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We’re All Terrible at Understanding Each Other
Author: Heidi Grant Halvorson
Whatever you may have heard to the contrary, Chip Wilson is not an idiot. The founder and former CEO and Chairman of Lululemon Atheltica is, in point of fact, a highly successful entrepreneur, philanthropist, innovator, and self-made billionaire. Idiots are very rarely any of those things.
But a 2013 Bloomberg TV interview with him and his wife Shannon, Lululemon’s original athletic wear designer, was not one of his finest moments. When he was asked about reports of customers complaining about “pilling” in the company’s newest line of high-end yoga pants, he defensively replied that “some women’s bodies just actually don’t work” for yoga pants, and that the problem was “really about the rubbing through the thighs, how much pressure is there.” Translation: If your fat thighs are ruining your pricey Lululemon yoga pants, that’s your problem. Maybe my pants are not for you. (Incidentally, if you watch the video, you will see Shannon Wilson shoot him a look at that moment that would have surely turned him to stone had he noticed it, which he did not.)
It was, of course, horribly offensive – but was it Chip Wilson’s intention to be offensive? Did he even think what he said was offensive? In a video apology he later issued before stepping down as Lululemon’s Chairman, Wilson said that he was “sad for the repercussions of my actions” and that he “accepted responsibility,” that ubiquitous post-disaster PR phrase that everyone repeats but no one ever seems to mean. But nowhere did he actually acknowledge that there was anything wrong with what he had said, or that he personally had been wrong to say it.
I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that Chip Wilson did not intend, with those poorly chosen words, to insult and alienate his loyal customer base. (Or to seriously irritate his wife.) It just doesn’t make sense to assume otherwise. So, if that wasn’t his intention, and if he’s not an idiot (self-made billionaire, people), then what happened?
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.
That can cause you big problems in your personal and professional life. People may not trust you, may not like you, or may not even notice you, as a result of these errors in perception. If you have ever felt yourself underestimated or misjudged, if you have stepped on toes without meaning to and been called to task for it, if you have wanted to cry out “That’s not fair!” when false and hurtful assumptions have been made about you, I’m here to tell you that you are right. The way we see one another is far from fair. In fact, much of this process of perceiving other people isn’t even rational. It is biased, incomplete, and inflexible. It is also largely (but not entirely) automatic.
And yet no one is entirely unknowable either. In fact, some of us are actually easier to understand than others. These people seem to express themselves in ways that allow others to perceive them more accurately. Psychologists refer to this as being more or less “judgeable,” or as personality expert David Funder calls it, being a “good target.” What actually makes someone more judgeable? Funder has argued that in order for people to be accurate in their assessments of someone else, four things need to happen. The target must (1) make information available and (2) make sure that information is relevant. Then, the perceiver must (3) detect, or pay attention to that information and (4) use it correctly.
Let’s focus for now on the parts that are in the your (i.e., the target’s) control. To be judgeable, you are going to need to make information about yourself available to others, and it should provide evidence of the particular qualities you are trying to convey. (In other words, just knowing that you graduated at the top of your class at Harvard tells me nothing at all about how personable, trustworthy, creative, or resilient you are). So if you are a very shy and reserved person, who reveals next to nothing about your thoughts and feelings to the people around you, then they will know very little about you – aside from the fact that you are shy and reserved, obviously. The danger there is that people will generally fill in the blanks themselves, imagining a whole personality profile for you that may or may not – probably not – be accurate.
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.
Ignoring my former office mate for the moment, it is definitely better to be judgeable – to have other people read you easily and accurately. Research consistently shows that more judgeable people are psychologically better adjusted – they are happier; are more satisfied with their personal and professional lives; have more lasting, positive relationships; and have a greater sense of purpose. They feel they are able to live more authentically and are more confident in their self-knowledge. This makes a lot of sense. If people are seeing you the way you see yourself, then you aren’t getting all the unsettling, self-doubt-inducing feedback that the chronically misunderstood have to endure. Life is simply easier and more rewarding when people “get you,” and provide you with the opportunities and support that are a good fit for you.
But surely someone who knows you firsthand will see the real you – the self that you see, right? To answer that question, researchers asked nearly 400 college roommates to describe their own personality along with their roommate’s, to see if actually knowing each other, along with time spent living together, would have an impact on perception. Specifically, they wanted to see if over time, your roommate was more likely to begin to see you the way you see yourself. The answer was yes: so long as you have lived together for a minimum of nine months. It takes that long for perceptions to even begin to get in sync. And even then, the correlations between how college students saw themselves and how their roommates saw them were surprisingly low, in the .2-.5 range (remember, 1 would be a perfect correlation).
What about people who really know each other – like married couples? They share a life together, experience the same ups and downs, the same joys and worries, and (usually) sleep in the same bed. Surely, with all that intimate knowledge of you, your husband or wife must see you the way you see yourself, right?
Alas. There are, in fact, significant differences in perception among spouses, too. Interestingly, these differences are also highly predictable. These biases were nicely illustrated in a study of forty-four married couples, roughly half of whom were currently in marriage counseling. Those in counseling (or, as the researchers referred to them, the “distressed” group) were more likely to have a negative bias – they saw their partner in a far less flattering light than the partner did and tended to hold the partner more personally responsible for any bad behaviors they engaged in. So while Larry may see himself as a fairly conscientious guy who occasionally forgets to take the garbage out (who doesn’t?), his wife, Susan, sees him as irresponsible and inconsiderate, leaving her (once again) to pick up the slack.
The couples who were not in counseling — the “nondistressed” group — tended to have a positive bias, and were more forgiving. So when Bob forgets to take out the garbage, Mary sees him as merely a bit absent-minded, but really that’s understandable given how hard Bob has been working, and really, brilliant people are often a little absent-minded, aren’t they?
Now, maybe Susan is right and Mary is being a fool. I’m not saying that one of these biases is right and the other is wrong – in fact, any bias is by definition sometimes wrong. (On the other hand, a negative bias in a marriage is apparently quite likely to land you in marriage counseling… so that’s food for thought.) But taken together, it’s easy to see why misunderstandings between friends and lovers are so common, and why our relationships – the keys to our ultimate success and happiness – can be so stressful.
Now you may be asking yourself, if even married couples can’t understand each other – or even roommates, or leaders with teams of communications professionals, don’t come across the way they intend to – what hope do I have of ever getting my boss to see my potential, or my colleague to see how hard I work?
The first step is to understand how little we actually pay attention to each other, and how much we rely on assumptions.
In the 1980’s, psychologists Susan Fiske and Shelly Taylor were looking for a way to describe what research was showing to be a ubiquitous tendency among humans: to think only as much as they feel they need to, and no more. And so the metaphor of the cognitive miser was born, with each of us an Ebenezer Scrooge – except instead of sitting on piles of money and refusing to pay for an extra lump of coal to keep the house warm, we sit on reserves of mental energy and processing capacity, unwilling to spend much of it unless we really have to. We rely on simple, efficient thought processes to get the job done – not so much out of laziness (though there is some of that, too), but out of necessity. There is just too much going on, too much to notice, understand, and act on for us to give every individual and every occurrence our undivided, unbiased attention.
Human thought, like every other complex process, is subject to the speed-versus-accuracy trade-off. Go fast, and you make mistakes. Be thorough and diligent, and you take an eternity. We are, as Fiske later called us, motivated tacticians – strategically choosing ease and speed, or effort and accuracy, depending on our motivation. Most of the time, just the “gist” will do, so we choose the speed.
The cognitive miser’s favorite shortcut tools are heuristics and assumptions. Heuristics are rules of thumb like “Things that come to mind easily happen more frequently.” In other words, if I ask you “Does your Uncle Phil lose his temper a lot?” and you can remember a lot of times when your Uncle Phil lost his temper, then you will probably conclude that yes, Phil loses his temper quite often. But if you have a hard time recalling such an instance, you would conclude that Phil is gentle like a lamb. Like most rules-of-thumb, this heuristic will steer you toward the right answer much of the time. But it can also lead you astray.
Quick – which is more common, getting struck by lightening or getting bitten by a shark? Most people think shark bites are more frequent, when in fact roughly 5,000 people in the U.S. are struck by lightening each year, compared to only ten to fifteen who are attacked by sharks. (On the National Geographic Shark Week website, I also learned the fun fact that in 1996, only thirteen people were injured by sharks, while 43,000 were injured by toilets, and 2,600 by room fresheners.)
Why do we think sharks are a much bigger source of danger than lightening strikes and toilets and room fresheners? Because whenever someone is bitten by a shark, you hear about it on the news. There’s something so primally terrifying about shark attacks (thank you, Steven Spielberg) that it makes for a great infotainment story. When is the last time you saw a story about a lightening victim on the news, or a guy who fell and hit his head on the toilet lid, or … I’m honestly not sure how you get injured by a room freshener, but you see my point.
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):
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.
You don’t have to take all of this passively. For example, you can deliberately emphasize your group memberships or your good qualities, to benefit from positive stereotypes and halo effects. You can take pains to make the best possible impression right out of the gate, to use the primacy effect to your maximum advantage. You can make your opinions and values explicitly known. When you have made the wrong impression, or have changed in ways you want the people who know you to notice, you can use strategies that will get them to update their beliefs about you. But however you choose to use the information, it’s essential to start by knowing where you probably stand.
This article is excerpted from Heidi Grant Halvorson’s new book, No One Understands You and What to Do About It.