Learning not to be self-aware

snobRecently I was reading research about grammar police, the kind of people who notice every little misspelling in your writing and assume that you are ignorant based on these errors. Evidently they are disagreeable – certifiably disagreeable. One of the factors in the Five Factor Personality Analysis (often called the Big Five) is Agreeableness. In a research projects, subjects read e-mails both with and without spelling and grammar errors, and then estimated how well they would like the person. Those that downgraded their estimation of the person the most showed a correspondingly low score on Agreeableness on the Big Five. No big deal, you probably expected that to be true.

One of the other factors of the Big Five is Extraversion. Introverts who indicated that good grammar was important to them, were more sensitive to these errors and downgraded the likability of the author of the e-mail much more severely than did introverts who didn’t care about grammar. Overall introverts where not as generous with their estimation of this unknown person as the extroverts. However, there was a definite correlation between how much (or how little) they cared about grammar and how much they expected to like the e-mail correspondent.

Results for extroverts were a little perplexing, “Surprisingly, extraverts who reported grammar as more important were less sensitive to typos than extroverts who felt good grammar was less important.”[1] Some extroverts said grammar was more important, but behaved as it was not.  Why were they not noticing the typos? Did they over-estimate their ability at spelling and grammar? Or was this lack of self-awareness intentional?

This research may have provided a serendipitous insight into self-awareness and why it is rising on the list of desired traits of business leaders. Past researchers have found that the managers and executives are predominantly extroverts. Self-aware people are introspective and think about their own values and motives compared to their actions. But as hard as they try they soon come to realize that they are not capable of behaving consistently according to their own values. There are different ways to respond to this realization: change values to match actions, give up being self-aware because “Nobody is perfect” or intently focus on every error and spiral into depression.

Extroverts tend to avoid this last option. Evidently, simply avoiding reflecting on the effects of their actions is their preferred way of dealing with internal conflict. However, this lower self-awareness has some negative side effects when leaders fail to accurately estimate their own skill or understand their own motivation. We have yet to see whether self-awareness can be taught, or if it is as difficult as teaching extroverted people not to behave like extroverts.

[1] Boland JE, Queen R (2016) If You’re House Is Still Available, Send Me an Email: Personality Influences Reactions to Written Errors in Email Messages. PLoS ONE 11(3): e0149885. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0149885


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