Imagine you have a chatty, extraverted friend. Most of the time, they're talkative, energetic, bold, and excitable. Now, imagine I asked you about the last ten interactions you had with them across a range of different situations (for example, at work, socializing, problem-solving). Given that your friend is generally extraverted, would you simply say that they were highly extraverted in all of the situations? Or, even though they're generally extraverted, would you identify changes in her extraverted behavior from situation to situation? In other words, do people assume that another person has the same personality in different contexts, or do people pay attention to fluctuations in their behavior?

Why is answering these questions important? There are very good reasons why being good at judging other people's personalities matters. It's important to be at least somewhat accurate, otherwise it would be difficult to meaningfully understand, engage, and interact with people. Successfully comprehending people likely involves accurately seeing their behavior. From a research perspective, moreover, knowing whether people can detect changes in behavior in others across different contexts is important for better understanding how people's behavior systematically varies across contexts. To scientifically study these systematic changes in people's behavior, we first need to figure out whether people can observe them.

With these questions in mind, we decided to run an innovative study that examined changes in people's behaviors in our laboratory. Specifically, over multiple occasions participants engaged in twenty-two different activities, which included diverse activities—for example, games such as bingo and twister, telling embarrassing stories, and discussing medical ethics dilemmas. After taking part in each of those activities, they reported their current behavior using a set of words representing the traits of openness, extraversion, conscientiousness, agreeableness, and emotional stability (the reverse of neuroticism). Importantly, each participant's behavior was also rated by two observers using the same words.

What did we find? It turns out that both participants and observers agreed to a substantial degree about the participants' behavior. More importantly, as participants changed their behavior from activity to activity, their ratings of those changes were associated with observer ratings of those changes. In other words, the observers were sensitive to how the targets' behavior changed. This remained the case even after accounting for the possibility that observers may expect the same behaviors in the participants in specific contexts (for example, they may expect participants to be chatty while playing a game, meaning that their rating would reflect that assumption rather than the target's actual behavior). Overall, observers were most accurate in tracking changes in the participants' extraversion, conscientiousness, and openness across situations, and somewhat less sensitive to changes in emotional stability and agreeableness.


First, across a wide range of behaviors, people are able to perceive others' behavior with a good level of accuracy. Second, observers are indeed sensitive to changes in behavior of participants across different contexts. These results were stronger for behaviors associated with openness, extraversion, and conscientiousness, and weaker for emotional stability and agreeableness. Rather than forming invarying stereotypes about the personalities of those encountered in daily life, people can pay attention to distinctive behavior from situation to situation.

For Further Reading

Jayawickreme, E., Holleran, S. E., Sutton, S., Furr, R. M., & Fleeson, W. (2023). Do people agree on how they and others are acting? Examining the degree of target–observer and observer–observer agreement about current behavior as it changes across situations. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 124(1), 215–235.

Jayawickreme, E., Fleeson, W., Beck, E. D., Baumert, A., & Adler, J. M. (2021). Personality dynamics. Personality Science, 2, 1-18.

Srivastava, S. (2010). The five-factor model describes the structure of social perceptions. Psychological Inquiry, 21(1), 69-75.

Eranda Jayawickreme is the Harold W. Tribble Professor of Psychology and Senior Research Fellow at the Program for Leadership and Character at Wake Forest University. His work focuses on post-traumatic growth, moral personality, personality dynamics, and well-being.