Social Psychological Skill: A Matter of Personality?

Scott McGreal
7 min readMay 5, 2019

How personality traits help people understand situations

Social psychology has long been concerned with understanding how the features of a situation can affect a person’s behavior. Social psychologists have long claimed that most people underestimate or discount entirely how their behavior is influenced by situational factors because they prefer to believe that their behavior is controlled by their personal characteristics. Interestingly, a recent study introduced the concept of social psychological skill, the ability to accurately predict how people in general feel, think, and behave in different social contexts and situations (Gollwitzer & Bargh, 2018). Through a series of experiments, it was shown that people differ in how well they can intuitively grasp social psychological concepts, even if they have never studied social psychology. Furthermore, people high in this skill could accurately explain how someone would behave in a famous experiment used to test the fundamental attribution error, a concept some consider to be at the heart of social psychology. I find this an intriguing development that strikes me as ironic — in a field that has traditionally discounted the importance of individual differences, it turns out that individual differences may be at the core of who can understand the field’s key concepts.

Historically, the distinctive perspective of social psychology has been that although people are intuitive psychologists, their intuitions about why people behave the way they do are often wrong. These errors occur because of a variety of cognitive errors and biases. In particular, people are supposed to be prone to “lay dispositionism,” that is, people overestimate the importance of a person’s personality characteristics and generally fail to fully appreciate the power of situational forces that constrain their behavior (Ross, Lepper, & Ward, 2010). Hence, social psychology has often focused on non-obvious findings that go against people’s intuitive expectations. It is therefore rather striking that a recent study has found that some people can intuitively grasp social psychological concepts even if they do not appear to have studied the subject (Gollwitzer & Bargh, 2018). Furthermore, this ability is associated with certain personality dispositions. Hence, even though social psychologists such as Lee Ross and colleagues (2010) have argued “that stable personal traits or dispositions matter less than lay observers assume,” it turns out that some of these…

Scott McGreal

Blogging about psychology research, especially in personality and individual differences, as well as psychedelic drug research, and whatever else takes my fancy