Research Methods Intro: Accuracy and Ethnography

In personality psychology researchers empirically investigate sources of accuracy by using information about both the perceiver – the person whose accuracy we are evaluating – and the target – the person the perceiver is accurate about. Using a round robin design – where every participant rates and is rated by every other participant, as well as peer and self-report ratings of each participant, researchers can examine and quantify the relative predictive power of different factors.

Participants rate themselves and others on different traits. Ratings are more accurate if the perceiver’s ratings of the target match an average of the target’s peer and self-report ratings. Researchers can, for example, simultaneously compare:Accuracy Illustration

  • normativity – the actual prevalence of the trait in a group


  • perceived similarity to the perceiver – the influence of distinctive traits about the perceiver (calculated by adjusting the average of the perceiver’s peer and self-reports for the average self-report for the entire group.)


  • distinctiveness  – the extent to which the target is higher or lower than average on the trait (calculated by adjusting the average of the target’s peer and self-reports for the average self-report for the entire group) (Human & Biesanz, 2011).


Theoretically, the influence of normative accuracy – the extent to which an individual references others against a norm – should be higher when perceivers and targets share a cultural background. On the one hand, normative accuracy is the product of experience. The more muembers of a group you meet, the better you estimate average behaviors. On the other hand, cultural norms also shape who we seek to become and how we express ourselves.

Perceived similarity, on the other hand, can bias the perceiver towards seeing her own distinctive traits in others, at least when she likes or in some way identifies with those others. For example, an ethnographer may tend to see informants that he likes as being more similar to him than they actual are and informants that he dislikes as either being contrasted against his perceptions of himself or more similar to his perception of the “average” informant.

When perceptions of normativity are less established, however, the target’s distinctiveness should be less biasing, given that the ethnographer may not know what traits are distinctive and what traits are common. In other words, as the ethnographer’s perception of the actual averages for the group of informants changes, the roles of similarity and distinctiveness may change as well.

One takeaway for the ethnographer, then, is to exercise greater caution and give attention to the influence of presumed normative behaviors, perceived similarity (or lack thereof), and target distinctiveness. However, where a round robin design is practical, the ethnographer could also apply this observational research to the field. Given a culturally-validated scale, the ethnographer could compare the respective roles of these different influences on person perception across cultures. Other analysis could compare normative accuracy as determined by the actual average ratings for the groups to stereotypic accuracy – as determined by participant ratings of an imaginary “average person.”

This quantified data could be used to contextualize participant observation and in depth interviews.

Other Considerations – What is Accuracy?:

Accuracy is multi-dimensional. For example, if asked to judge the prevalence of a certain trait in different social groups, a person could have poor absolute accuracy. In that case, they might consistently underestimate or overestimate the prevalence in each group. However, they might still have good relative accuracy – judging the differences between groups well.  As in the discussion above, accuracy is a continuous variable and it can increase or decrease over time. Our stereotyping intervention, for example, targeted absolute accuracy for a target social group. It could be expanded to target absolute accuracy for both the target’s social group and for the perceiver’s. Relative accuracy would then take care of itself.

Further, statistical measures of accuracy are blind to process. Other research examines how an observer learns about the group’s average rating on any trait. More research can disentangle the roles of shared social-desirability concerns, self-stereotyping, and other culturally-accessible influences on the self concept. These shared concerns could, for example, lead participants to report being more similar without actually being more similar.

Considering this relative complexity, stereotyping and prejudice interventions have to choose their target:

  • Improving the validity and reliability of the process by which we judge individual targets and target groups?
  • Improving the absolute accuracy of these judgments?
  • Improving the relative accuracy of these judgments?
  • Improving accuracy for certain traits, but not for others? (Accuracy may differ by trait).


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