There’s no question but what we develop our identity based partially on our self-perception. But can we really trust our own self-perception? Do we accurately know what we did and said? I love telling stories to my grandkids about our family. More than often than not, at least one of my daughters will very quickly say, “that’s not how it happened. I was there.”
That brings a lot of laughter, especially from me. My general attitude to my kids is that if they’re not intelligent enough to poke fun at me, they’re not my kids. But it’s still a very important question. Do we really know what we said and did in a past experience. The police say never to trust an observer’s narrative. There are a number of reasons for that. We usually see what we want to see, we look but often don’t see, we wear rose-colored glasses, or sometimes we connect dots that really don’t connect.
One study goes for the jugular on this question: do people know how they behave?
“You interrupted my mother at least three times this morning,” says Roger. “That’s not true. I only interrupted her once!” responds Julia. These are pretty common disagreements. So, who should we believe?
Among the conclusions of the research, three stand out. Agreement between discussion participants and observers varied greatly, depending on a number of factors. Second, on average, self-reports were positively distorted. Self-judgments tend to agree less with the observer judgments than with participant judgment. Third, narcissistic individuals distorted their behaviors positively far more than others. That certainly puts most self-reporting under the microscope and suggests that self-reporting shouldn’t be trusted very much.
How, then, can you get a clear grasp on your personality, work ethic, competitive abilities and so forth? Try structured feedback. By that I mean that you need to prep a colleague to give feedback before your activity takes place. And then afterward ask very specific questions. Three are important: what went well, what (chunk of the behavior) needs to go better, and what other suggestions do you have to make? Be sure to leave plenty of silence after each question. You may at first be met with silence, but if you still wait, you’re liable to get some good answers. Then the next time you work with the behavior, go back to that same original person and tell him what you did as a result of his original feedback. And thank him. If you get the opportunity to have the same person observe the same behavior, prep him again and then ask for feedback afterward with the same questions.
Samuel Gosling, Oliver John, Kenneth Craik (UC Berkeley) and Richard Robins (UC Davis), Do People Know How They Behave? Self-Reported Act Frequencies Compared with On-Line Codings by Observers, (Journal of Personality and Social Psychology), 1998, Vol. 74, No. 5.