a mirror during a fashion show rehearsal
Image: Reuters/Eric Thayer
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Can you ever really know what your colleagues think about you? New research suggests there’s a good chance you already do.

In a meta-analysis led by Hyunji Kim, a psychologist at York University in Toronto, researchers from Canada and Australia found that across more than 150 studies in which subjects ranked themselves in personality tests and were rated by peers, the gaps between self- and peer-perceptions were not wide. This wasn’t the case when the subjects of a study were strangers, but it was as true for work colleagues as it was between friends.

We should see the results as good news, says Brian Connelly, a management professor at University of Toronto Scarborough and a co-author of the research, which was published in Psychological Science. “As a general, maybe even evolutionary mechanism, it’s important for us to have some sense of what we’re like and what people around us are like, so we can appropriately anticipate where we will succeed and where we’ll fail,” he explains.

Thanks to the analysis, “[w]e can feel a little bit better knowing that people aren’t running around self-enhancing and sort of running amuck,” Connelly says.

To be sure, this is not the story we’ve been told by social psychologists. For the past 30 or 40 years, several studies using self-reported assessments have consistently detected a bias known as the better-than-average effect, also known as the Lake Wobegon effect or the superiority illusion. If you ask a class of students how many of them believe they’re more intelligent than their peers, 90% of hands will shoot up, says Connelly. It’s one reason people tend to cast doubt on studies that rely on self-reporting.

Naturally, he entered this research expecting most people would believe they’re friendlier or harder working than others, but that’s not what happened. He now speculates that self-enhancement may be more common in studies that look at specific skills, like driving or athletic skills, within special contexts.

Connelly and his co-authors on the paper narrowed their scope of exploration to personality assessments, and specifically the so-called Big Five traits: openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism.

The researchers did find a mismatch between rankings on the openness score, for which people described “how thoughtful and reflective and artistic they are,” he says. They also discovered a slight trend toward self-effacement on questions about negative emotions, like emotional stability or neuroticism. “People describe having more anxiety and more depression than their peers see in them,” says Connelly.

In both cases, the discrepancy may be explained by what we choose to share with others versus how much access we have to our inner worlds and deepest thoughts. Unless someone feels close enough to be especially candid and vulnerable with you, you’ll probably assume they struggle with roughly the same amount of angst or sorrow that you do.

Now Connelly is interested in what happens to those outliers whose view of themselves as particularly agreeable, or pathetically neurotic, is not shared by coworkers. He’s studying a group of managers who have taken personality tests that are being read by colleagues, and he’s tracking students who are spending part of the college term in co-op placements as part of their studies. He hopes to find out whether people with misaligned perceptions will have more or less success at school and at work.

For now we can take solace that our chances of going to work and encountering a character like Michael Scott (the infamously delusional manager on the television show The Office) are rare.