Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Everything is skin deep

For anyone who has studied any psychology at all, it will come as no surprise to hear that humans are tragically simple creatures. I say tragically because we believe ourselves to be rational, logical, intelligent, and sensible. We think our decisions are based on sound judgment and reasoned conclusions. We are, of course, very wrong.
A couple of Princeton dudes have helped to display just how deep our stupidity goes. I suspect that was not the intent of their research, but that’s what’s resulted. Basically they have shown that we give our trust to people based almost entirely on what they look like. In the first quarter-second that we see someone, we determine whether they are trustworthy and competent, or kind of dodgy and a bumbler. This snap judgment persists in the face of almost any evidence to the contrary.
Among the many experiments they used, one utilized a pair of photographs of two French electoral candidates. The first was the winner, and the second the runner-up. These pictures were presented to a group of children aged 5 to 13 who had been primed to select the captain for their sailing ship as part of a game. With no information beyond the physical appearance of the two candidates, almost 80% of the kids picked the election winner to be the boss of their pretend ship. That is, what they call in the biz, “statistical significant date.” Seriously.
If you think “ah, kids are stupid, what do they know?” you should be aware that the scientists performed similar experiments with adults, including a sample group with PhDs in, of all things, psychology! One would think if they were any way to avoid this instinctive reaction that places appearance above everything, educated experts trained in the nuances of human behaviour would be able to do it, and yet they couldn’t (or wouldn’t).
Party platforms, campaign promises, comprehensive plans to save the world... these things mean nothing to us. Ultimately, we silly humans decide which hairless ape looks the most trustworthy in a handful of milliseconds, and that’s who we refuse to vote off the island, no matter what. Terrifying, to think that all of democracy is based on the idea that we, the people, know best how we are to be governed, when all we really know is who has the stronger chin.
Perhaps you wear rose-coloured glasses, though, or are a big believer in psychic phenomenon. If that’s the case, then our instant-judgment ability is just a telepathic short-cut that gets to the root of competence and quality without all that pesky “getting to know you” garbage. Snapshot. You suck. Snapshot. You’re awesome. Handy as that ability might be, I just can’t buy it, and neither can anyone else who’s ever dated, worked with, or voted for a charismatic moron.
For the curious, here’s the link to some of their research:

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