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See Inside October 2005

Judging Amy and Andy

Contrary to conventional wisdom, we can size up people pretty well based on first impressions


It took Amy only a few minutes to make up her mind: I've got absolutely nothing in common with this guy. She wasn't sure why, but she was convinced. Was it his two-day stubble? The tattered jeans? Perhaps the way he stared at her while they talked? In any case, after a mere five minutes Amy was already wishing she had never agreed to this blind date with Andy. Now she would have to spend several hours in a bar with a guy who didn't understand why sports don't do it for her and why she prefers to read. I know his type, she sighed to herself. Conceited, careless. I'll bet he's going to tell me all about rock climbing and what a success he is. This is going to be a long evening.

Is Amy right? Or has she misjudged? After all, for decades psychologists have told us that people should not rate others based on looks or first impressions--we should not judge a book by its cover. Too often we subconsciously or even consciously adhere to stereotypes. To Amy, stubble represents laziness and torn jeans sloppiness and immaturity, and together they perhaps belie a guy who is trying too hard to look casually cool when a shave and slacks would do much better. And Andy's excessive talk about sports shows that he is just another guy who is self-absorbed with his own machismo. Yet social psychologists have warned that such compartmentalized thinking closes our minds and distorts our vision of reality. We also tend to generalize about a person's character from his behavior in a particular situation. If a cashier looks dour, we may conclude that he probably hates people. Researchers call such unjustified conclusions fundamental attribution errors.

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