Tuesday, April 06, 2010

First Impressions: How Our Unconscious Mind Deceives Us

You are a recruiter. You go into the lobby to meet your applicant. Your applicant is sitting next to a very large, obese woman. As you walk your applicant back to your office, you begin to formulate your initial impressions. Would you believe it if I told you that your first impressions were going to be more negative because the applicant was sitting next to the obese woman? Even if the applicant had no relationship or connection with the overweight woman whatsoever?

I was introduced to this fascinating brain phenomenon while listening to a radio interview with Shankar Vedantam, the author of The Hidden Brain: How our Unconscious Mind Elect Presidents, Control Markets, Wage Wars and Save Our Lives. Mr. Vedantam explained that most of the decisions that we make are affected unconsciously by many factors that we would never consciously consider relevant.

How could the biases toward obese people possibly transfer to a person who just happens to be sitting near by?

To find out, I examined the research study on which this information is based. Sure enough, in the laboratory, some completely irrational results were recorded.

Two studies were conducted by researchers Michelle R. Hebl and Laura M. Mannix of Rice University. In Experiment 1, Hebl and Mannix showed random individuals a dossier including a resume and a photograph of a presumed applicant. The photographs showed the applicant in a social setting (described as a work reception). In one set of photos, the applicant was seated next to a woman of average weight, size 8, of average attractiveness. In the other set, the applicant was seated next to the same woman but this time the woman was wearing a realistic prosthesis that brought her size to 22. They asked the individual to rate the applicant on a variety of factors including the extent to which they would recommend hiring. The results showed that people were less likely to recommend the applicant shown seated next to the heavy woman. They also rated the applicant next to the heavy woman lower on various Professional Qualities and Interpersonal Skills. The results were statistically significant.

Amazing.

In Experiment #2, they researchers took it one step further. They invited individuals to (ostensibly) interview applicants. They compared a variety of scenarios which included (but were not limited to):
- The male applicant sitting next to the obese woman
- The male applicant holding hands with the obese woman
- The male applicant sitting next to the average sized woman
- The male applicant holding hands with the average sized woman

The individuals were asked to provide a pre-interview opinion on the applicant.

Remarkably, the results were similar to Experiment 1. Those applicants in the proximity of the overweight woman were judged more harshly than those next to the average size woman. Perhaps the most surprising finding was that the results were the same whether the applicant was believed to be in a relationship with the overweight woman or complete strangers.

Hebl and Mannix suggest that when we form impressions, we take in a wide variety of environmental cues that go beyond the specific individual themselves.

What does this mean for HR?

Most of us are aware that stereotypes act as faulty shortcuts and may cause us to make poor HR decisions if we don't consciously set them aside. We might make false assumptions about applicants or employees based on their age, gender, race, attractiveness, height, etc. With this new knowledge, that we might unintentionally spread the stereotype stigma to others, we now have to be even more keenly aware of how we are forming impressions and how we are making decisions.

In a second interview that I heard with Mr. Vedantam, he was asked if these unconscious manifestations absolve us from the aberrant behavior since it's out of our control. Vedantam wisely responded absolutely not. He believes (and I concur) that regardless of the phenomena about how are brains (mis)function, we are still most assuredly responsible for our actions. Absolutely.

1 Comments:

Blogger Paul Smith said...

Thanks for this example. I will surely follow your tips. First impressions are the most lasting:) It's important to know how to create a good first impression. Thanks and keep in touch! Best regards, http://www.edit-ing.services/.

11:09 PM, February 14, 2016  

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