Perception of Others

As someone with Asperger syndrome (AS), I have always had a tendency to form quite stark judgements about people quickly. Often these have been somewhat stereotypical and rigid, and have sometimes led to difficulties with the people involved.

These judgements have usually revolved around the inherent sense of “fairness” that my AS affords me, as well as the “ethical” stance the person exudes which I invariably find I disagree with. This judgement is, of course, based on my perception of a situation which will often differ from the perspective of other people.

I have often wondered how the perception that I form of others initially has then been the basis for issues and/or difficulties going forward. Looking back on my experiences at work, this area has been a major factor.

To “perceive” other people and social events, we use visual and auditory signals; verbal and non-verbal. Most people decode other people’s facial expressions and behaviour to infer their emotional state and attitudes to the perceiver.

As someone with Asperger syndrome (AS), I obviously find this challenging. What I have tended to do, is interpret the world or words literally, rather than, searching for the wider meaning behind their actions. This is, of course, a common theme with having AS and what many commentators today refer to as “emotional intelligence”.

In The Psychology of Interpersonal Behaviour – Perceiving, Michael Argyle talks about the difference between perceiving people and perceiving objects. The latter are pushed and pulled by physical [literal] laws. When we perceive people, however, we need to appreciate that they are, to some extent, not only responsible for events and initiating action, but also have conscious feelings, feelings ands intentions which may be about us also.

The outcome of this process is that we often perceive their perceptions, as opposed to, making an objective evaluation. As a person with AS, I believe I have often done this and done so inaccurately: a) by assuming that someone is thinking something they may not and; b) that I am automatically responsible for any disagreement or subsequent disharmony when, in fact, I am not to blame.

According to Argyle, we are consciously or sub-consciously continually engaged in a process of interpreting and making sense of other people and the social (work) events in which we are involved. This is important, because the way in which a person perceives (and interprets) events affects how they will subsequently behave.

In my experience in the work place, I can see that I have – because of my AS – developed pre-conceived perceptions of people or demonstrated displeasure because they do not act in a way which conforms to my parameters or expectations. Of course, in a work context this is a luxury that a person cannot normally enjoy.

In addition, I have been inflexible in my thought process and generally unwilling to try and adapt when issues arise. This is especially true where I have come across aggressive, confrontational people or those I perceive to be “unreasonable” or who differ from my perception of “right and wrong”.

Kelley as long ago as 1950 found that people who were told to expect a person to be warm interpreted their behaviour differently to those who were told they would be cold. In other words, observers make attributions about the causes of a person’s behaviour which affects the perceiver’s subsequent perceptions and actions.

However, as Argyle goes on to explain, when forming impressions and making attributions, there are a number of common, but important biases and sources of error. Inadequate social performance can be partly due to what he describes as “faulty person perception”.

For me, this is where my Asperger has been the root cause of a number of difficulties. In a business context, this is an example of what I refer to in my book Managing with Asperger Syndrome, as the Fundamental Attribution Error: associating a person’s [negative] behaviour with their personality and them as a person, as opposed to as a result, the circumstances they find themselves in which are causing it.

According to Argyle, when we form impressions of other people’s personalities we categorize them in various ways. Often we use trait words to describe other people and fit them into pre-conceived categories.

Everyone has dimensions, or sets of categories, which are important to them and which affect their subsequent behaviour. We may not be bothered where someone comes from for example, but we may uneasy about – say – their management style.

Personally, I feel that my “Asperger perspective” has determined that my categories are firm, defined and rigid and not, therefore perhaps, sufficiently flexible. Moreover, the words I have used to describe people or their actions have often been regarded by others as “blunt”. Looking back, these pre-dispositions have, at least in part, been the cause of conflict with work colleagues.

The research referred to by Kelly above, goes on to suggest that people use three different types of “construct” to form a perspective: roles (class, occupation), personality traits, (intelligence, extraversion-intraversion) and physical characteristics (e.g. attractiveness, height).

Some of the most common personality traits are: extraversion or sociability, agreeableness or likeability, emotional stability, intelligence and assertiveness. From an AS perspective, the interesting constructs for me are “agreeableness and likeability” to which I shall return later.

As people get older it is thought they come to perceive people in more complex ways. We use and allocate traits, values and motives, discover more regularities of behaviour and form clear ideas about how traits work. Whilst younger children develop and use traits like “silly”, “bossy” and “naughty” to describe people, adults use “intelligent”, “assertive” and “conscientious”. What is important, however, not to impose our concepts on the people we observe and interact with.

There are some other common factors that impact on our general impression forming process.

Effect of physical cues: our impressions of others are partly based on inferences about their appearance even though, sometimes, these are unjustified and misguided – people with glasses “appear” intelligent even if they are not, for example.

Voices are decoded in terms of stereotypes: a person’s accent may be used to allocate him to a particular social class or nationality. Clothes are under voluntary control and play an important part in self-presentation; we learn, to a degree, how the other person wants us to see them which is not quite the same as how they really are.

I have increasingly come to appreciate how the latter can exert real influence in terms of perception in the workplace both of me personally, and how I form impressions of others. This was never the case before because, of course, my dress code was distinct to my – not my environments’ – needs!

Physical attractiveness: people are widely classified this way which affects the way people are treated. An individual however, may not have an accurate perception of their own attractiveness. Factors like wearing fashionable clothes or exuding high self-esteem are thought to associate with more respected people.

Whether stereotypes have any truth in them or not they certainly affect what happens to people. Studies have proved that more attractive people tend to be selected at interview for example. Some of the physical behaviours associated with AS – echolalia for example – may have real, negative results at work.

Social stereotypes: these affect our impressions of others as they contain information that reduces the required effort of finding out more – not bothering to get to know what a person is really like or trying to understand why they are who they are etc.

Stereotypes of other groups are often negative. At work these may form around technical groupings such as operations or cliques. If you are outside the latter, which people with AS often are, then this can be detrimental in areas such as exerting influence, conflict avoidance and securing resources. Remaining insular in ourselves may also mean not fully understanding and empathising with work colleagues which hinders relationship building.

I can see looking back on my own work experience how these have a detrimental knock-on effect. Attitudes towards groups will be more unfavourable when there is conflict or discord with them or where it is perceived there are undeserved benefits accruing to that group. As I have often been “outside” these groups, I have not been able to get on board.

Stereotypes can also have a massive effect on the way events are perceived. The HR or Personnel department is excessively to blame for the execution of a redundancy programme for example.

Gender stereotypes: it is widely believed that men are perceived as more independent, assertive, self confident etc. while women are more sympathetic, affectionate, helpful etc. Studies have shown that these stereotypes can lead to biased judgements and I think that, unfortunately, this will almost certainly apply to those with a disability whether it is known or unknown (perceived) which it may well be in the case of someone with AS.

Names and Nicknames: names are important in social behaviour as they have clear indications of social class, race or regional origin. First names can also carry certain images.

People are given nicknames or labels by their peer groups which can signify acceptance into a social group and some social role within it – or vice-versa! These names are based on personal qualities (clever dick), particular incidents, (sneaky), or a person’s real name (surname Holmes, nickname Sherlock) and contribute towards impressions formed about them. A title may also be an appellation which is achieved, i.e. ranks in the army.

By consciously changing my behaviour in a work context, by mixing and associating with colleagues more, moderating my verbiage, trying to be more conciliatory towards colleagues and accepting of alternative views for example, I have been able I believe, to mitigate my AS and reduce the potential of others to stereotype me negatively. This has produced real benefits for both me personally and my performance.

Forming a simplified and unified impression: when forming impressions we tend to form an over simple picture of people which tend to be highly consistent.

With AS this has the potential to be quite detrimental because of the values I often demonstrate. By challenging my initial viewpoint, giving people the benefit of the doubt and proactively trying to reach an accommodation with those that don’t mirror my values and perceptions, I have had genuine success in preventing discord with work colleagues developing and forming ongoing working relationships with them.

Central to the final point – and most of the others as well – has been my ability and willingness to change my perception. As someone with AS this is the most advantageous tool that I have learnt to employ.

Each trait can also affect the meaning of other traits: “strong” is different if combined with “good”, (forceful) as opposed to, “bad”, (ruthless). The traits which are presented first affect the interpretation of those given later: if a person is classed as intelligent, they are more likely than not to also be regarded as “humorous”; all good things are assumed to go together. This is why at an interview, first impressions are so important.

By adopting a more conciliatory, moderate and amenable mindset initially, I have been able to contain and control the stronger, more disruptive elements of my Asperger which have previously come into play. The language I use is, perhaps, one pertinent example; not forming negative perceptions of people initially, the most important of all.

The book then looks at the social angle of perceiving. According to the author, we draw on social knowledge and expectations to help us interpret others, as this saves effort and makes the world seem more predictable. These expectations, cognitive constructs or “schemas” can take several forms. An important source of schemas is the way we see ourselves or “self schema”; others are then seen as similar to the self or contrasted with it. Of course, the schemas of someone with AS differ from those of neuro-typicals.

It is thought that when others are assessed on favourite or preferred schemas, there tends to be greater – self – accuracy along the dimensions used and of the judgements then formed.

The constructs an individual use may be quite different. Some people use very simple category systems with only one or two dimensions; others a considerable number of independent ones.

According to Argyle, the more complex the judgement or impression made, the more possible it becomes to handle another person in a more effective way or, as I interpret it, if we try to really understand and empathise with that person, the greater the likelihood that we will be able to get along with them.

Different constructs need to be used in different situations and different traits associated with, and used to describe, different groups or people. For me, I have found this incredibly useful when dealing with different types of managers or, perhaps more pertinently, colleagues from different professional groupings.

Dealing and communicating with a salesman for example – where the discourse that is required is usually straight and to the point – is different to that when speaking to a finance person who is more interested in numbers. I suppose what this is simply saying is: we need to demonstrate empathy with the other person’s personality, work responsibilities and objectives. As Argyle goes on to assert, stereotypes become less important the more information we have available to us.

Impressions of others are also based on the mood of the observer and, when so, are subjected to bias. This, for me, is a real issue and having Asperger. There are times when I simply don’t want to engage and interact with work colleagues. An extreme example – which fortunately doesn’t happen very often – is when I am experiencing a meltdown. When I am in this frame of mind, I try to withdraw as I am really unable to interact effectively.

Conversely, it is believed that if people are in a happy mood, or are positively pre-disposed towards someone else, they are likely to view people more positively. Forgas found that these mood effects were influential in judging the behaviour of atypical persons, where more cognition or thinking was needed to make sound and appropriate judgements. Where this possibly applies to me, is the effect I can have if I am interacting negatively or confrontationally (atypically) towards others which can induce a negative perception and response from work colleagues.

The text then investigates the accuracy of any perceptions formed of other people. Forming accurate impressions of others is important is all social situations, because we need to know how to handle people and how they will react if we are to facilitate effective, ongoing relationships. These are, of course, vital in any working environment.

In a work context, I have found this to be incredibly important. I have discussed before the importance of effective socialising at work, but what this point is also alluding to I believe, is day-to-day work scenarios – or corporate politicking!

What is meant by “accurate”? According to Argyle there are a number of sources of error in the perceptions we form of people and which relate to the points made earlier in this article. All I believe apply very strongly to the work environment.

Firstly: paying too much attention to physical cues or attributes. Automatically applying stereotyped views based on facets like membership of particular groups or a person, rather than, their responsibilities in relation to their role and job tasks, has been the source at times of damaging outcomes. In other words: I have overlooked the situational causes of observed behaviour.

Secondly: giving more weight to the negative aspects of a person’s personality. According to Argyle, a common mistake in less intelligent and socially less able individual’s, is simply paying insufficient attention to or interest in other people.

These characteristics often apply to someone with AS – myself included, of course – but they are, I believe, a consequence of the Asperger condition and not an insuperable inadequacy about something that cannot be overcome. As I have consciously determined to reach out to work colleagues I have found, and have become increasingly able, to interact and form productive working relationships with them by showing interest and a willingness to engage others.

The next point made by the text relates, in my experience, strongly to this. Accurate person perception may be impaired by the efforts of the target person to present a more favourable impression.

This is certainly true in my experience. However, what has previously been the case with me, is that I have automatically assumed that it is me who is causing the other person to interact in an unsure way towards me when, in fact, it is apprehension on their part which is preventing the conversation or relationship to proceed smoothly.

By changing this perception, and making a conscious effort to really reach out and engage with the other person, I have found I can overcome this barrier and really form advantageous, beneficial working relationships.

The key message here is that different actions will follow depending on the interpretations chosen. People will not make attributions all the time, but when they do, they tend to do so when something unexpected happens and, especially, when things go wrong. For me as someone with AS, this occurs when I come under pressure, which sometimes is the case in a business context.

The text then looks at Attribution Theory. This is about the way people act because of an internal cause or disposition, rather than, external causes such as work pressures.

A person’s attributional outlook can have self-consequences. Less confident people may blame themselves for something negative that happens to them, which means they expect it to keep on doing so. I suspect I have been susceptible to this on occasion.

However, if a person believes any past failings or personal shortcomings are attributable to controllable aspects of their life or environment, they are better able to develop and cope successfully in the future.

This final point is the key message I have taken from Argyle’s text in relation to work. Whilst I have, perhaps, been too quick to label previous negatives to other people in my career, I have also – because of my Asperger – been perhaps too fast to assert that my condition has been the cause some failures, or the unjustified perception of a few people towards me.

By changing my self-perception and trying to perceive others more positively – initially at least – has meant that I have been able to get along, and work effectively with a lot more, and the vast majority, of my colleagues.

Managing with Asperger Syndrome