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Do people “look guilty”?

October 10, 2011

What does it stem from, this over-confidence in facile intuitions about what other people are thinking? It probably has something to do with our innate difficulty in recognising that other people are as fully rounded and complex as we are. Emily Pronin, a psychologist at Princeton University, points out that there is a fundamental asymmetry about the way two human beings relate to one another in person. When you meet someone, there are at least two things more prominent in your mind than in theirs – your thoughts, and their face. As a result we tend to judge others on what we see, and ourselves by what we feel. Pronin calls this “the illusion of asymmetric insight”.

…An inclination to oversimplify the minds and motivations of others lies at the root of sexism and racism, and all forms of inter-group conflict, violent and benign. Liberals and conservatives tend to think that those on “their” side are reasonable, reflective, and thoughtful, while those on the other side are not just wrong, but simplistic and dim. Part of the reason that Knox became unpopular in Europe, and especially Italy, is that people projected on to her what they regarded as the worst qualities of Americans: arrogance, greed and brashness.

…Most us know, when we reflect rationally, that other people are as complex and difficult to read or predict as we are, and we do compensate for the natural imbalance in our encounters with others. The trouble is, we rarely compensate enough. Thinking about what others might be thinking and feeling is hard work. It requires intellectual application, empathy, and imagination. Most of the time we can barely be bothered to exert such efforts on behalf of our friends and partners, let alone on people we read about in the news. We fall back on guesses, stereotypes, and prejudices. This is inevitable, and not always a bad thing. The trouble comes when we confuse our short-cuts with judgment.

This is from a great article by Ian Leslie at the Guardian.

I definitely agree with the author that this issue is at the heart of racism, stereotyping, and prejudices. When we label someone as say an “extremist” it causes others to automatically put up walls, dismiss what the labeled person says or feels, and causes people to view the labeled person very differently. Thus, if as they say “a picture is worth a thousand words,” then a snap judgement of from a picture can do far more damage than a single word label. Trying to understand what others are thinking and feeling is difficult, but as I have written about in the past, it is something that we must learn to do better.

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