Do you make snap judgments? Do you jump to conclusions?
When you’re at a party, a bar, deciding where to sit on a bus, serving a customer, interviewing someone, meeting your new boss, meeting staff as their new boss, watching new neighbours move in – how long does it takes you to ‘sum someone up’? What if you see the face of an alleged criminal on the television? And how long does it take when you meet your daughter’s new boyfriend or your boyfriend’s new girl? Two minutes? Ten minutes? Think again.
I am sure you would say you make a considered decision and don’t rush to conclusions. You might say: ‘I always give someone the benefit of the doubt’. But we all know it doesn’t work like that – and the science appears to back up what really happens.
What the science says
According to some research published in the Journal of Psychological Science by Professor Alex Todorov of Princeton University, it takes us less than 1/10th of a second to decide if we trust someone or not. We respond intuitively to faces so rapidly that our reasoning minds may not have time to influence our reaction. And our intuitions about attraction and trust are among those we form the fastest.
“The link between facial features and character may be tenuous at best, but that doesn’t stop our minds from sizing other people up at a glance,” says Todorov, “We decide very quickly whether a person possesses many of the traits we feel are important, such as likeability and competence, even though we have not exchanged a single word with them. It appears that we are hard-wired to draw these inferences in a fast, unreflective way.”
Trustworthiness and fear are connected
Why does this happen? Can we change our reaction?Todorov says that judgments about trustworthiness and our fear response are connected.
“The fear response involves the amygdala, a part of the brain that existed in animals millions of years before the development of the prefrontal cortex, where rational thoughts come from,” he said.
“We imagine trust to be a rather sophisticated response, but our observations indicate that trust might be a case of a high-level judgment being made by a low-level brain structure. Perhaps the signal bypasses the cortex altogether.”
Sounds like what I call the Almond Effect®. Our amygdala (a Greek word for almond) assesses the situation and risk quickly and gives us instant feedback about how to react. The challenge is we mostly don’t reassess this reaction using our thinking brain, to see if it is valid. Our trust or lack of it simply becomes a habit.
What if we took longer?
So what if we deliberately try to hold off making a snap judgment and spend more time looking at someone’s face and assessing the context before we make up our minds?
Well, it seems that additional time alone isn’t going to change our first impression unless we actively work on engaging our rational brain to overcome the instant reaction of our amygdala.
“What we found was that, if given more time, people’s fundamental judgment about faces did not change,” Todorov said. “Observers simply became more confident in their judgments as the duration lengthened.”
Todorov went on: “As time passes and you get to know people, you, of course, develop a more rounded conception of them,” he said. “But because we make these judgments without conscious thought, we should be aware of what is happening when we look at a person’s face.”
So what if our first impressions are wrong?
I have heard some interesting stories from people in the customer service industry who quickly jumped to conclusions about their customers’ behaviour. For example, concluding that a customer who was slurring and unable to stand upright was drunk (and so treating them as if they were) when the customer actually had multiple sclerosis.
And, in the airline industry, actually telling a customer he was behaving irrationally when his baggage failed to make his flight. As it happened the customer was distraught, embarrassed and feeling foolish because he had left his house keys in his checked in luggage and had to get home and change his clothes to get to his daughter’s wedding.
A little empathy here may have made all the difference. Instead, the customer lodged a complaint and the airline lost a high revenue customer.
In another illustration, a new manager told me about how she formed quick views about members of a team she had just taken responsibility for. She made some decisions about their suitability for various roles and moved them accordingly – a move she later regretted.
What she had interpreted as lack of enthusiasm and commitment when she first met some members of her team, was in fact suspicion and concern as she was the third manager to be appointed to the team in 6 months…(it’s a long story!)
I know you can think of other situations both at work and at home (an unexplained hotel receipt in the back pocket?) when a snap judgement has caused us to reach the wrong conclusion and we have acted in a less than optimum way.
Reaching the right conclusion by managing The Almond Effect®
There are many methods we can learn to encourage our pre-frontal cortex, our thinking brain, to step in and prevent us reacting straight away when our amygdala goes on red alert.
First we need to catch ourselves getting worked up and then breathe. Once you have this level of self-awareness there are things you can think, do or say to get back in control.
Visualisations are powerful ways to let you take charge of a situation. You can do them at any time including visualising successful, stress-free, happy days at the beginning of every day.
It helps to prepare yourself by creating mental pictures that will save you from doing or saying something that you come to regret.
For example: can you use any of these approaches to buy some time instead of jumping to conclusions. At least use them as clues to developing your own amygdala restraining mechanism!
- Imagine a big pause button on your lips, and press it
- Imagine you have reins on, and pull yourself back
- ‘See’ yourself from the ceiling – is it a good look?
- Put a ‘hat on your heart’
- Go to your “happy place”, but don’t lose your focus on the situation
- Pull an imaginary transparent, impenetrable bubble over yourself
- Surround yourself in a column of golden light
- Put on an imaginary Golden Helmet that will protect you from hurtful words
- Imagine a set of traffic lights. Your job is to get yourself and the other person from red to green
- Become an actor – step outside yourself
- Consider: how would I look to my best friend right now? What would they think of my actions?
Snap judgments – only useful in life threatening situations
The science tells us that we make snap judgments about people’s trustworthiness and competence as part of our survival system. However we need to remember today that when our brains developed this safety mechanism we weren’t dealing with customers and employees and divorce laws hadn’t been drafted!