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A little (trivial) knowledge…

How come we are so easily influenced by factoids about people, no matter how inconsequential and irrelevant they are?

Here’s a riddle. A man and his son go for a drive, and they are in a terrible accident, in which the father is killed. The son is seriously injured, and he is rushed to hospital, straight into the operating theatre. As the operation is about to start, the surgeon says “I cannot perform this operation — that patient is my son!” If you have not come across it before, take a moment to figure out what might explain the situation.

Did you work it out? If not, here is a short video that reveals the answer (it’s also at the bottom of the article). When we think of a person, whether it’s a surgeon, a police officer, a school head or whatever, we easily make implicit assumptions about their gender, their age, their skin colour or other features.

A genderless person with no skin colour?

It is hard not to make such attributes concrete when picturing the person behind a label — will you immediately think of a heavy metal drummer who is not white and male? We have difficulty imagining a genderless, ageless person whose skin has no colour. This inevitably shapes our world view, and quite possibly our choices, without us realizing it.

Given an attribute, we make assumptions about a person which are not necessarily justified, and that goes well beyond gender or skin colour. When I was little, a common kind of playground joke was the so-called Hollandermop, poking fun at the alleged thriftiness, stinginess even of the Dutch. What would a Dutch family with three children order in a café? A single coke with five straws. Or, hilarious for eight-year olds: how can you tell that a house is occupied by a Dutch family? The toilet paper is hanging out to dry.

Would Belgians really drive on with a 5 m high lorry?

Of course, the Dutch give as good as they get with their Belgen-moppen: for them the Belgians are a bit dim, like the two guys in a lorry who arrive at a bridge with a maximum height warning of 4.5 m. They get out to measure the truck and find its height is 5 m. “Don’t worry,” says the driver, “I don’t see any police, so let’s drive on.”

Joking aside (and let’s be honest, this kind of joke is not all that refined), we need to be careful not to ascribe particular characteristics to people simply because they carry a particular passport. A meta-analysis by psychologist Jairo Fuentes and colleagues, for example, found strong evidence that speakers with a standard accent are rated more highly (e.g. in terms of perceived intelligence or social class) than people speaking with a non-standard one. Foreigners trying to speak our own language will almost always do so with a heavy accent, easy to ridicule. And conclusions are easily drawn, and stereotypes formed and perpetuated.

Yet we continue to be drawn to frivolous information. Last week when Ursula von der Leyen was elected as the next EU Commission president, The Times’ headline was “German Mother of Seven takes over EU”. (Interesting detail: the headline has since been changed as this link shows, but the URL does not lie…).

We could question whether a headline that referred to her early career as a physician, or to her later political career as a minister in regional and federal German governments, would have been particularly salient in respect of her imminent new position. But there would certainly seem to be no discernible reason why whether she has children, let alone how many, is of any relevance, any more than her shoe size, or how many cups of coffee she drinks in a day.

Trivialities lead to dissimilarities

Yet it is those shallow snippets the media often zoom in on, and that their audiences seem to like. We could put such items of knowledge to one side and ignore them, but we don’t: they can have significance. Few among us personally know many women with seven children, yet that does not stop us inferring things from it. What kind of woman does have so many children in this day and age? Does she not care about the environmental impact of overpopulation? And, a professional as she has been for most of her life, how can she have been a good mother? Maybe the only way she managed to do that is because she has a privileged background and could afford expensive childcare, so she is, once again, representing the elite that rules the common person?

By coincidence, last week my eye was caught by a paper by Michael Norton (a psychologist at Harvard Business School) and colleagues, which explores whether learning more about someone means we like them more too. This is generally believed to be the case, but the findings suggest otherwise: on average, more information about someone leads to less liking. We tend to like people more if they are similar to us (from shared personality traits and values to trivial factors like birthdays in common) than if they are not. This research describes the cascading nature of dissimilarity. Once we encounter evidence of divergence, we are more likely to interpret subsequent information as further evidence thereof, and as a consequence we like the person less and less.

Aren’t there plenty of people we know well and we like? Of course, but that is a combination of two effects: survivor bias and what you see is all there is ( WYSIATI). We know those people well because we like them, not the other way around. If the first few snippets we find out about someone reveal similarity, we will like them. At that moment, what we know and see is all there is, and so these initial facts disproportionately influence our judgement. As long as we do not encounter dissimilarity, then the liking will get stronger, so that the odd dissimilarity will no longer make any difference. (We are much more tolerant of the people we like, than of strangers or people we dislike.) Those we don’t like eventually drop off our social radar, so we end up with the people who survive the ongoing scrutiny: people we know and like.

Random facts are, of course, more likely to point at a dissimilarity. While other mothers of seven might develop an instant fondness for Ms von der Leyen, others (who will vastly outnumber the first category) might be less charmed by her. Most of us knew little or nothing about her, and now we know this one thing, which at that moment shapes our entire judgement of her.

They may have a strange accent, but the Russians love their children too (image via YouTube)

This is true for people we encounter in our personal lives as well. Salespeople will often try and seek some element of commonality to endear themselves in the eyes of the prospect: “Oh, you are from Belgium? I once spent a great weekend in Bruges, and your national soccer team is ace, isn’t it?” And even the weakest of prejudices can, when what we see is all there is set us up to go down a dissimilarity cascade: the last name of an applicant on a CV suggesting a foreign provenance, or the first name indicating the gender; the accent with which a new business contact speaks; the car they drive; the town where they live; their politics… we could go on.

In these polarizing times, it is easier and more tempting than ever to quickly place people into a box labelled “us” or “them”. If we build our judgement of someone up from the foundation of the very first arbitrary fact, they’re all but doomed to end up in the “them” camp.

So perhaps we should try to resist doing so, and suspend judgement until we have more, and more relevant knowledge about a person. After all, there is more that we have in common with most of our fellow human beings than that separates us — not just our DNA, but also our compassion for others, our desire for friendship, the aspiration for a better world, or the love for our children which, as Sting sang, more than 30 years ago, is something that unites people from the West and from Russia.

Let’s pay attention to that commonality first, instead of focusing on random dissimilarities.

(The answer to the riddle: the surgeon is the son’s mother.)

Originally published at on July 26, 2019.

Thanks for reading this post — I hope you enjoyed it. Please do share it far and wide — there are handy Twitter and Facebook buttons nearby, and you can click here to share it via LinkedIn, or simply copy and paste this link. See all my other posts (I publish one every week) here. Thank you!

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Accidental behavioural economist in search of wisdom. Uses insights from (behavioural) economics in organization development. On Twitter as @koenfucius

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