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How Are Personality Judgments Made? A Cognitive Model of Reference Group Effects, Personality Scale Responses, and Behavioral Reactions


  • We thank Mia Strickland Desouza, Alex Townsend, and Robbie Black for their assistance with data collection. This research was supported by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) grant RES-062-23-2462.


This article suggests that personality judgments are wholly relative, being the outcome of a comparison of a given individual to a reference group of others. The underlying comparison processes are the same as those used to judge psychophysical stimuli (as outlined by range frequency theory and decision by sampling accounts). Five experimental studies show that the same person's personality is rated differently depending on how his or her behavior (a) ranks within a reference group and (b) falls within the overall range of behavior shown by other reference group members. Results were invariant across stimulus type and response options (7-point Likert scale, 990-point allocation task, or dichotomous choice). Simulated occupational scenarios led participants to give different-sized bonuses and employ different people as a function of context. Future research should note that personality judgments (as in self-report personality scales) only represent perceived standing relative to others or alternatively should measure personality through behavior or biological reactivity. Personality judgments cannot be used to compare different populations when the population participants have different reference groups (as in cross-cultural research).