Does it ever seem like your close friends know you and understand your behavior patterns better than you do yourself? Three key factors related to social perception that may account for this phenomenon:

    Ronald E Riggio Ph.D.
    Ronald E Riggio Ph.D. is the Henry R. Kravis Professor of Leadership and Organizational Psychology and former Director of the Kravis Leadership Institute at Claremont McKenna College. Professor Riggio is the author of over 100 books, book chapters, and research articles in the areas of leadership, assessment centers, organizational psychology and social psychology.


Editor:  Saad Shaheed

1. Self-Deception and Self-Protective Biases. 

We are quite protective of our image of ourselves. We like to believe that we are good, smart, and kind, and that we possess a host of other positive qualities. We use self-protective biases to help guard our often-fragile egos, and maintain a positive view of ourselves. Our close friends, on the other hand, aren’t as invested in our image, so they can call things as they see them. This doesn’t mean that friends aren’t also biased about us—but we have more invested in protecting our image than they do.

2. Perspective. 

Have you ever had a close friend predict what you were going to do, when you thought you were being spontaneous? Our close friends see us in a variety of situations and are keen observers of our behavior, while we see only what is in front of us. That means that friends are able to see patterns of behavior we may be unaware of. For example, a friend can observe our facial expression or the wide personal space that we maintain when interacting with a certain individual, and then point out our apparent dislike of the individual. Unaware of our own behavior, we might not fully realize our negative feelings toward the other person until our friend mentions it.

3. Actor-Observer Bias. 

This fundamental bias in perception builds on the idea of perspective: When we try to explain why we do things (when we are the “actor”), we tend to over-ascribe cause to situational factors. For example, when we fail at something, we tend toward situational explanations (e.g., “the sun was in my eyes,” “it was peer pressure,” etc.). Those watching us, however, are biased toward making dispositional attributions for our actions (“she is awkward,” “he is immoral”). As a result, we tend to blame the situation, while others blame us. Because our friends are prone to making dispositional biases ("there you go again!”) it may seem that they know us very well indeed.

So how can we get to know ourselves better? 

First, we have to be honest with ourselves: Own up to our mistakes. Review and critique our own behavior. Second, we must realize that the situation and our psychological makeup are responsible for our actions and outcomes. Finally, we must acknowledge that our friends also have a biased perspective.

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