More Than a Glance: Understanding Others Better by Paying More Attention to Them
When we meet someone for the first time, we often find ourselves trying to understand their personality—how kind, reliable, or smart they are, for example. Being able to grasp someone’s personality correctly is very important, helping us make decisions about who to befriend, date, or hire—and who to avoid. However, figuring out what other people are like is often difficult, and a single glance is rarely sufficient. Are there strategies we can use to enhance our success at understanding other people?
One approach might be to start paying closer attention to others—to simply look at them more. Visual attention is essential to understanding our surroundings. By looking carefully around us, we can notice important details and events that we might otherwise overlook. This is as true in the social world as it is when we look at our physical surroundings. When dealing with other people, attention helps us perceive many important nonverbal cues about their behaviors, intentions, and feelings. Thus, we suspected that simply paying more attention to other people might enhance people’s ability to form more accurate impressions of others’ personalities.
To test our idea, we asked research participants to form impressions of the personalities of individuals they did not know by watching a brief video-recorded interview of them. We assessed participants’ attention using eye-tracking equipment that allowed us to measure the movement of participants’ eyes. So, this procedure allowed us to know where the participants were looking in the video at every point in time. For example, we could tell when they were looking at the interviewee’s eyes, mouth, or body, or at other objects in the room.
We measured the accuracy of participants’ personality impressions by comparing their ratings of the other person on a personality questionnaire with the answers that the interviewee and their friends gave on that same questionnaire. The more similar the participant’s ratings of the other person were to how the person and their friends had rated them, the more accurate their personality impressions.
Does looking more at a person help us to form a more accurate impression of their personality? Our results confirmed this intuition: the more that participants looked at the interviewees, the more accurate the impression of their personalities. Interestingly, it did not matter where the participant looked: paying more attention to any part of the person—their eyes, mouth, or torso—contributed to greater accuracy. Thus, paying more attention to a person generally helps us understand their personality better.
Importantly, this improvement in accuracy did not depend on the degree to which interviewees naturally expressed their personalities. Some people are ‘easy to read’ in the sense that they express their personality by conveying clear cues about themselves, while other peole are harder to read. To test whether these differences affected the benefit of paying attention in forming accurate impressions, we divided the interviewees into two groups: a group of interviewees who were ‘easy to read’ and a group of interviewees who were ‘hard to read’.
Interestingly, we found a few differences in how participants looked at easy-to-read versus harder-to-read interviewees. For example, participants looked more at interviewees who were easy-to-read, especially at their eyes. This may happen because we often perceive people who are easier to read as more engaging, so we tend to pay more attention to them.
However, these differences did not affect the accuracy of participants’ impressions of their personalities. Looking more at interviewees improved accuracy whether the interviewees were easy or hard to read. Paying more attention to a person improves our ability to understand their personality regardless of their ability to express themselves.
So, the more we pay attention to other people, the better we can understand their personality. Therefore, when a glance is not sufficient to understand the personality of someone, start paying more attention to them.
For Further Reading
Capozzi F., Ristic J. (2018). How attention gates social interactions. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1426, 179-198, DOI: 10.1111/nyas.13854
Human L., Biesanz J. (2013) Targeting the good target: An integrative review of the characteristics and consequences of being accurately perceived. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 17, 248-272. DOI: 10.1177/1088868313495593
Francesca Capozzi is a postdoctoral fellow at McGill University. Her research focuses on social attention and nonverbal communication during social interactions.
Lauren Human is an Assistant Professor and Canada Research Chair in Social Perception and Expression in the Department of Psychology at McGill University. Her research focuses on the causes and consequences of accurate interpersonal impressions.
Jelena Ristic is an Associate Professor and William Dawson Scholar in the Department of Psychology at McGill University. Her research focuses on understanding the role of attention in human social behavior.