how your agreeableness makes you a bad judge of character

Girls are often raised to value cooperativeness and agreeableness while boys are frequently expected to be more competive and self-interested

Girls are often raised to value cooperativeness and agreeableness while boys are frequently expected to be more competive and self-interested

People habitually make assessments of other people based on very little evidence. Even in situations where two people have never met, or have met for the first time, we make judgements about the personalities of others based largely on what we know about ourselves. These judgements are often inaccurate when the other person is a stranger to us, because we rely on our own agreeableness and experience of how we would behave to assess others.

This assumption that others are like us (‘assumed similarity’) and that they would have opinions and beliefs like us (‘false-consensus’) are pervasive cognitive mechanisms. The degree to which people are likely to assess another as like themselves varies depending on gender, socioeconomic status and experience.

Agreeableness is a robust concept on which to rely for measuring perceptions of others. Agreeable people tend to be cooperative, generous, interested in others and trusting. Graziano and Tobin (2002) tested the concept of Agreeableness for self-bias and found that it was resistant in testing to bias. It can be expected that a perceivers score on Agreeableness will correlate well with their tendency to rate targets highly on prosocial and agreeable traits. In other words, the more agreeable and nice you are, the worse you are at assessing a persons character on first meeting them.

Beer & Watson (2008) studied the extent to which their 218 participants accurately assessed the personality traits of others at zero acquaintance. They used those assessments to examine the extent to which the traits of the observer correlated with their perceptions: the amount of perceived similarity of strangers. Their research made the assumption that, in situations where participants were unacquainted with their targets, a self-based heuristic would be employed. They found that participants were most accurate at assessing Extraversion, and speculated this was because of it’s high visibility in behaviour. However, their assessments of the other Big Five personality traits (Neuroticism, Agreeableness, Conscientiousness and Openness) were less accurate, but more closely correlated with the traits of the perceiver. In other words, in the absence of visual cues, participants used themselves as the yardstick from which to assess others. Importantly for this research, they point to the inter-relationship of Agreeableness and Conscientiousness (Digman 1997, Markon Krueger & Watson 2005 cited in Beer & Watson (2008), indicating the existence of an implicit personality schema in the perceiver that correlates higher levels of those factors where one or the other is noted, much in the same way that attractive persons are commonly rated as more kind, honest or intelligent.

The assessment of the personality of others can have important repercussions for understanding behaviour. Wood, Harms & Vazire (2010) also examined the extent to which perceivers assessed targets with reference to their own characteristics. A sample of 165 students were asked to rate five friends and five strangers on a 40 item inventory, including a Big Five element as well as other inventories that might indicate narcissism or depression (expected to affect their perceptions of others). Female gender and perceiver scores of agreeableness, openness and conscientiousness were positively correlated with their perceptions of targets in this study.

So what can you do about this bias if you are an agreeable person? In a dating situation or where you need to trust someone, it is best to suspend trust until you know them better. People need to prove they are worthy of trust by reliably acting in a trustworthy manner. You can only know if someone is trustworthy by repeated contact with them, so give it some time and you will find out. Do you they reliably turn up for dates and appointments on time? Do they refrain from talking about others in a negative way? Are they free in sharing information about their personal lives, without being excessive? Do they complete work in a conscientious manner or with the minimum of effort? Are they involved in community service or caring professions? Have you ever had to rely upon them for work or any other matter? Bear in mind that as an agreeable person, you do have this “rose coloured glasses” cognitive bias and take that into consideration. It’s not a bad thing to be agreeable, but you must use it wisely.

How agreeable are you? Take the Big Five test and find out.


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