5 Tips for Reading People More Accurately

Mistakes to avoid when reading other people.

See which of these common errors you make so you can begin to read people more accurately.

1.  What causes others’ behavior?  Situations or personality?

When we see a snapshot of someone’s behavior we often jump to the conclusion that they’re acting based on their personality.  In contrast, when we think about our own behavior, we often think about situational causes.

For example, you know you acted aloof because you were flustered or anxious. However, you may assume that if someone you’ve just met acts that way it’s because they’re a jerk.

How to avoid this mistake:  Remind yourself to think about both situational causes and personality when you’re assessing others.

2. Confirmation bias.

Once we’ve developed an idea about someone, we typically see everything through the filter of those already formed thoughts.  For example, once you decide your sister’s new boyfriend is selfish, you notice behaviors that are consistent with that view and are less likely to notice things he does that aren’t consistent with being selfish.

Our initial impressions of someone are often quite accurate, but they’re not foolproof, and therefore it’s important to consider revising your initial judgments based on your further interactions with that person.

How to avoid this mistake:  Actively look out for evidence and examples that run counter to your assumptions.  In psychology, this is termed “disconfirming evidence.”

3. Are you falling into an attractiveness or similarity bias?

People tend to judge others more positively when they’re physically attractive.  We also tend to judge people who are similar to us more favorably than people who seem different.

Ask yourself if you’re judging someone more/less positively based on their physical attractiveness or the extent to which you have things in common with that person (such as shared background or subcultural appearance cues, like having a beard or tattoos vs. appeared straight-laced and non-hipsterish.)

How to avoid this mistake:  Look out for this bias in important situations like if you’re hiring someone for a job, or when you’re entering a new situation and might gravitate towards people who are outwardly similar to you.

4. Are your judgments being influenced by the recent or distant past?

For example, if you’ve recently had a poor experience with a “useless” customer service person, then you might be more likely to assume that the next customer service person is going to be equally unhelpful.

Likewise, sometimes people who cross our paths remind us of someone from our past, and this can influence our judgments of the new person.  For example, you go on a date with someone who shares some type of physical feature or mannerism with one of your parents. Or, you hated a boy called Trevor at elementary school and now you find it difficult to like anyone called Trevor.

How to avoid this mistake: Pay attention to when your reactions seem out of proportion to the trigger, or when you find yourself heading into a situation with a defensive or negative attitude. Ask yourself whether you’re carrying any emotional baggage from the recent or distant past that’s influencing your emotions.

5. Assumed Similarity. 

As a generalization, we tend to assume other people think like us and have the same preferences. For example, if you love beach vacations, you probably assume that everyone else does too. If you think that team-building exercises are a waste of time, you probably think that most other people share that view.  If you need a clean office to be productive, you probably think everyone else does as well.

How to avoid this mistake: Make a habit of noticing the diversity in people’s expectations and preferences.  Give people an opportunity to let you know if their comfort zone doesn’t match up with your’s e.g., when suggesting a dinner location, offer a choice between Thai food and something else, rather than just saying “Do you like Thai food?”

-Alice Boyes, PhD. PsychologyToday.com

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