29 August 2011

Link of the day: "The Illusion of Asymmetric Insight"

I read a really nice psychology article today about how easy it to misjudge people. As a family friend once told me, you can't truly know a person unless you live with them for an extended period of time.

The first section of the article describes a famous psychology experiment called the "Robbers Cave Experiments."
These two tribes consisted of 22 boys, ages 11 and 12, whom psychologist Muzafer Sherif brought together at Oklahoma’s Robber’s Cave State Park. He and his team placed the two groups on separate buses and drove them to a Boy Scout Camp inside the park – the sort with cabins and caves and thick wilderness. At the park, the scientists put the boys into separate sides of the camp about a half-mile apart and kept secret the existence and location of the other group. The boys didn’t know each other beforehand, and Sherif believed putting them into a new environment away from their familiar cultures would encourage them to create a new culture from scratch.
After finding out about each other's existence, the two tribes each labelled the other group "the enemy." I had never heard of this experiment before and it was very cool to find out about a mild version of Lord of the Flies but a real-life situation as opposed to a famous work of fiction.

The article goes on to talk about people having different personas.
The idea is this: You put on a mask and uniform before leaving for work. You put on another set for school. You have costume for friends of different persuasions and one just for family. Who you are alone is not who you are with a lover or a friend. You quick-change like Superman in a phone booth when you bump into old friends from high school at the grocery store, or the ex in line for the movie. When you part, you quick-change back and tell the person you are with why you appeared so strange for a moment. They understand, after all, they are also in disguise. It’s not a new or novel concept, the idea of multiple identities for multiple occasions, but it’s also not something you talk about often. The idea is old enough that the word person derives from persona – a Latin word for the masks Greek actors sometimes wore so people in the back rows of a performance could see who was on stage.
Then the article hits on a point I like very much -- that we don't know people that well, even our friends.

That is why we shouldn't judge people. And if we decide to attribute fixed traits to a person, we should only do so after an extended period of observation and interaction.
How well do you know your friends? Pick one out of the bunch, someone you interact with often. ... Do you know what they want, what they are likely to do in most situations, what they will argue about and what they let slide? Do you notice when they are posturing and when they are vulnerable? Do you know the perfect gift? ... Research shows you probably feel all these things and more. You see your friends, your family, your coworkers and peers as semipermeable beings. You label them with ease. You see them as the artist, the grouch, the slacker and the overachiever. ... You can, you believe, put yourself in their shoes and predict their behavior in just about any situation. You believe every person not you is an open book. Of course, the research shows they believe the same thing about you.
The author cites research supporting this generalization of human psychology.
  • Iceberg experiment: People were to rate how well they knew another person by saying how much of an iceberg they could see above the water. People thought they could see most of their friends' icebergs, but they didn't think their friends could see much of their own iceberg.
  • Describe a time when you feel most like yourself: When people were asked to describe a time when they felt most like themselves, 78% of the time they talked about "something internal and unobservable like the feeling of seeing their child excel or the rush of applause after playing for an audience." When the same people were asked to name situations that best illustrated their friends' personalities, they only mentioned internal feelings 28% of the time. Typically, they would describe actions like: "Tom is most like Tom when he is telling a dirty joke. Jill is most like Jill when she is rock climbing." This makes sense because we can only infer people's feelings by looking from the outside.
  • Sentence completion: People were asked to complete sentences. When asked about the meaning of the sentence completions, people stated that most of the time the completions revealed very little about them. Yet when the same people were asked what they thought of other people's sentence completions, they claimed to see bits of the other person's personality. "They looked at the words and said the people who filled them in were nature lovers, or on their periods, or were positive thinkers or needed more sleep."
What conclusions should we draw from these experiments? The author says it best:
The illusion of asymmetric insight makes it seem as though you know everyone else far better than they know you, and not only that, but you know them better than they know themselves. You believe the same thing about groups of which you are a member. As a whole, your group understands outsiders better than outsiders understand your group, and you understand the group better than its members know the group to which they belong. The researchers explained this is how one eventually arrives at the illusion of naive realism, or believing your thoughts and perceptions are true, accurate and correct, therefore if someone sees things differently than you or disagrees with you in some way it is the result of a bias or an influence or a shortcoming. You feel like the other person must have been tainted in some way, otherwise they would see the world the way you do – the right way. The illusion of asymmetrical insight clouds your ability to see the people you disagree with as nuanced and complex. You tend to see your self and the groups you belong to in shades of gray, but others and their groups as solid and defined primary colors lacking nuance or complexity.

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