Character  &  Context

Who Knows the Impressions One Conveys?

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By Peter Borkenau

People hold beliefs about how others perceive them. For example, whether people see them as attractive, intelligent, and polite. These beliefs may or may not accurately reflect the impression that the person actually conveys, called meta-accuracy.

But why does meta-accuracy occur? It may either reflect that people actually know how others see them, or it may reflect that people project their self-view onto others, presuming that others perceive them as they perceive themselves (Kenny & DePaulo, 1993). Since people’s ratings of their own personalities are generally similar to other’s ratings of their personalities (Connelly & Ones, 2010), such projection should result in meta-accuracy too.

But if we know how people see their own personalities and how others see them, we can separate projection from actual knowledge of others’ perceptions. Doing so, Carlson, Vazire, and Furr (2011) found that impressions by others predicted meta-perceptions even if self-perceptions were controlled. They called this phenomenon meta-insight. Meta-insight implies that people are aware of differences between their self-perceptions and the impressions they convey. Nevertheless, self-perception seems to have a unique influence on meta-perceptions, implying that both projection and meta-insight are operating (Carlson et al., 2011).

Even though projection and meta-insight can lead to meta-accuracy, not everyone gets it right. In fact, people vary in how accurately they can guess what others think of them. In a study published in the July 2016 issue of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, we (Alice Mosch and Peter Borkenau) studied individual differences in meta-accuracy in a German sample. We focused on the effects of psychological adjustment on meta-accuracy because the relation between adjustment and accuracy is contentious: According to Taylor and Brown (1988), normal, healthy adults are not completely accurate. Instead, they are said to hold unrealistically positive views of themselves. Taylor and Brown (1988) did not address meta-accuracy, but their hypothesis makes it plausible that psychologically adjusted persons project their too favorable self-views onto others, whereas their meta-insight is reduced. In contrast, other authors (Allport, 1961; Colvin & Block, 1994) suggested that psychologically adjusted persons are more accurate, which suggests that they are also more aware of how they are perceived by others.

Fifty-two groups of four mutually acquainted students participated in our study. They described themselves and each other member of their group on a 30-item measure of the Big Five factors of personality. Moreover, they indicated how they assumed to be described by those other persons, using the same 30 items. Furthermore, to measure aspects of psychological adjustment, the participants filled in a multidimensional measure of self-esteem, and to measure personality disorder symptoms they filled in the 117-item screening questionnaire for the Structured Clinical Interview for DSM-IV, Axis II (SCID-II; American Psychiatric Association, 1994). Finally, the participants were asked how long they knew the other members of their group, how well they knew and liked them, and how well they assumed to be known and liked by them.

Using these measures, we were able to estimate projection and meta-insight for each pair of acquaintances in each group. Averaged across dyads, projection and meta-insight were both operating, just as in the previous study. But we also found a lot of differences in how much projection and meta-accuracy people engaged in.

We were interested in whether these differences could be explained by psychological adjustment. Do psychologically adjusted people project their exaggeratedly positive self-image onto others? Yes. The psychologically more adjusted persons projected more and showed less meta-insight: They were more inclined to believe that others perceived them as they perceived themselves, and they were less aware of the differences between their self-views and the impressions that they actually conveyed.

We also found that acquaintance raised projection: The longer the participants knew another person, and the more they assumed that that person knew them, the more they were convinced that that person perceived them as they perceived themselves.

But why do psychologically adjusted persons show more projection and less meta-insight? The direction of these effects may go two ways: First, adjustment may strengthen projection because feeling better is associated with a more “big picture” thinking style, called holistic processing (Bolte, Goschke, & Kuhl, 2003). Thus lack of distinction between self-perception and conveyed impression may be a result of holistic processing. Second, feeling that one’s self-view is inconsistent with the actual impression one conveys may result in feelings of alienation, low self-esteem, and in personality pathology. These issues are to be clarified by future research.

Peter Borkenau is Professor of Psychology at Martin-Luther University Halle-Wittenberg in Germany. He received his PhD in psychology from Heidelberg University (Germany) in 1982 and published more than 70 articles in international journals. For more information you can check out:


Allport, G. W. (1961). Pattern and growth in personality. New York, NY: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.

American Psychiatric Association. (1994). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (4th ed.). Washington, DC: Author.

Bolte, A., Goschke, T., & Kuhl, J. (2003). Emotions and intuition: Effects of positive and negative mood on implicit judgments of semantic coherence. Psychological Science, 14, 416-422. doi:10.1111/1467-9280.01456

Carlson, E. N., Vazire, S., & Furr, R. M. (2011). Meta-insight: Do people really know how others see them? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 101, 831-846. doi:10.1037/a0024297

Colvin, C. R., & Block, J. (1994). Do positive illusions foster mental health? An examination of the Taylor and Brown formulation. Psychological Bulletin, 116, 3-20. doi:10.1037/

Connelly, B. S., & Ones, D. S. (2010). An other perspective on personality: Meta-analytic integration of observers’ accuracy and predictive validity. Psychological Bulletin, 136, 1092-1122. doi:10.1037/a0021212

Kenny, D. A., & DePaulo, B. M. (1993). Do people know how others view them? An empirical and theoretical account. Psychological Bulletin, 114, 145-161. doi:10.1037//0033-2909.114.1.145

Mosch, A. & Borkenau, P. (2016). Psychologically adjusted persons are less aware of how they are perceived by others. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 42, 910-922. doi: 10.1177/0146167216647383

Taylor, S. E., & Brown, J. D. (1988). Illusion and well-being: A social-psychological perspective on mental health. Psychological Bulletin, 103, 193-210. doi:10.1037/0033-2909.103.2.193

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