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How good are you at reading others?

IbyIMD+ Published 25 March 2022 in Magazine • 6 min read

We tend to overestimate our ability to judge others, but the latest assessment tests can measure our perceptions more accurately than ever before.

Have you ever reflected how you pick up information from observing and listening to others? We come to quick and often correct judgments about other people. For example, most of us can correctly pick out the extroverts during a regular team meeting or group lunch, because we implicitly know that they tend to talk a lot and express emotion easily in their faces and gestures. Or imagine a situation where you are trying to convince someone of your point of view. At a board meeting for instance, you might be able to tell if certain members or investors like what you’re pitching even before they have spoken. This gives you crucial time to clarify or even pivot the presentation before they come to a decision. This is impressive since you probably have had no formal training on the subject.  

But before we all call ourselves nonverbal communication experts, it is worth knowing that some of us are better than others and that we tend to overestimate our own social judgment ability. Consequently, wrong interpretations from social interaction are common and can lead to bad decision making. In the example on expressiveness, managers should be mindful of distributing talk time to different team members during meetings. Competent individuals who are less dominant than others may not share important information because others, more dominant but not necessarily more knowledgeable, will just keep on talking.

Test your emotional intelligence: 

In two video sequences without sound, a man and a woman are seen talking to their team leader. Who has the tendency to be more easily upset or emotionally tense?

People often express their behavioral intentions, emotions and personality traits implicitly, and understanding these behaviors is a real asset in the workplace. It is important to assess your workforce’s soft skills from the beginning. Hiring managers are actively looking for clues in candidates’ behaviors, as shown in their preference for in-person interviews, especially for roles that require social or leadership skills (such as being a good observer). They say they can read body language better, despite the cognitive biases involved. In sum, the risk and cost of bad interpersonal judgment in selecting and working with others makes it important to know how accurate a decision-maker is in perceiving others, to either train, select, or get external support from a proficient “social interpreter”.

If you are hearing a familiar bell ringing, you are hearing it right: we are describing the same type of skill as emotion recognition, a subskill of emotional intelligence (EI). Yet social perception ability refers to a more general skill of correctly inferring traits and states from others, or accurately predicting future behavior. Like EI, social perception ability is a skill on which individuals differ and can be trained (leading for example to more positive and egalitarian economic outcomes in negotiations). And like EI, social perception ability predicts successful interactions. Interpersonally accurate leaders have more satisfied subordinates, who feel understood and cared for, creating a higher subjective well-being.  

How do you know if you are actually good at perceiving others?  

This is a tricky question because it is hard to establish what is right or wrong, and we have known for a long time that self-impressions are prone to bias. If we are interested in measuring our actual social perception skill and comparing it to that of others, we need to use behavioral assessment. Traditionally, performance-based tests validated through research in this field focus on emotion recognition ability. Coaches, HR and other practitioners may have trouble implementing tests which are often developed in the lab and stripped of relevant work context. More domain-specific tests are now being developed that have face validity and a clearly applied value. For example, a test has recently been developed that measures emotional intelligence specifically in the workplace. And now there is a new test for measuring social perception accuracy more broadly, using questions from typical workplace interactions.

Social perception ability is a skill on which individuals differ and can be trained

So what does such a test look like? Typically, performance-based social perception tests contain multiple-choice questions on personality, affect, intentions, future social behavior, thoughts, and social attributes (e.g., status) of targets in brief video segments. Objective criteria must be used to establish correct from incorrect responses, and questions have been selected based on responses from large samples of participants. Here are three example topics that can test your social perception ability and have been incorporated into the test.  

  1. First, imagine seeing a group of people coming into a meeting room to discuss a new project. Even after a few seconds watching how people enter the room, take their seats and greet each other, one can tell who the lead is. 
  2. You see a team leader listening to several project ideas from different team members. Based on very early listener’s response, good observers can guess which idea will be accepted. 
  3. You observe two snapshots of a standard negotiation between two job candidates and an HR manager. Interpersonally accurate judges are able to infer which candidate is the most conscientious from their responses to a question. 

A last promising note on this recent trend in developing applied tests is that psychometric studies show their validity in multiple languages. This is exceptional because most earlier tests have been developed or validated only in English and with US samples. In addition, first practical or predictive value is being shown, such as leaders generally scoring higher than non-leaders, indicating that social perception ability predicts leadership. This indicates that social perception ability is measurable and new tools emerging from academic research will soon complement existing assessment batteries to the benefit of business and society. 


Source: Dael, N., Schlegel, K., Weaver, A. E., Ruben, M. A., & Schmid Mast, M. (2022). Validation of a performance measure of broad interpersonal accuracy. Journal of Research in Personality, 97, 104182.

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Nele Dael

Nele Dael

Nele Dael is a senior behavioral scientist studying the expression and perception of emotion, personality, and social skills in organizational contexts. Together with Alyson Meister and E4S partners, she develops the Workplace Wellbeing Initiative with innovative research to understand and foster mental health in the workplace focusing on stress and recovery. Her work has been published in Journal of Personality Research, Psychological Science, Emotion, Perception, Journal of Nonverbal Behavior, and IEEE Transactions on Affective Computing.


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