This might explain why certain people get under your skin.
“We do not see things as they are, we see them as we are,” Anaïs Nin famously wrote.
Psychological research aligns well with this idea, especially when it comes to social judgment. The way we evaluate others is not just a function of their objective characteristics; it’s also a reflection of our vantage point, which is shaped by our life experiences, goals, and values, as well as our hidden desires and fears. The things we criticize and praise most in others tells us not only about them, but about us, sometimes in surprising ways.
Here are five research findings that shed light on the connection between social judgment and the self.
1. If you tend to see people through rose-colored glasses…
…you might be high in agreeableness, a personality trait characterized by warmth, kindness, and empathy. Perhaps not surprisingly, agreeable people are more likely to view others positively, focusing on their good qualities and giving them the benefit of the doubt when they behave badly.
But researchers have recently challenged what they call the “Pollyanna myth,” the idea that agreeable people are blinded by their positive outlook. In fact, agreeable people have no trouble recognizing and disapproving of harmful behavior, especially when it involves communal transgressions such as selfishness or coldness. They’re just less likely to show it.
Striving to see the best in people is a quality with plenty of benefits. It’s probably one reason why agreeable people tend to be happier in their relationships and more satisfied with life. But researchers caution that a rosy perceptive can have downsides too, like reluctance to voice concerns about problem behavior for fear of hurting someone, or stress resulting from the disconnect between private feelings and public expression. If you identify with this situation, it’s worth considering that true kindness sometimes requires behaving in ways that don’t seem kind on their surface but that are ultimately better for others—and for you.
2. If you can’t stand narcissists…
…you’re less likely to be narcissistic yourself. But if narcissists don’t really bother you, you’re more likely to have narcissistic characteristics.
In one study, participants who scored higher on the Narcissistic Personality Inventory were less critical than low-scorers of Facebook profiles that displayed narcissistic tendencies, such as frequent status updates and posts like “I love me some me” and “If I ran this place things would go much smoother.” Instead, narcissistic participants were more critical of profiles that displayed modesty and humility, characterized by less frequent status updates and posts expressing self-doubts.
One interpretation of these findings comes from research suggesting that we tend to like people who are similar to us. Narcissists, who appear to have some awareness of their own narcissism, may view other narcissists as “kindred spirits,” the researchers say, or may respect their dominant personalities. However, if the fellow narcissist represents a threat or source of competition, that might be a different story.
3. If you judge someone’s personality based on a single behavior…
…you’re more likely to have an independent model of the self, which emphasizes autonomy and internal motivation. By contrast, people who don’t link behavior and personality as strongly are more likely to have an interdependent model of the self, which emphasizes social roles and context.
In a study demonstrating this distinction, participants were shown a series of faces and associated behaviors (e.g., this person checks the fire alarm every night). Participants who were classified as having an independent model of the self were faster to associate trait-related words (e.g., “cautious” or “neurotic”) with the corresponding faces, compared to those in the interdependent group. The assumption was that the independent group was more likely to account for situational constraints when interpreting the behavior—for example, maybe the person who checked the alarm every night was doing so because of a heightened risk of fires in the area, not because of a personality trait per se.
Researchers have found that independent models of the self are more common in Western cultures, and interdependent models are more common in Eastern cultures, but there is also variation within cultures related to factors such as social class, geographical region, and religion, as well as variation across individuals. Furthermore, many people fall somewhere in the middle, seeing behavior as influenced by both traits and situations. It’s not that one perspective is more valid than the other, but when we tend to lean in one direction, we might be more likely to miss instances where things actually sway in the other.
4. If you irrationally dislike someone…
…it could be because you feel envious or threatened by their success.
There are plenty of reasons why we might not be a fan of someone, but when the level of scorn seems out of proportion to the offending behavior, this tells us there might be something more going on.
Although we might not want to admit it to ourselves, these feelings could stem from resentment of the person’s accomplishments or good fortune. For example, if your coworker wins an award that you had your eye on, you might find that you’re suddenly more aware of—and annoyed by—their negative qualities. According to the self-evaluation maintenance model, people often feel threatened by the success of close others and sometimes respond by distancing themselves from that person or trying to bring them down—if not literally, then at least in their minds.
But it’s not just close others whose success can feel threatening. Celebrities are often the target of inexplicable hostility, like when Anne Hathaway inspired a movement of “hathahaters” after delivering an overly enthusiastic Oscars acceptance speech (among other perceived missteps). In addition, studies show that people are more likely to negatively evaluate successful outgroup members when their own self-esteem is threatened, and the mere act of giving a negative evaluation can temporarily boost self-esteem.
For alternative ways of coping with envy, try these strategies instead.
5. If you’re critical of someone who has a different lifestyle than yours…
…it might indicate that you have underlying doubts about your own lifestyle.
We all want to feel good about where we are in life. So when we see someone thriving in a different situation, it can create an uncomfortable feeling of cognitive dissonance. One way our minds cope with this feeling is through a process called normative idealization, which involves viewing our own status as the ideal for all people and viewing those who don’t conform to the ideal in a more negative light.
One study found that people tend to idealize their own relationship status particularly when they view that status as more enduring (e.g., a committed long-term relationship). For example, participants in long-term relationships were more likely to agree at least somewhat that coupled individuals are “generally more valuable members of society” and “generally have more meaningful, fulfilling lives.”
The researchers also found that normative idealization can impact behavior. When coupled participants were randomly assigned to read a description of a hypothetical mayoral candidate who was either single or in a relationship (the two descriptions were otherwise identical and included both strengths and weaknesses), participants were substantially more likely to vote for the candidate in a relationship.
Single participants also showed evidence of normative idealization in some of the studies, but the researchers noted that because couplehood is idealized at a cultural level, single people are more likely to face discrimination as a result.
There’s nothing wrong with celebrating our lives, but when celebrating turns into looking down on others, it suggests that we’re not being totally honest with ourselves in some way. Often it’s simply that we’re struggling to acknowledge (inevitable) trade-offs and could benefit from embracing the reality that all paths have their ups and downs, and that people differ in what works best for them personally. But sometimes over-idealization indicates the presence of serious doubts that deserve closer attention, such as those that might arise when someone feels stuck in a toxic relationship.
These are just a handful of the many ways social judgments are shaped by individual characteristics. Gaining insight into these connections can not only give us greater self-awareness, but can also help us spot potential biases and adjust our judgments accordingly. We might be more likely to give people the benefit of the doubt when they deserve it, but also, as in the case of agreeableness, to give ourselves the benefit of the doubt when we have legitimate concerns.
Kammrath, L. K., & Scholer, A. A. (2011). The Pollyanna Myth: How highly agreeable people judge positive and negative relational acts. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 37(9), 1172–1184.
Laurin, K., Kille, D. R., & Eibach, R. P. (2013). “The way I am is the way you ought to be”: Perceiving one’s relational status as unchangeable motivates normative idealization of that status. Psychological Science, 24(8), 1523–1532.
Na, J., & Kitayama, S. (2011). Spontaneous trait inference is culture-specific: Behavioral and neural evidence. Psychological Science, 22(8), 1025–1032.
Tesser, A. (1988). Toward a self-evaluation maintenance model of social behavior. In L. Berkowitz (Ed.), Advances in experimental social psychology, Vol. 21. Social psychological studies of the self: Perspectives and programs (p. 181–227). Academic Press.