Look me in the eye

We have all been aware of the shameful racism towards some England players at the Euro 2020 final. But it gives us the opportunity to consider how we, individually, tend to react to groups of people in much the same way. How do we think about the Irish, or the Scottish, men or women — or any other group with observable characteristics. Are we aware that our prejudicial responses have been necessary for the development of homo sapiens. I wrote about this a dozen or so years ago, and I thought it might be useful to remind you.

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In a careless moment I have just knocked a heavy book onto the floor. My dozing cat instantaneously leapt from her favourite chair and scudded out of my study as if the world was coming to an end. She lives a safe and peaceful life but, being a cat, she knows that sudden noises spell danger and so her instinctive reaction is to run.

She is very like me. Aeons ago my ancestor heard a rustle in the undergrowth. He did not wonder whether it was harmless or a predator, his instinct told him to escape – and to keep going. Perhaps there were other hominids who rejected such caution and went to investigate. I did not descend from these for they did not survive to have progeny.

So let’s come forward through a few hundred thousand years, and note a recent study, at New York University, which tells us that we decide, even before we are conscious of it, whether a new acquaintance is honest or not. The recognition of an “untrustworthy” face can be measured in brain changes – even when images have been shown too quickly for any judgment to be made. Evolution ensures that biological creatures have developed to take such instinctive actions when faced by the possibility of danger or opportunity. We act on first impressions. But, like so many responses developed in primitive times they can sometimes be inappropriate today.

I have numerous grandchildren who are at an early stage in the job market, and they sometimes seek my advice about a prospective selection interview. They are surprised that I shy away from detail, and point out to them that selection interviews are hopelessly inaccurate, and that conclusive decisions are likely to be made within the first five minutes. What really matters is whether the interviewer likes the candidate or not. And once his mind is made up, subsequent information which conflicts is unlikely to be registered. And it will help if you are able to follow a poor candidate: you will look better by comparison.

We may experience the same thing when we attend a talk from a new speaker. How long does it take you to assess his intelligence, his social class, whether you would like him, whether he knows what he is talking about, whether he is worth listening to? You will decide all that in the first few seconds, and much of it before he has opened his mouth. It is true that in some cases you may have to revise your opinion but, most often, your general reaction of optimism or pessimism will influence you through to the end.

Indeed optimism itself can be manipulated. I once had a boss who was very good at refusing my requests but, knowing what a pride he took in his mathematics, I would put in a deliberate mistake. His pleasure in spotting it, together with my admiration for his skill, was often enough to get me what I wanted. Psychologists tell us that someone asked to read a text majoring on either depressing or encouraging words, will be influenced in both their mood and their subsequent decisions.

Hair, height, spectacles, general attractiveness, handshake, accent (class-related, regional, foreign) posture, shape of face, eyebrows, movements, gaze, smile, tone of voice, rhythm of conversation, clothes, skin tone, girth, name, address, are amongst the many signals which we know induce first impressions. And these impressions tend to stick. If you are running from danger it is safer to keep running than to stop and reconsider. Even contrary facts arising later may be denied, but more often they are simply overlooked. Sometimes interviewers refuse to believe that contrary evidence has been given until they listen to the tape recording.

Perhaps our first concern is to school ourselves to give the right first impressions. Have you ever thought of testing your handshake with a friend, or switching from contact lenses to spectacles? (The latter adds 12 IQ points to appearance.) But more important for our purposes here is to consider how accurate we may be in judging others. If we read the signs wrong we may of course make mistakes but, even worse, we may be responsible for an injustice. What precautions can we take?

Sometimes a signal may have a rational basis. So we might be right to suspect that a firm and friendly handshake comes from a firm and friendly person, but the sense of authority we attribute to a tall person is a primitive relic. Imputing greater honesty to received pronunciation than we do to a Glaswegian accent is cultural; and imputing virtue to those of attractive appearance is simply human nature. I do not advocate suspicion or cynicism, but it is prudent to remember that we too are susceptible to judging by the superficial. And we should be consciously open to changing our opinions as further evidence comes to hand.

We may be getting worse at this. A recent study suggests that those who spent too much of their time looking at screens of various sizes, rather than looking at people, gradually reduce their ability to read the emotions of others. It is ironic that social media, which presumably intends to bring people together, may be doing so at the expense of real encounter.

My wife told me that when we first met, over 60 years ago, she wondered who this odd scruffy person who actually argued with her – unlike her previous respectable boyfriends – could be. I asked her whether she had revised her first impressions since then. The little pause before she gave her tactful answer told me more than I wanted to know.

About Quentin

Portrait © Jacqueline Alma
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9 Responses to Look me in the eye

  1. David Smith says:

    Quentin writes ( https://secondsightblog.net/2021/07/13/look-me-in-the-eye-2/ ) :

    // A recent study suggests that those who spent too much of their time looking at screens of various sizes, rather than looking at people, gradually reduce their ability to read the emotions of others. //

    That stands to reason. The great deal of time most of us spend at the various screens in our lives is time spent away from real people. A factor that further reduces the time we might spend with others is reading. In the economy with which most of us must engage to earn our living, reading requires a great deal of time; our culture is constantly churning out new information that our work requires us to learn.

    Both in watching actors on screens and in reading the enormous amount of academic and quasi-academic material explaining how and why people think and behave as they do, we are likely, I think, to come to believe that we are gaining an understanding of our fellow man, when, in fact, we’re only learning generalities about abstractions, models. It’s been my impression that people watching a movie will come away believing that they’ve had a particularly valuable lesson in human behavior. The action on the screen apparently remained real to them even after they left the theater. Fantasy became lived experience. On other hand, the supposedly scientific studies of human psychology we read and read about are studies of statistical models, not of real people; nevertheless, there seems to me to be a growing belief in our culture that everything, humans included, can or will soon be understood perfectly through scientific experimentation. So, even the studies of the “scientific” models we read about are also likely to become, in our imagination, lived experience.

    We live in an increasingly factitious universe, made of plastic, concrete, glass, and metal and of electronically mediated and created experience. Inevitably, that means that we are becoming increasingly factitious creatures, able relate only to imaginary images of the real people in our lives.

  2. David Smith says:

    Quentin writes ( https://secondsightblog.net/2021/07/13/look-me-in-the-eye-2/ ) :

    // But more important for our purposes here is to consider how accurate we may be in judging others. If we read the signs wrong we may of course make mistakes but, even worse, we may be responsible for an injustice. What precautions can we take? //

    l don’t give it a lot of thought. When I dislike someone for some reason, I’m still amenable to moderating my dislike. But as you also write:

    // Aeons ago my ancestor heard a rustle in the undergrowth. He did not wonder whether it was harmless or a predator, his instinct told him to escape – and to keep going. Perhaps there were other hominids who rejected such caution and went to investigate. I did not descend from these for they did not survive to have progeny. //

    Yep. There were reasons for my dislike in the circumstances in which it was formed. Those were important then, and they’ll likely remain important. If I later acquire more understanding of the person or of the circumstances and as I simply acquire more understanding of myself and of life in general, the dislike will almost certainly fade in importance. If it doesn’t, it may be time to re-evaluate things. We are who we are, and life goes on.

  3. Alasdair says:

    With reference to the first paragraph of Quentin’s introduction – may I ask, what are the “observable characteristics of Scottish men and women”? By this I presume Quentin means characteristics which are consistently different from those of English men and women who, I’m guessing, form the majority of the forum members. Bear in mind that “Scottish men and women” includes the very large, very active, and very influential part of the Scottish population, whose roots lie outside Scotland, and the wider UK.

  4. ignatius says:

    Alisdar writes:
    “By this I presume Quentin means characteristics which are consistently different from those of English men and women who, I’m guessing, form the majority of the forum members. ”

    No I don’t think so. We have Australians, Americans, Irish, Hungarians, Scots and probably several other tribes/people groups among our small an ever shrinking little band…sticky wicket there, Alisdair !

    • milliganp says:

      Almost every race has subtle but distinguisable characterisitics. One of the ones I notice in Scots is a tendency to talk out of the side of the mouth. This also seems to appear in part of the Ulster population. My father came from Northern Ireland and, as I get older I notice that I have developed the same tendency. It is not there in photos of me when younger but it is now quite pronounced. I had the English RP speech beaten into me by priests as a child so it is not that I have an accent to go with the movement of my lips.
      Quentin has based a number of introductory posts on this innate “identify friend or foe” system built into our subconcious, I think it’s important to recognise that it is natural and innate. We can then choose to conciously counter initial subconscious feelings but to pretend it doesn’t exist or is conscious rather than unconscious is to misunderstand it.

      • ignatius says:

        RE MilliganP above:
        “Quentin has based a number of introductory posts on this innate “identify friend or foe” system built into our subconscious, I think it’s important to recognise that it is natural and innate..”
        Yes. I’ve been meaning to make this point for ages. Your human being is, to paraphrase Hobbes..’nasty brutish and short lived ‘ In other words we have a streak of meanness. Well so what? As I was once told in the confessional ” its not about what goes on inside your head, its what you DO with it that counts.

  5. John Candido says:

    God Quentin, I wish you could get rid of WordPress for a more user-friendly site. I wrote a post for ‘Look me in the Eye’ only to lose it. This isn’t the first time this has happened to me. What about WordPress’s notification settings? I do not get notified when you publish a new post it when anyone posted a reply. This has been going on for years!

    • Quentin says:

      I’m not sure I understand your problem — probaby because I am not a ‘computer’ person. But it seems to have gone well since 2008. And I wouldn’t want to lose the material on it. But I do notice that your email is not on my list. It is now.

    • David Smith says:

      John, I’ve had this problem here, too. My solution – works today, may fail tomorrow – is to save my text in case the submission falls into a black hole and to use different browsers for different platforms. Also, now and then I’ve noticed that something I’ve sent does not appear for a minute or five but does eventually show up. Toss a coin and hope.

      The Internet and the million little programs people write and continually “improve” for it is an unholy mess. That likely won’t change in our lifetimes. The mindset of modern man seems to include a willingness to tolerate chaos in the name of one of the new gods – the mighty and omnipotent Progress.

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