Fictional stories are replete with villains and heroes with an almost magical ability to discern other people’s characters – think Hannibal Lecter or Sherlock Holmes. In real life, too, many people (including certain world leaders) seem to think they have this skill. Question-and-answer sites like Quora are filled with posts like: “I can read people’s personalities and emotions like a book. Is this normal?
But do any of us really have an exceptional skill for judging other people’s personalities?
Psychologists call such people – or the idea of them – “good judges”. And for more than a century, they have been trying to answer the question of whether these good judges really exist.
Until recently, the conclusion was that the concept is essentially a myth. Most of us are pretty gifted at determining each other’s characters, the evidence suggested. But there is barely any variation in the skill from one person to another.
However, an intriguing new paper has forced a rethink by providing new, compelling evidence that good judges do exist after all. But their skill only becomes apparent when they are reading expressive people who reveal honest cues to their characters. “Simply put,” write Katherine Rogers at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and Jeremy Biesanz at the University of British Columbia, “reports highlighting the demise or irrelevance of the good judge may have been greatly exaggerated.”
One of the first attempts to identify good judges was published by US psychologist Henry F Adams in 1927. He asked eight teams of 10 young women, who knew each other well, to rate each other’s personalities. He also requested that they rate their own. He averaged the ratings each volunteer received from the others to obtain their ‘true’ personality – then he crunched the numbers to see if some individuals had an unusual ability to perceive character accurately, other people’s or their own.
What he found was that being a good judge of other people didn’t necessarily make you a fun person to be with. Though mentally quick and agile, he said they tend “to be touchy, quick of temper, glum and moody, and lacking in courage”. Adams’ theory was that, paradoxically, good judges of others are egocentric: they only see other people as tools for their own ends. (Those women who were good judges of themselves, by contrast, he considered “tactful, polite and popular” and more interested in how they could be of service to others.)
But by the 1950s, the concept of the good judge was beginning to look shaky. First came a devastating critique of the methods used by James and others to identify good judges. Then data was published suggesting that the superior abilities of supposed good judges failed to transfer from one situation to another. Over the ensuing decades, further attempts to demonstrate the existence of good judges were inconsistent at best.