How we develop hunches about people

Here’s what happens when we’re trying to figure out what we think about something: we look. We notice. We tally what we like and don’t like, placing it into a good or bad column, essentially weighing the pros and cons of each one. If we’re on a date and figuring out if we like someone, we start putting marbles on the scale based on the first pieces of information we get.

Cute? Heck yes!

Body not quite as imagined? Yes, but that’s online dating for you.

Seems nice? Yes! Choice of restaurant? Shirt? Questionable… but not super important. A good kisser! The list grows:

At some point, it’s obvious which list is going to be longer. When things start leaning in one direction—even if we’re not consciously aware of this—we start paying more attention to information to add to that list. It’s simply easier to learn new information that backs up what you already know. This process is known as confirmation bias.

You’re used to hearing about confirmation bias when it comes to the news. In one study, voters who claimed to be “undecided”—but had hunches learning in a certain direction—ended up voting in line with their gut response, a few weeks later. What did they do during those few weeks? They watched more news that backed up their hunch.1Galdi, Silvia, Luciano Arcuri, and Bertram Gawronski. “Automatic mental associations predict future choices of undecided decision-makers.” Science 321, no. 5892 (2008): 1100-1102.

“Decision-makers sometimes have already made up their mind at an unconscious level, even when they consciously indicate that they are still undecided.”

Confirmation bias happens in our social lives, too. The way that we interpret new information about someone depends on what we already think about them: we interpret things in a way that confirms our hunches. And isn’t most information about other people pretty ambiguous, and open for interpretation?

Let’s say your date texts you right after you get home. If you’re leaning towards a no, your list might look like this:

But if you didn’t want that date to end, that text is like crack:

Think about it: one of the easiest things in the world to do is make excuses for someone you find incredibly hot. When we’re really attracted to someone, it’s almost impossible for them to do any wrong.

What does any of this have to do with your work/love life? Everything. If we don’t like someone, we’re not going to interpret that text kindly; if we respond, it won’t be very kind. Those we find hot, however, always get our A game.

If you assume that someone is a bitch, you’re setting yourself up for difficult interactions in the future: they won’t be able to do anything right. If you think that someone is really nice—but, perhaps, going through a hard time—you’re setting yourself up for a kind interaction, the very thing that can lead to a healthy, lasting relationship.

Treating people we don’t like poorly, and treating people we like very well, leads to inevitable self-fulfilling prophecies in our interactions and relationships. Your homework? Pretend like everyone you meet is gorgeous, kind, and amazing. Your world, I promise, will open up.

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