Snap Judgments and Self-Fulfilling Prophecies


“It was a Jump to Conclusions mat.” ~ The fat guy.

I’m seriously not trying to read too much into this because it was really an insignificant moment.  But it illustrates a point so I’m gonna mention it.

A little more than a week back, at that whole Soul Club Shebang (maybe they should change the name to that), I had this minor, 15-second interaction that amused me.  When I arrived at the club, my friend and her friends were already there and dancing.  I ordered a whiskey and waded through the throngs to find them.  Once I did, I stayed on the outside a bit so I could drink until I achieved my dance-intoxication level.

A couple of the friends of a friend were a lesbian couple that I had met the night before.  We had chatted some that evening (not a lot) and parted with hugs.  As I was standing at the periphery of our group’s moving dance circle, mostly watching and sipping on my whiskey, one of the ladies in the couple curtly said, “Excuse me,” before gently jostling me aside so that she could dance next to her partner.

Now, I knew even before she addressed me that this woman didn’t recognize me.  There was a tenseness in her body language that told me she thought I was a stranger hovering around her (mostly female) friends.  It was a dark club, I was wearing a hat the night before, I wouldn’t have expected her to pick me out after only one other interaction.

Once she did recognize me, she apologized and it was no big deal.  It wouldn’t have been a big deal even if she hadn’t apologized.  I wasn’t offended and I knew what must have been her assumption:  I was just some creepy guy trying to grind up on some girls at a club.  I’ve seen plenty of guys do it and I’m sure she’s seen more.

An aside:  Hey guys, why don’t we all just agree to not be the creepy guy grinding on girls at clubs.  Deal?

Snap Judgments

It’s an interesting phenomenon, the snap judgment.

From an evolutionary point of view, it’s a necessary trait.  Creatures that react quicker to potential threats live longer.  Yeah, you might offend someone (or just look dumb), but at least you’ll still be alive to reproduce.  And that’s what it’s all about.

We jump to conclusions about people pretty easily, based on very little information.  Some times we get the opportunity to reconfigure those judgments over time.  Often, though, we never see those people again, or only ever briefly, and that initial picture we formed lasts. 

I know there is nothing profound in that observation, it’s part of our daily experience being human.  Yet, for a trait so obvious and, to be honest, banal, I can’t help but notice how frequently we ignore it and allow our snap judgments be our guide.

Self-Fulfilling Prophecy

The real issue with the snap judgment isn’t that we make them, but that so often when we get a chance to recognize them for what they are and perhaps correct them, we instead stand firm and hunker down in our shortsighted opinions.

That chick was rude to you the first time you worked together?  Obviously a bitch.  So what do you do?  You treat her like a bitch every time you see her and, what do you know, she acts like a bitch to you from then on out.

It’s called a self-fulfilling prophecy and it is this common psychological phenomenon that is at the root of all stereotyping and prejudice.

The example I used earlier was minor and by no means an indication of that woman being prejudiced against men.  But it does illuminate the issue I’m referring to, which is our need to review every situation.  We don’t always have the time or mental capacity to give every person and every situation our full attention.  In order to take action, we have to form some sort of judgment, so we hastily form an opinion on the details that are most readily apparent.

There is nothing wrong with that, it’s an evolved survival technique that has obviously done our species a lot of good.  But it’s also done us a lot of harm, and the one great thing about our highly-developed minds is that we have the ability to rejigger an opinion after we’ve made it.  Unfortunately, we seldom do.

Tourism

I am not a tourist.  Tourism is fun, it’s a way to briefly experience a lot of different areas, cities or countries in a short amount of time.  There are lifelong tourists who will experience ten times as many places as I will experience in my lifetime of travels, and I feel a pang of jealousy knowing that.

But there is only so much you can truly know as a tourist.  I’ve fully admitted that even in a year I don’t feel like I’ve ever had a definitive experience in a city, but when a tourist visits a city (for a day, for a week, maybe even a few months), they get an impression of the spot and then afterwards they are expected to tell their friends and family what that city is like.  It’s understood that this is just that one person’s experience, but it so often becomes the de facto experience of the city in those people’s minds, especially if there is no other opinion to serve as a counterpoint.

(Yelp, while helpful and usually insightful, is largely made up of tourist and one-time visit reviews.  From a customer service standpoint, I understand that “You only get one chance to make a first impression,” but one bad waiter or meal at a restaurant shouldn’t become the definitive review of any establishment.  I’ve been in the industry long enough to know that everybody has a bad day.)

How many times have you gone to a movie or a concert or on a trip with a friend, and when it was all done, they had a completely different opinion of the event than you did?  Granted, because they’re your friends, you probably tend to agree on most things but I’m sure disagreements happen from time to time.  Comparing multiple experiences, especially contrasting ones, is the best way to get a richer understanding of anything.

Arguments and Counterarguments

Most of us take our experiences and barricade ourselves behind them, seeking out the views and experiences of others only when they serve to reinforce our own.

When I wrote about the (weak) arguments against gay marriage in a previous post, I mentioned that if there is even one example of a gay couple raising a well-adjusted and successful child, it fatally wounds the assertion that gay couples can’t raise healthy children.  But some people still hold to that belief.

When we hear a counterargument to a longstanding belief or opinion, we very rarely try to process that new information and adapt our views.  Instead, we almost always rationalize away the dissenting view.  We all do it.  I do it.

When a view is a well-established and heavily supported fact or opinion, it’s fine to be intensely critical and skeptical of conflicting accounts.  For example, after a research team purportedly discovered neutrons traveling faster-than-light, a feat that is considered impossible and would undermine Einstein’s most famous theory and all the knowledge we’ve gained from it, the research understandably came under heavy scrutiny.  Even the original researchers were pretty sure they must have made a mistake somewhere (and it looks like they did).

But, when a view is nothing more than a snap judgment made because we didn’t have time to make a more thorough analysis, any contrasting view should be given equal footing.

The real danger of a snap judgment is that we’ve usually already fallen into self-fulfilling prophecy mode before we even take the chance to second guess the original judgment.  By the time we are in a place where we can question our initial evaluation, we’ve already self-selected, through our bias, examples that support our view.

Frankly, it seems like our entire political system is based on this sort of irrational conclusion-jumping.

As a species, we aren’t going to suddenly evolve out of snap judgments, but as rational beings, we can do our best to be aware of them.  Taking that extra ten seconds to contemplate a situation further could have momentous effects.

But, sometimes, the dude standing next to your girlfriends at the club really is just a Creep.

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One thought on “Snap Judgments and Self-Fulfilling Prophecies

  1. I think whether a person enjoys living in a city has a lot to do with whether they enjoy their job or the people they have a connection. When a person says they enjoy living in a city, it still tends to be biased.

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