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Thursday, December 16, 2010

The Hidden Cost of Creating an Impression

At the end of the day a lot of business is personal — making the sale, getting the job, or convincing your boss often comes down to conveying the right things about your personality. So it makes sense to focus on how you come across. But according to new psychology research,managing others’ impressions of you comes at a cost — your impressions of them can be skewed.

Researchers asked students to discuss a film with another student who was secretly working for the scientists. Half of the research subjects were asked to manage the impression they were giving, striving to come off as confident, extroverted or smart, for example. The scientists then asked the students to rate these qualities in their conversational partner. The results:

The central finding was that, compared with the control participants, students given an impression management goal tended to rate their conversation partner lower on whichever trait they’d tried to demonstrate in themselves, but not on other traits.

Why should this be? The psychologists suggest that when we focus on others’ impression of us, we adopt “a comparison mindset” that amplifies our own estimation of ourselves in whatever area we’ve fixated on. Our conversation partner then comes across as less gifted in this trait.

They also found that the skewing of perception only occurred in those whose didn’t already have a firm sense of how they perform in the area they were asked to manage. In other words, people who already firmly considered themselves confident thought no different of their partners when they were asked to focus on appearing confident. Only those who had to think about making an impression they were unsure of conveying misjudged their partners.

What’s the take away here? The scientists acknowledge that more research is needed, but obviously knowing that this bias exists could help you correct for it. If you’re focusing on being confident or smart, it may make sense to pay closer attention to whether you’re shortchanging those you meet in these areas.

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