Self-awareness is usually considered a virtue. When you are making small talk at a party, it helps to know when your story is getting boring or if you are talking too loudly. Yet being aware of the impression we give off may not benefit us as much as it does other people.
In a pair of studies, psychologist Erika Carlson of the University of Toronto Mississauga had people take part in either a single, brief conversation with a stranger or multiple meetings with an acquaintance. After every interaction, the participants rated one another's level of self-awareness and the overall quality of their relationship. In two other studies, which involved close friends and romantic partners, individuals completed surveys rating their friend's or partner's self-awareness and their self-perceived quality of the relationship. All four studies were published in August 2016 in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
Being in tune with how others see us was often a double-edged sword. Across the board, conversation partners generally preferred people who were more aware of how they were coming across—warts and all—whereas self-aware people themselves had the opposite reaction, liking others less when the reflection they saw of themselves was not flattering. The findings comport with past research suggesting that people prefer an idealized version of themselves, and perceiving others picking up on our flaws can be a turn-off.
“There's a common intuition that it's good to know how others see you,” Carlson says, adding, “We were surprised to find that it was not always the case. Self-knowledge seems to really benefit the people around us” more than ourselves. It enables us to calibrate our behavior based on others' feedback but does not necessarily make relationships easier to navigate.
One exception to the external benefits of self-awareness may be in short-term romantic relationships. In the study of romantic partners, Carlson compared the survey responses of couples who had been together for two years on average versus couples who had been together for decades. Unlike those in other social pairs, short-term lovers did not rate their relationship as better when their partner was more self-aware. People who had been together for decades, however, did: those with self-aware partners reported higher-quality relationships. The studies “illustrate that context does matter,” says Nora Murphy, an experimental psychologist at Loyola Marymount University, who was not involved in the research.
Although we may not value a self-cognizant date in the short term, over the long term it might just make or break a relationship. “In romantic partners, rose-colored glasses are often preferable in the beginning,” Carlson says. “And then that shifts.” In the long run, you want to be appreciated for who you are.