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Surely we are not talking about the same person!

Monday, December 10, 2012
posted by Douglas Keene

Many of us have had the experience of having a totally different sense of an individual than a friend describes. And we all view ourselves differently (better and worse) than others see us. How can that happen? Well, often it’s more about us than it is about them!

Researchers in Germany looked at whether liking or not liking a public figure was related to how research participants would describe the public figure’s personality. They selected public figures well-known in Germany (among them: Heidi Klum, Angelina Jolie, the Pope, and Madonna, in the event you are interested). They asked 209 research participants if they “liked” the individual public figure and then asked the participants to rate the public figures using 30 different adjectives that either did not describe or did describe the public figure.

The participants used a Likert rating scale ranging from “doesn’t fit at all” to “fits perfectly” to indicate how much they believed the public figure would be described by the individual adjectives. If they were unfamiliar with the public figure, they were instructed to skip the ratings. They were also asked how familiar they believed they were with the public figure and how much they liked the public figure.

The researchers found two different patterns (one of which you can probably guess):

When research participants liked the public figure, their individual descriptions of the personality of the public figure were quite similar. What mattered was not who the public figure was–but whether the research participants liked them. The tendency was for a generally positive adjective description when the research participants liked the public person.

However, the same agreement was not found when individual research participants did not like the public figure. That is, when the raters did not like the person they were evaluating–they did not describe them in a consistently negative fashion but rather in a more idiosyncratic way. The researchers point to past research showing a similar pattern in negative reactivity.

In other words, if you have a positive sense of an individual, your rating tends to be globally positive. If you have a negative sense of someone, your rating will be negative but in ways that are a reflection of yourself. We all love them the same way, but we dislike them for various (idiosyncratic and personal) reasons.

It’s another reason to prepare witnesses to communicate shared universal values to the jury. We are more alike than we are different but we also often leap to judgment based on perceived dissimilarity. Help your witness present themselves as similar to the jurors (based on shared values and life experiences) and the individual jurors are more likely to view your witness positively as a jury group.

***We appreciate being included in the ABA Blawg 100 for the third year in a row! If you like our blawg, take a minute to vote for us here (under the Trial Practice category). Thanks! Doug and Rita***

Leising, D., Ostrovski, O., & Zimmermann, J. (2012). “Are We Talking About the Same Person Here?”: Interrater Agreement in Judgments of Personality Varies Dramatically With How Much the Perceivers Like the Targets Social Psychological and Personality Science DOI: 10.1177/1948550612462414

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