David A. Kenny
April 4, 2021

Chapter 8 of Interpersonal Perception: The Foundation of Social Relationships.

Meta-perception, a term coined by R. D. Laing, is the perception that people have of another person's perception of someone. Here the concern is with the perceptions of the target's perception of the perceiver. For meta-accuracy, the perceiver wonders what the target is thinking about the person or others, whereas for empathic accuracy (see William Ickes), the perceiver wonders what the target is thinking about or feeling at a particular time. The Laing notation for meta-accuracy is A(B) = B(A(B)).

We can decompose metaperceptions using the Social Relations Model as follows:

Mean: how perceivers generally think others see them
Perceiver: how the perceiver thinks others generally see him or her
Target: how people think a target generally sees others
Relationship: how a perceiver thinks a target uniquely views the perceiver

Meta-accuracy reflects the degree to which persons know how other see him or her. So meta-accuracy reflects a correlation between ordinary person perceptions and met a-perceptions. Using the Social Relations Model, there are four types of meta-accuracy:

Meta-enhancement: the match between average metaperception and average rating given by others.
Perceiver meta-accuracy: a correlation between how a person sees others and the person thinks that others think the person sees others.
Generalized meta-accuracy: the correlation between how the person is generally seen by others and how the person thinks others see him or her.
Dyadic meta-accuracy: the correlation between how the person uniquely sees another and how that other thinks the person views him or her.

Meta-enhancement asks the question: Does the average level of the perceptions of friendliness match the metaperception of those impressions? Perceiver meta-accuracy asks the question: If Alice sees others as friendly, is Alice seen by others as friendly? Generalized meta-accuracy asks the question: If Alice is seen as friendly by others, does Alice know that others see him or her that way? Dyadic meta-accuracy asks the question: If Alice sees Betty as especially friendly, does Betty know that Alice sees her that way?

Metaperception enhancement is analogous to self-enhancement, in which people generally see themselves in overly positive ways. Because self-perceptions are very highly correlated with metaperceptions, it seems reasonable to expect that metaperceptions would be more favorable than the perceptions that others actually have. Erika Carlson and I, in 2012, reviewed eight meta-accuracy studies from the 1993 review I had conducted with Bella DePaulo. We split the results into studies of attraction and traits. For traits, metaperceptions were more positive, indicating enhancement, but the extent of metaperception enhancement is much less than that of self-enhancement. For attraction, Carlson and I found that metaperceptions were less positive than the judges’ perceptions. This finding for attraction was replicated in a series of studies conducted by Erica Boothby and her colleagues in 2018. They found that metaperceptions of liking of strangers and students getting to know their college dormmates were lower than the actual liking received.

The dominant SRM variance component in metaperception is the perceiver effect, usually accounting for over 52 percent of the total variance for traits and 35 percent for liking. People generally think that others see them in the same way.

There is usually little evidence of target effects in metaperception (typically accounting for less than 5 percent of the total variance); that is, people do not agree on who is a harsh or lenient judge of others. There is a hint of target variance for romantic ratings.

Relationship variance in met a-perceptions is usually found for trait ratings, around 12 percent of the variance, but is 38 percent for liking.

For first at trait ratings, there is evidence for generalized meta-accuracy, averaging .47, with some indication that it is larger in long-term acquaintance, averaging .58. Dyadic meta-accuracy is non-trivial, averaging .41. There are too few studies to look across acquaintance. Perceiver meta-accuracy is difficult to measure because perceivers do not agree that some people are harsh judges of others and others are lenient.

Attraction ratings show a somewhat different pattern. There is again evidence for generalized meta-accuracy, but it weaker than what it was for traits, averaging .47, with some indication that it is larger in long-term acquaintance, averaging .28. Dyadic meta-accuracy is weak, averaging .17, but increases across acquaintance, being .68 at long-term acquaintance. Results for perceiver meta-accuracy are mixed with some showing positive and some negative correlations.

Looking at correlations of the perceiver effect in met a-perceptions, the correlations are large but are not perfect. Moreover, the correlation of the perceiver effect of metaperceptions with the perceiver effect in impression are moderate.

Looking at the over-time stability of SRM effects, the perceiver effect is the most stable component and its relatively high stability suggests that there might well be individual difference variables that could predict it.

The strongest correlate of the perceiver effect in metaperceptions is self-perception (i.e., the correlation between how we see ourselves and how we think that others see us). Kenny and DePaulo (1993) report that the average correlation is .87. Perceivers think that others see them as they see themselves.

Also for both liking and trait rating studies, there are moderate negative correlations with social anxiety, averaging -.30. Ediger (2006) examined whether social anxiety moderated meta-accuracy, but found no evidence for such.

Following Kenny and DePaulo (1991), there are three different models of how metaperception are formed. They are:

Feedback Model: Meta-perceptions arise from the perceiver's perception of how others view him or her.
Self-Observation of Behavior: The perceiver observes his or her own behavior and then directly assumes that others judge that behavior as he or she does.
Self-Theory Model: The perceiver assumes that others see him or her as he or she generally sees him or herself.

For trait judgments, there is evidence that all three processes lead to metaperception, but only the the last two models leads to meta-accuracy. Perceivers do monitor their partner's reactions too them, but they are not very successful at recovering their actual perceptions. The strong self correlations with the perceiver effect in metaperceptions supports the self-theory model. However, because there is some dyadic meta-accuracy, the self observation theory is supported.

While the generalized accuracy correlations for traits are substantial, averaging .41, it needs to be realized that these are correlations. Given the large perceiver variances in metaperceptions and the much smaller target variances in the perception of others, metaperceivers who think others see them favorably are over-estimating how positively they are seen, and metaperceivers who think others see them unfavorably are under-estimating how positively they are seen. See Figure 8.1 on page 220 in Interpersonal Perception: The Foundation of Social Relationships.

For liking, the evidence of accuracy supports a reciprocity heuristic: If Mary likes Jane, Mary thinks Jane likes her back. This is an example of assumed reciprocity of liking, one of the strongest effects in interpersonal perception. Note that both Elfenbein in two studies and Malloy (2018) disputed this claim, but I suspect they are both underestimating the effect of unreliability in their analyses.

Besides metaperceptions of what a person think that others think of him or her, other sorts of "meta" research are possible. One such e can also define triadic perceptions: Does Alice know what Betty thinks of Carol?

We can also study meta-expectations (Does Alice know what Betty expects Alice to do?), meta-attributions (What attribution does Alice think that Betty makes in a particular situation?), and meta-stereotypes (What does Alice think that other women think of men in general?). This last topic has been the most researched (see Vorauer et al., 1998).

Boothby, E. J., Cooney, G., Sandstrom, G. M., & Clark, M. S. (2018). The liking gap in conversations: Do people like us more than we think? Psychological Science, 29, 1742–1756.

Carlson, E. N., & Kenny, D. A. (2012).  Knowing how others see us. In S. Vazire & T. Wilson (Eds.), Handbook of self-knowledge (pp. 242-257). Guilford: New York.

Ediger, J. P. (2006). Meta-perceptive accuracy in social anxiety. Doctoral dissertation. Retrieved from ProQuest Dissertations and Theses. (Order No. NR12257)

Eisenkraft, N., Elfenbein, H. A., & Kopelman, S. (2017). We know who likes us, but not who competes against us: Dyadic meta-accuracy among work colleagues. Psychological Science, 28, 233–241.

Elfenbein, H. A., Eisenkraft, N., & Ding, W. W. (2009). Do we know who values us? Dyadic meta-accuracy in the perception of professional relationships. Psychological Science, 20, 1081‑1083.

Kenny, D. A., & DePaulo, B. M. (1993). Do people know how others view them?: An empirical and theoretical account. Psychological Bulletin, 114, 145-161.

Malloy, T. E.  (2018). Interpersonal attraction in dyads and groups: Effects of the hearts of beholder and beheld.  European Journal of Social Psychology, 48, 285-302.

Vorauer, J. D., Main, K. J.,& O'Connell, G. B.(1998).  How do individuals expect to be viewed by members of lower status groups? Content and implications of meta-stereotypes.  Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 75, 917-937.

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