Michael Eriksson
A Swede in Germany
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Cognitive bias and impression

Apparently cognitive psychology (cf. [cog psych]) has shown a clear “cognitive bias” in humans that:

  1. Gives more attention to threats than non-threats.

  2. Interprets ambiguous situations in a worst-case manner.

(Which makes sense from an evolutionary POV.)

Applying the results of laboratory tests to the office will not necessarily work well; however, they do match my own experiences reasonably: People do tend to imagine slights and attacks where none are present; recall criticism better than compliment; pick out one negative item in a mostly positive critique; imagine personal hostility behind objective, even constructive, feedback; and so on.

These are some of the most important lessons to learn when dealing with people.

Another interesting thing is that there is a considerable amount of unconscious processing done. Body language, smiling/frowning, clothing, and similar factors, can have a strong positive or negative effect on an unconscious plane. Notably:

  1. First (immediate) impressions and very short impressions will be very susceptible.

  2. People who are not used (or able) to think clearly, recognize their own reactions, or otherwise parry these influences, are likely to base too much of their reactions on, e.g., a shiny shirt.

  3. Even among graduates, in my experience, this poses a considerable problem.

  4. The young, the inexperienced, and the uneducated may go almost entirely by appearances. I would tend to make the same statement about women; however, that might be an artifact, e.g. because my view of men is influenced by introspection (and I am not necessarily representative).

  5. It is harder for the highly rational and self-aware to appreciate this phenomena. I, e.g., always try to look through appearances and often react negatively if someone seems better than he is; and naturally, but usually too optimistically, expect the same of others.

To expand on the last item: One way to look at it, is to assign different thresholds to different people where affectation is recognized, respectively becomes detrimental to the overall impression. Someone low in rationality might (on a hypothetical 1–10 scale) recognize affectation at 9, and be annoyed by it at 10; whereas a highly rational person might recognize it at 2, and be annoyed at 4. The former, reasonably, strives for an own value 7–9; the latter 1–3. Who is the more successful will depend on the surroundings: Both will do well among their own kind; both will have trouble in the reverse setting, where the charismatic 8 becomes a phony and the “solid guy” an uncharismatic bore. Notably, the 8/9s are more common than the 2/3s in real-life. (The reader may recognize this as yet another case of [tallDancer].)

One could speculate that this also affects writing, e.g. that texts like “Super offer! Revolutionary xxx! Only 599.99!” actually do have a positive effect on the average person (whereas they annoy and disgust me).