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: Humans 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 humans.

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. Those 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 might go almost entirely by appearances, with women being more susceptible than men.

  5. It is harder for the highly rational and self-aware to appreciate this phenomenon. 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.


Looking back, I am uncertain why I involved education (“graduates”, “the uneducated”)—and what seems to be formal education at that.

As I might have had some thought back then that does not occur to me now, I leave the text unaltered in this regard; however, I stress that I see little additional value in formal education over self-studies (at least, for those with good brains), and that the ability to think well seems to be largely inborn. Studies might hone this ability, but they will not turn a dullard sharp, nor are they a prerequisite to be sharp. (The main benefit of formal education is as a filter, to give some indication of who already had a good brain and who did not. Unfortunately, this filter effect has grown far weaker over the years due to dumbing down.)

To expand on the last item with an example: Let us view affectation on a 1–10 scale, ranging from almost no affectation to all-out phony. Different persons recognize affectation at different levels and become annoyed (disgusted, whatnot) with it as the respective threshold of recognition is increasingly exceeded. Someone low in ability to recognize might have a recognition threshold at 9, and be annoyed at 10 (or not at all); whereas someone more observant might recognize it at 2, be annoyed at 3 or 4, and be utterly disgusted at 9 or 10. The former, reasonably, strives for an own value in the range 7–9; the latter in the range 1–2. 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 8 might go from charismatic to phony resp. the 2 from “solid guy” to “big bore”. (The reader might recognize this as yet another case of the tall dancer issue.)

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