You are at work. You walk by a meeting room and peek inside. The voices are muffled, but it’s clear they’re shouting. A ‘he’, is shouting. You look closer. Someone – a client, a boss, a supplier, you are not really sure –shouts at one poor person while the others look on embarrassed.

‘What a horrid person’, you think.

You carry on walking the corridor. A corridor lined with meeting rooms. All are empty apart from one near the end, where you glance a flash of blue as you pass. You stop. It’s a man. In shirt-sleeves. Oblivious to the world outside, you see him crouch into the shape of a basketball player ready to shoot. He releases. A ball of tightly scrunched paper arcs through the air towards a refuse bin. You follow the trajectory. It drops straight in – without even touching the sides.

‘Must’ve been a fluke’, you think.


Why do we think the first person’s horrid and the second a fluker? Is this true? Should it be the other way around? In 1986 Kunda and Nisbett pondered these questions.

The insanity of disposition

Similar to my shouty-man illustration above, Kunda and Nisbett asked respondents to estimate the honesty of ‘Jane’ over ‘Jill’ both singularly, and for the next twenty situations, given that Jane had been more honest than Jill for the previous twenty. The estimated correlation was high, being up at .82 (.0 being no correlation, .1 being perfect correlation), with the assumption being that Jane would be honest in the next twenty situations. And even for single guesstimates, the honesty correlation was high.

Affording traits this degree of predictability is insane – it makes no consideration for the environment Jane is in.

Our personality traits – honesty, kindness, anger, punctuality, tardiness, laughter, sadness – are more products of the situation than they are of our disposition. I am angry in a traffic queue, kind when I’m meandering on a lazy summer weekend; I am punctual without children, I laugh with old friends, and am sad after a weepy movie. I am none of those things consistently – I am dependent on my environment.

The sanity of performance

Similar to my office-basketball-star example, Kunda and Nisbett asked respondents to make guesstimates about the likelihood of a basketball player who made more points than another in twenty previous games to do so both singularly, and in twenty subsequent games. Again, abilities were predicted to be highly correlated with twenty ‘samples’, but predicted to be less so with single examples: we are wary of one-offs; we are ready to believe of a consistent track-record.

Affording skills this degree of predicability is perfectly, 100%, sane.

Sane, because you can’t fake it – if you can do it, you can do it. Be that in the office, on the basketball court, or in your backyard. We ‘know’ that skills are not a product of the environment in which they are performed.

Ross and Nesbitt say of this;

“It is thus only for behaviours reflective of personality, and not for behaviours reflective of abilities, that people dramatically overestimate the amount of consistency to be expected . . . “

So it’s no surprise that we think the shouty-man is horrid – we dramatically overestimate consistency, [rightcol]and think the paper basketballer gets a fluke – we need to see more to formulate an aggregate result.


Why so out of kilter?

Kunda and Nisbet pontificate the reasons:

  1. Abilities are observed in fixed, rule-governed environments (the basketball court, for instance) – unlike personality traits
  2. There is little ambiguity in skills-based samples (you got it in, or you didn’t) – unlike personality traits
  3. Abilities can often be quantified in some way that enjoys aggregation (fastest, cleanest, purest, longest, etc) – unlike personality traits
  4. I would add a fourth:

  5. We seem to be more aware of our physical limitations than our cognitive ones. For instance, we avoid the dark for fear of harm. Pinker’s (wonderful) linguistic insight tells us we jump a mile not only at a snake, but at the word ‘snake’. These innate and understood physical limitations do not have parallel cognitive ones; tell someone they follow the behaviour of their neighbours and they’ll tell you it plain doesn’t happen.

    Our blindspot is our brain, our light-spot is our body.


How do you use this knowledge? It is vital to manage the presentation of traits because the single viewing forms the extrapolated opinion. Those with an element of public presentation should take heed; politicians, PRs, business chiefs, and presenters and speakers should all arrange the situation to deliver the intended message. Synthetic representations of traits should also be carefully considered.

For the presentation of abilities, I’m afraid you can’t ‘fake it ’till you make it’ – but, instinctively, you already knew that, right?

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• Oliver (LinkedIn) is author of the behavioural communication book Inspiring Sustainable Behaviour: 19 Ways To Ask For Change published by Routledge, available in most countries.
• Member of the Influence Advisory Panel
• Join the London Behavioural Economics Network Meetup group
• Join the London Behavioural Economics Network on Facebook


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