Certain experts in certain fields can make very good judgements in a very short amount of time. These judgements are often as accurate as any finding that would be rendered in a more lengthy, more thorough analysis. Delivered with confidence and certainty, such quick assessments feel like a parlor trick of sorts.
It’s the way a practiced poker player can assess an opponent’s hand by factors and cues the rest of us don’t see. Or the way a veteran doctor or psychiatrist can make a proper diagnosis in three minutes. Or a firefighter can predict the movements of a house fire.
This ability is developed over many years of practice and exposure, combining the best of the expert’s ingrained intuitions with the countless layers of technical knowledge that comes with experience. Psychologists call it thin-slicing. Many people will remember the term from Malcolm Gladwell’s bestselling book, Blink.
Before then, this ability was also deeply studied in Gary Klein’s classic, Sources of Power. I think it’s the best book written on decision-making. Especially since it demonstrates very clear ways that great decision-making is (and isn’t) achievable.
First Impressions, Second Thoughts
The trouble with studying these abilities and techniques is it leads you to imagine yourself applying the methods to your own life. After all, it would be great to be able to “thin-slice” and make fast, accurate decisions in everything. We are naturally inclined to do this anyway, even in areas where we lack expertise.
This is why the halo effect exists. Our minds are naturally inclined to make superficial judgements based on aesthetic qualities that we then transfer to a person’s moral character. If you see someone wearing a suit, they must be smart and successful and responsible. See someone else dressed in dirty jeans and a ripped shirt, and you’ll think something very different.
Unless, of course, you happen to dress the same way.
The point is that the halo effect obscures our full view of an individual and leads our imagination to fill-in the information gaps with whatever biases, preferences, and ideologies we possess. This is what first impressions are made of. Simple projections on past knowledge, all of which could be deeply flawed to begin with.
Some of this simply cannot be changed. And probably shouldn’t.
Some of it is also unavoidable. Consider the example of a criminal trial. Most people are readily aware of the deliberate ways defense attorneys dress their clients for success. No defendant ever enters a courtroom without looking their best, as likeable and sympathetic as possible. We know such appearances have nothing to do with a person’s guilt or innocence and still the halo effect emerges. As Robert Cialdini writes in his book Influence:
Attractive defendants were twice as likely to avoid a jail sentence in a trial as compared to unattractive defendants.
By the way, it works for plaintiffs too. And it runs deeper than appearances. It includes body language and any distinct quality we don’t ordinarily see. For example, as an American, I always view people who speak with a British accent as sophisticated and intelligent. They could wear a Bud Lite t-shirt and flip-flops and I’d still expect them to live in a castle and hold afternoon tea.
I like that sort of thing. So I blend it all together even when it doesn’t make sense.
The point is that our attitudes and inferences of people can be very nonsensical in good and bad ways. It all comes down to the things we like. When we see more of what we like, we become more open to a person and give them more opportunity to influence.
As Cialdini writes:
The halo effect is well-documented but in the context of “liking” it’s the way we like a person’s style. It can be attractive in the perfunctory aesthetic sense or it can be attractive as something exotic and novel or indicative of other traits.
Additionally, there is a pattern to the things we like. Which means that we can each, here and now, identify the groups of people who have natural influence with us. This is a loose indication of our tribal allegiances. As Cialdini writes:
We like people who are similar to us. This fact seems to hold true whether the similarity is in the area of opinions, personality traits, background, or lifestyle.
There’s nothing groundbreaking about these insights. People like what they like and like other people who like what they like. Nonetheless, this simple notion of “liking” helps me maintain a certain necessary openness that I want to champion here.
Happy With What They’re Happy With
Cialdini’s book features a story about boys in a summer camp who, after being divided into two groups, immediately fell into tribal rivalries and fierce competition. It is surprising how fast the animosity grew. As he writes:
Simply separating the boys into two residence cabins was enough to stimulate a “we vs. they” feeling between the groups. Then assigning names to the two groups accelerates the sense of rivalry. Later, a recipe for disharmony was quick and easy: just separate the participants into groups and let them sit for a while in their own juices. Then mix together the flame of continued competition (through tug-of-way, races, treasure hunts, etc) and cross-group hatred grows to a roiling boil.
Later, the experiment showed how unity and friendship was restored once the boys were given common goals and shared experiences. We see this all the time in other stories, books, and experiments. What frustrates me about each of these circumstances is the mind’s deep persistence to make those halo-effect snap judgements based on such absurd, arbitrary cues.
We think we’re experts thin-slicing a problem. We see people on the other side and just know, within seconds, all their tendencies and motivations. The stories practically write themselves. We, on this side, would be so much better if those others, on that side, were like us.
The irony, of course, is that they are.
The Good Common Ground Ignored
They, on that other side of the fence, aisle, hallway, or railroad tracks are very much like us. In countless ways that we can already acknowledge. In fact, as Jo Cox memorably said,
We are far more united and have far more in common with each other than things that divide us.
Why don’t we acknowledge this more often?
I think it’s because we recognize the strong influence that comes from likeability. We welcome that in certain tribes and not welcome it in others. For example, republicans and democrats alike will go to a concert without worrying about political allegiances. But they’ll never go to the other party’s rallies.
That’s fine. So long as we can still somehow remember that we both like the same music.
Why can’t we remember that? Why can’t we be happy, as a collective, with what makes us collectively happy?
It’s the competition, I suppose. The competition for power or some other such thing that we think is at stake. The dismal irony of that truth is that such competitive, close-minded, rivalrous thinking means we have less ability to actually get the things we want. As Cialdini reports from his outstanding website:
In a series of negotiation studies carried out between MBA students at two well-known business schools, some groups were told, “Time is money. Get straight down to business.” In this group, around 55% were able to come to an agreement.
A second group however, was told, “Before you begin negotiating, exchange some personal information with each other. Identify a similarity you share in common then begin negotiating.” In this group, 90% of them were able to come to successful and agreeable outcomes that were typically worth 18% more to both parties.
The first group was driven by scarcity, which has disastrous effects, and rivalry (we know who they are and so let’s just get to business). They are more ineffective.
The second group was driven by the sort of curiosity and openness that is championed in Chris Voss’s fantastic book on negotiation and Stone, Patton, and Heen’s book on difficult conversations. This group found common ground. I guarantee you it wasn’t hard. Especially if they used any of the techniques the aforementioned books share.
The results speak for themselves. I bet the group became creative, more relaxed. They put halos on each others heads right from the start.
It was a deliberate use of our natural tendencies for intentional, positive effect.
Why not do that more often? I can say, firsthand, that it makes you and the other person happier. Seriously. And we all want to be happier. That’s one of the many desires we share. The more we focus on these commonalities, the better. Nevermind the moral argument for this. Just keep it simple: we’re truly happier, healthier, and probably wealthier when we find the good in others. Let’s start there more often.