EMOTIONAL HEALTH
October 9, 2012

What Was Your Playground Personality?

Your friends back in grade school probably could have predicted who you are now pretty accurately.

It really is true that we see others more clearly than ourselves. Or, put another way, others see us more clearly than we see ourselves. At least, that's what a longitudinal study of how childhood perceptions of personality play out in adulthood decades later suggests.

The Concordia Longitudinal Risk Project in began in 1976. It is an ongoing psychological study based at Concordia University in Quebec. Part of the study looked at the impressions Montreal students had of themselves and their peers. Over two years, 1st, 4th and 7th graders filled out evaluations of characteristics including aggression, likeability and social withdrawal, of both themselves and of their classmates.

After reaching adulthood, study participants were re-evaluated to see how their personality had turned out. Between 1999 and 2003, 700 of the original participants took a psychological assessment called the NEO-FFI which measures the five major personality traits — openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness and neuroticism (which you can remember by the acronym, OCEAN). The results of this assessment were compared to the evaluations that had been made back in childhood.

A man who sees himself as a nice guy but has trouble getting along with others might want to reevaluate his behavior.

The peer evaluations from childhood were much more predictive of a person's adult personality than that person's own childhood evaluation was.

Children who were seen by their peers as socially withdrawn tended to have low scores for extraversion as adults, which is what you'd expect from a socially withdrawn person. But the children who saw themselves as socially withdrawn were most likely to test out as low on conscientiousness as an adult, a very different personality trait from extraversion. It was the child's companions who had their personality pegged properly.

Another example was in the area of likeability. Peer evaluation as likeable in childhood was much more predictive of an adult high in agreeableness and conscientiousness and low in neuroticism than a child's own evaluation of themself as likeable was.

This probably means that people should be paying more attention to the disconnects between how they see themselves and how others see them. A man who sees himself as a nice guy but has trouble getting along with others might want to reevaluate his behavior. And a woman who thinks of herself as open to new experiences who keeps hearing that she's overly cautious and conservative might wish to do likewise.

It truly is a gift to be able to see ourselves as others see us. And people can learn a lot by paying more attention to what others are seeing.

The study appears in the November 2012 issue of Personality and Individual Differences.

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