April 08, 2017
When we meet people for the first time, we are filling in gaps with all of the information we can gather about a person. No matter how good we are at extracting information, blind spots are bound to remain - people are just too complicated to be fully understood in a few moments of interaction. This is a good thing as it means that friendships that last years are richer than those that last minutes. On the other hand, our ability to abstract past the shortcomings of a dearth of information is impressive. Explaining the work he and Amos Tversky completed as well as subsequent research into human cognition, Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow introduced a paradigm for the public on how we process information. There is System 1, the automatic response, and System 2, the slow and methodical approach.
Understanding the differences between System 1 and System 2 as well as how to trigger them can help explain how we overcome lack of information to continue to operate in a world of uncertainty. Knowing that humans have this capability, and moreover, use it unconsciously means that we have an opportunity when we meet knew people. We can be conscious of our natural proclivity to think fast given limited information and either force ourselves into System 2 even to the point of inaction or indecision or provide more information upfront so that System 1 does not arrive at an errant conclusion due to limited information.
That’s what I noticed at the coffee shop today when a woman was asked where she lived. Our choice of where to live is information that comes with a lot of baggage. It’s not just a fact, for many, it’s part of who we are. It can be used to explain what we like and don’t like, what are priorities are, etc. The classic example would be the divide between living in the city versus the suburbs. In short, where we live often comes with a stereotype about our personality, and for good or ill, stereotypes exist for a reason - they often contain elements of truth on average, though are rarely perfectly accurate at an individual level. Of course most people recognize that stereotypes do not always hold, however, if you’re thinking in System 1, that’s where you start.
In answering where she lived this woman added that she’d lived in the neighborhood for more than five years in an effort to short circuit the stereotype. She happened to live in a trendy neighborhood that has been experience significant gentrification over the past few years, so the time period implied that she had been there before the neighborhood had started to change. In short, she she had added a piece of information upfront in the hopes to avoid the person with whom she was talking from arriving at an undesired conclusion about her due to a lack of information.
Assumptions, whether you’re making them or on their receiving end, are a natural consequence of interacting with people. However, the more aware we are of how they work, the more we can do to change the way we experience them. Instead of making an assumption, we can slow ourselves down and not pass judgment until we have sufficient information - forcing ourselves into a more System 2 thinking process. Or if we are vulnerable to assumptions, we can follow the lead of the woman at the coffee shop and provide sufficient information upfront to avoid any misconceptions.
Written by Stephen Weiss who lives in Chicago with his wife, Kate, and dog, Finn. Follow him on Twitter!