Perception of People

The uncomfortable truth is that most of us don’t come across the way we intend.  We can’t see ourselves truly objectively, and neither can anyone else. Human beings have a strong tendency to distort other people’s feedback to fit their own views. We know this intellectually, and yet we rarely seem to recognize it as it’s happening.

Manipulative people can use this dynamic to their advantage. For instance, I had an office mate in graduate school who was famous for his reserve in romantic relationships. He was a completely closed book. I once asked him if this caused problems for him with the women in his life, and he told me, with remarkable candor, that he did it intentionally – he had found that women would usually interpret his silences in positive ways. (He’s so mysterious.  He’s a deep thinker.  Maybe he’s been hurt before – I’ll bet he’s really sensitive…) The personality they would invent for him, he said, was in fact much better than his actual personality. As a psychologist, I found this fascinating.  As a single woman, on the other hand, I found it more than a little terrifying.

Assumptions, the cognitive miser’s other favorite shortcut, come in many varieties, too.  They guide what the perceiver sees, how that information is interpreted, and how it is remembered – forming an integral part of his or her perception of you. There are some assumptions so universal and automatic that you can count on other people making them about you (and you can count on people to have no idea that they are doing it):

  • You are who they expect you to be, in light of their past experience with you.
  • The first impression you give is the “right” one, and it shapes how everything else about you is perceived.
  • You are like the other members of groups to which you appear to belong.
  • If you have a very positive trait — if you are smart, beautiful, funny, kind, and so forth — you are likely to have other positive traits.
  • You share the opinions, feelings, and foibles of the perceiver, but not necessarily his or her ethical standards and abilities.
So you’re never really starting from scratch with another person, even when you are meeting them for the first time.  The perceiver’s brain is rapidly filling in details about you – many before you have even spoken a word.  Knowing this gives you a sense of what you’ve got going for you and what you might be up against.  And the more you can know in advance about your perceiver’s likes, dislikes, strengths, and weaknesses, the better equipped you will be to anticipate what’s being projected onto you.
Original write up written April 17, 2015.  All content extracted from Harvard Business Review