How the Peeple App's Psychological Logic Misses The Mark

By Gizmodo on at

Several weeks ago, Julia Cordray and Nicole McCullough unveiled their plans for a new app called “Peeple,” billed as a “Yelp for People” where users would be able to conveniently rate every person they’ve ever met as if they were trendy restaurants or hair salons. They think this will help spread “good feeling.” Social psychology begs to differ.

The app has justifiably received plenty of criticism on all sorts of legal and ethical fronts. Unacknowledged in these critcisms is that when the founders talk about their rationale for why it’s a good idea, their logic reveals an ignorance of actual social psychology.

Will Peeple Help With Due Diligence?

According to Julia Cordray, in her pitch about the app to the Washington Post, “People do so much research when they buy a car or make those kinds of decisions…why not do the same kind of research on other aspects of your life?” Essentially, Cordray expects that it should be valuable for people to be able to do thorough research on potential babysitters, friends, or neighbours. However, this benefit depends on one huge assumption: that what people say about someone in one context can offer valuable information about how that person will be in another context.

In reality, people naturally shift between several “different selves” depending on the situations that they’re in. The huge amount of inconsistency in how people behave across situations even led social psychologist Walter Mischel to boldly proclaim in Personality and Assessment (Wiley, 1968) that there is truly “no such thing” as personality, because people’s behaviours differ so wildly across different situations.

Mischel’s later research with Yuichi Shoda has greatly tamed this hyperbolic claim — there is certainly a “such thing” as personality. But the fact that behaviour can differ wildly across situations is not controversial, and not debated by anyone — not even personality psychologists. As Sam Sommers wrote in Situations Matter: Understanding How Context Transforms Your World, “We’re easily seduced by the notion of stable character. So much of who we are, how we think, and what we do is driven by the situations we’re in, yet we remain blissfully unaware of it.”

As an example, our own self-concepts and self-distinctions differ wildly just based on who we’re around. We tend to think of ourselves in terms of what makes us distinctive. Let’s say I asked you to write down 5 or 10 statements that define what makes you “you.” If you are the only woman in a room full of men (or vice versa), you will most likely say “I am a woman” or “I am a man” early on in your list — because it’s distinctive, so it’s salient at that moment. If you’re surrounded by other people of the same gender and yet you’re the youngest one in the room by 20 or 30 years, you probably won’t think to mention your gender at all — but you will most likely mention your age. The fact that our surroundings can so easily sway how we define our selves says something pretty impressive about how much our situations influence our own self-views — and possibly how we will act around and portray ourselves to others.

Even personality traits that we think of as relatively stable are largely subject to situational influences. Take potential romantic relationships — another possible useful application for Peeple. Research on attachment theory describes how people habitually form attachments with caregivers (early in life) and romantic partners (later in life), and broadly claims that people can either be securely attached (comfortable with intimacy and trust), anxiously attached (constantly experiencing doubt/worry about relationships), or avoidantly attached (uncomfortable with intimacy, dismissive, and aloof). These attachment styles are theoretically supposed to be fairly stable, trait-like patterns.

Except…that’s not quite true. Even though the “stability” of attachment patterns was, for a while, thought to be a given in personality psychology, later research showed that when people were asked to list and describe the 10 most important relationships that they’d had in their lives, over 50% of the participants had experienced all three major attachment styles at some point — they reported at least one relationship in which they were securely attached, one in which they were anxiously attached, and one in which they were avoidantly attached.

Really, if you think about the nature of relationships, this makes sense. Everyone has the potential to be securely, anxiously, or avoidantly attached — especially if you end up with someone who brings out the best (or the worst) in you. Even the most “stable” personality traits are subject to change and adaptation over time. With all of this potential for fluidity, how helpful is it really to hear from someone’s ex?

Does Peeple Provide Useful Additional Information?

There’s a good chance that the way someone acts in one situation does not necessarily say anything useful about how they will act in a different situation with a different person — even if we’re comparing similar situations, like two different romantic relationships of the same person. But what about personality traits that are pretty consistent across situations and do say something about that person’s true nature? Does the potential to share that information on Peeple add anything above and beyond what we’d naturally gather from real life anyway?

Probably not. From decades of research, we already know that people make snap judgements about others incredibly quickly, based on very thin slices of information — and they usually don’t stray very far from those initial impressions over time. We are constantly leaking “expressive behaviours” that are “unintended, unconscious, and yet extremely effective” when it comes to conveying information about ourselves and our personalities to others.

We can reliably make fairly accurate predictions about people’s personalities based on less than five minutes of exposure to their behaviour, and there is even evidence to suggest that slices of behaviour as short as 30 seconds can be just as useful. In various studies, people were able to assess teacher effectiveness, teacher bias, teacher adequacy, deception, trustworthiness, voting behaviour, anxiety, depression, and the way that a therapist would speak to patients in that time frame. And these initial assessments don’t waver. In one study, end-of-semester teacher evaluations correlated remarkably high with the initial ratings that students had given those teachers — without the sound for that teachers lecture even on.

If we form evaluations so quickly, and those evaluations are so resistant to change over time, what is the added benefit of an extensive database of evaluations? Is there really all that much that we think this service can add that we don’t already do for ourselves after a few minutes of in-person interaction?

Will The “Real Name Policy” Keep Everyone Nice?

Finally, in response to the criticism that people will use the site as an “adult burn book” to bully other people, the co-founders argued that people will be “nicer” than the average online commenter because Peeple will not allow people to be anonymous.

Once again, that’s not how this works. When Cordray and McCullough say this, they are probably thinking about the research on deindividuation — the social psychological concept that says that when people feel anonymous, they are more likely to act in antisocial, violent, or aggressive ways, and these tendencies wane when people feel more identifiable.

But think about the comments you may have seen when magazines or newspapers share articles on Facebook. Have you seen what some people will say? Even with their names and photos attached, that doesn’t stop some people from being vile. This is because deindividuation isn’t about whether or not your name is attached to your words. At its core, it’s really about the fact that when we feel like we’re part of a group, or something keeps us from feeling like we’re under the spotlight or being held personally responsible, we don’t feel as much pressure to do the “right thing.” This gives us more leeway to act antisocially.

Being an “Anonymous Author” can provide that mask and that diffusion of personal attention and/or responsibility. But do you know what else can also do that? A computer screen. Not being able to see the faces of the people you’re talking to (or about). And massive comment threads, where your name is attached to your words but your comment is also 1 in 1,000.

You don’t need to make people literally anonymous to see the effects of feeling “anonymous.” In experiments, simply asking people to imagine that they are in a crowded room is enough to cause deindividuation effects and encourage antisocial behaviour. So why do we think that this sense of moral liberation won’t extend to people who are effectively masked by a computer screen, a phone, or a massive list of comments or evaluations?

Ultimately, there are many reasons to feel concerned about the effect that an app like Peeple could have on society and interpersonal behaviour. And I’ll add one more to the list — a deep misunderstanding by the brains behind Peeple about how the brains inside people actually work.

By Melanie Tannenbaum