Social Blind Spots

Why we need feedback to develop social intelligence

March 30, 2019

Social Blind Spots

The other day, I took my daughter Lucy to the mall to get her ears pierced. The technician was friendly and warm, cheerfully redrawing purple dots on Lucy’s earlobes again and again until everyone was satisfied that they were perfectly centered.

Just then, a mall security guard wandered by. He and our technician struck up a flirtatious banter—an exchange I would have found endearing under different circumstances, but in this case activated my protective maternal instincts.

“Excuse me,” I said. “My daughter is getting a hole in her ear for the rest of her life. Could you please give it a rest?”

Our technician smiled and assured us that she had no problem concentrating while making conversation with her friend. And, calm as can be, she finished the piercing.

At dinner that evening, I began describing this incident to the rest of the family, confident they would share my indignation.

“Oh my god, Mom, you were so rude,” Lucy interrupted. “I nearly died.”

In my account, I’d been acting reasonably, even selflessly, in looking out for my daughter’s interests. In her eyes, I was a caricature of the insensitive, pushy customer.

Who was right?

In many ways, people are pretty good at knowing what they’re like in the moment. For instance, most people know when their behavior is extroverted versus introverted, or reliable versus lazy.

But research shows we can be quite blind to our social blunders. In a recent study, personality scientists asked volunteers to wear audio recorders for a week and, in addition, to answer questions about their momentary personality states when prompted. Six independent coders listened to the audio clips and rated what the participants were like during those moments. And then these judgments were compared to how people saw themselves.

Agreement between self-ratings and observer judgments was especially low for agreeableness. In other words, it’s easy to act like a jerk and not realize it.

Don’t assume you’re acting as graciously as you think you are. Social intelligence is in the eye of the beholder.

Do listen for feedback. No matter their age, the people you’re with may be more attuned to your social blunders than you are.

With grit and gratitude,

About the author

Angela Duckworth is a co-founder of Character Lab, a professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, and the author of Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance.