Character  &  Context

The Science of Who We Are and How We Relate
Editors: Mark Leary, Shira Gabriel, Brett Pelham
Jun 10, 2020

Don’t Worry, Your Reputation Is Not at Stake

by Alice Moon and Clayton Critcher
Panel of 4 Judges Showing Score Cards For Performance

Consider this situation: Near the end of a successful dinner party, after dessert, the host pulls out Trivial Pursuit. A few people smile politely, but the mood in the room turns bleak, even tense. “Oh gosh,” sighs one guest. Another guest reaches for a second glass of wine and quips, “This might not help my performance, but it’ll make me care less when everyone thinks I’m an idiot.”

Many of us have played these sorts of games numerous times. Through those experiences, we’ve learned which of our friends and family members are trivia buffs and which ones are not up on their obscure mountain ranges and 1990’s Oscar winners. But we don’t usually leave such evenings feeling like we know who is a genius and who is an idiot. At the same time, though, most of us can empathize with the fear that our competence is on display and that others may form negative impressions of us.

This disconnect—between what other people actually see in our behavior (specific skills such as trivia knowledge) and what we think they see (broad, general abilities like intelligence)—is called the overblown implications effect. This effect involves the fact that we tend to think that other people draw broader conclusions than they actually do about our general skills and abilities from how we behave on a single, specific task.

Across eight studies and over 4,300 participants, we found that people consistently overblew the implications of various behaviors in the eyes of others. They thought that a single batch of their cookies would reveal their cooking abilities, a parallel parking attempt would reveal their general driving ability, and an instance of cheating on their diet would reveal their level of self-control. But, in reality, other participants who judged these behaviors saw the implications of each behavior as narrower and did not draw these kinds of general conclusions about people’s personal characteristics.

Why do people display the overblown implications effect? One answer is that when people are “on stage”—that is, when they are about to perform a behavior that others will see—the task they are about to do often feels particularly important for demonstrating some general ability. When we are about to answer a trivia question, we start to think of trivia ability as the essential skill that defines intelligence. Likewise, when a basketball player lines up to attempt the game-winning free throw, she may feel like it’s not just her free-throw skills that are on display but also her general competence as an athlete.

Of course, people do judge us—at least somewhat—in light of our behavioral performances, but the inferences people draw are more limited than we think they are. We are correct in thinking that those who watch us play chess make judgments about how good of a chess player we are, but we err in thinking that they also decide whether or not we are, more generally, a good analytical thinker. And, it’s not merely that we believe others always judge us more negatively than they do. When our participants succeeded during a mock game show, they also thought observers saw them as more of a genius than those observers actually did. People overblow implications of their behavior in both positive and negative directions.

How do you fix this way of thinking? We found support for a simple intervention. In one study, participants who answered a trivia question right or wrong overestimated how much observers would decide that they were quite intelligent or unintelligent, respectively. But when those participants first listed all the ways—other than answering trivia questions—that someone like them could reveal that they were or were not intelligent, they no longer overblew the implications of their trivia performance. This intervention helped put trivia ability in proper perspective, as just one of many domains that reflect one’s intelligence.

So, the next time you feel that tickle of apprehension as you consider being judged in light of whether the steak you cook comes out a true medium-rare, whether the handwritten note you composed includes a misspelled word, or whether you forgot an acquaintance’s name, consider this advice supported by our research: Take a moment to think about all of the other ways in which your cooking ability, intelligence, or considerateness can be displayed. Not only will this help you get a better handle on how you are coming across, but it can also help you avoid some needless anxiety along the way.

For Further Reading

Moon, A., Gan, M., & Critcher, C.R. (2020). The overblown implications effect. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 118, 720-742.

Alice Moon studies how preferences, judgments, and choices change based on the perspective people take or the way a decision is framed. She is an assistant professor of operations, information, and decisions at The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. Outside of research, Alice enjoys exploring new foods and stand-up comedy.

Clayton Critcher studies how people make judgments about themselves and others in social, economic, political, and moral domains. He is an associate professor of marketing, cognitive science, and psychology at the University of California, Berkeley. When not in the lab, you’ll find him playing bar shuffleboard (often a bit too seriously).

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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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