Character  &  Context

The Science of Who We Are and How We Relate
Editors: Mark Leary, Shira Gabriel, Brett Pelham
Nov 12, 2019

How to Get People to See You Accurately

by Marie-Catherine Mignault & Lauren J. Human
Photo of a young woman looking through a window

When meeting new people, for example at a party, you might notice that some people are “open books,” making it easy for you to understand their personality quickly, for example, allowing you to see how generous and anxious they are.  Other people, though, may be more mysterious, making it hard for you to get a read on who they truly are and what their personality actually is. You might also notice that other people at the party seem to like the open books more than the people who are hard to read and might want to talk with them more.  Research aligns with this observation, finding that people tend to like new acquaintances more when they are easier to read. But why are some people more transparent than others?

One characteristic that transparent people often share is high psychological well-being. Specifically, people who are more satisfied with themselves and their lives are generally easier to read, both in close relationships and after just a few minutes of conversation. In other words, being happy with oneself and one’s life may lead to greater transparency.

But, why does well-being lead people to be more transparent? Do transparent people simply provide more information about themselves? Or, do they provide others with clearer, higher quality information that better reflects who they truly are? We suspected that it is primarily the latter. Specifically, we thought that people who are higher in well-being might show greater behavioral congruence, which is the tendency to behave in line with one’s personality across different situations.

Let’s consider Charlie, who is very generous. If Charlie is highly congruent, he is likely to be  generous across many different situations, such as helping his brother move, donating money, and offering to take a new colleague out for lunch.  In contrast, if Janet, who is also very generous, has lower well-being, she may fluctuate in her tendency to behave generously.  Although she frequently donates her time and money to help family and strangers, Janet might not offer to take her new colleague to lunch. Janet’s lower behavioral congruence may result from her lower satisfaction with herself—and not from lower generosity—making her less likely than Charlie to behave consistently with her actual self. As a result, Charlie should be much easier to read than Janet.  

To test this idea, we needed to assess both people’s transparency (the degree to which others see them as they really are) and their behavioral congruence (the degree to which they behave consistently with how they really are). We recruited unacquainted university students to meet with one another in small groups and then to rate each other’s personalities. This procedure allowed us to assess each participant’s degree of transparency; the more others in the group rated a participant in line with the participant’s actual personality, the more transparent that participant was.  

Our participants then went home and rated their behaviors several times each day for two weeks. This allowed us to determine each participant’s degree of behavioral congruence: the more a participant’s daily behaviours aligned with his or her actual personality, the more “congruent” the participant was. Participants also completed measures of psychological well-being, including their self-esteem and satisfaction with life.

As we expected, people higher in well-being tended to behave more in line with their personality on a daily basis, which in turn led them to be perceived more accurately by their new acquaintances in our study. Thus, high well-being allows people to be seen more in line with how they really are, in part by leading them to behave more in line with how they are.

Importantly, being perceived accurately may also feel good and contribute to broader social and psychological well-being. Therefore, transparency may fuel a positive cycle, enhancing well-being, which then further promotes congruent behavior and even greater transparency. By better understanding transparency and what causes it, we may be in a position to help people be more transparent, allowing them to reap the psychological and interpersonal benefits of being seen as they truly are.

For Further Reading

Human, L. J., Mignault, M. C., Rogers, K. H., & Biesanz, J. C. (2019). Why are well-adjusted people seen more accurately? The role of personality-behavior congruence in naturalistic social settings. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 117, 465-482. doi: 10.1037/pspp0000193


Marie-Catherine Mignault is a Ph.D. student in Clinical Psychology at McGill University.

Lauren J. Human is an Assistant Professor of Social and Personality Psychology at McGill University and Canada Research Chair in Social Perception and Expression.

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Why is this blog called Character & Context?

Everything that people think, feel, and do is affected by some combination of their personal characteristics and features of the social context they are in at the time. Character & Context explores the latest insights about human behavior from research in personality and social psychology, the scientific field that studies the causes of everyday behaviors.  

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