Why We Misjudge People All the Time

My mom doesn’t know me. Not really. For a long time, she only knew the role I played in her presence. That’s why she was so surprised when she started reading me online.

You don’t know who anyone really is

When you interact with someone — a family member, friend, coworker, romantic partner, or just some random dude on the street — you’re not actually interacting with them. You’re interacting with the person you think they are. You’re interacting with your impression of them. And we form impressions lightning fast.

For instance, if I introduce you to someone, give you a minute to talk to them, and then ask you “What do you think this person is like?” you will already have drawn a whole bunch of conclusions. At the very least, you will have made some general assumptions and, more often than not, even specific judgments. You will have put them in a box.

Not only that, but you will have added some broad labels to that box: outgoing or reserved, liberal or conservative, shy or confident, smart or dumbass, kind or a d*ckhead. Your brain, no matter how many socks and empty pizza cartons you usually leave scattered around your living room, craves order.

But how do you put people into boxes? How do you come up with the labels? Well, you use clues such as tone of voice, the topics they bring up, the words they use, their sense of humor (or lack of it), and so forth. In fact, it often just takes a glance at someone to start putting them into one of your little boxes. You don’t even have to interact with them. You simply use such superficial clues as their clothes, hair cut, skin color, accent, body weight, age, posture, the context in which you are meeting them, the people they are with, and countless other details.

Now, why does all that matter?

Well, it matters because the box you put people in and the labels you assign to that box determine how you interact with them. After all, people feel a certain way about certain boxes. So, the box you have so carelessly stuffed someone in determines how you feel about them, which then determines how you treat them.

And if you made a mistake, if you notice you put someone in the wrong box — if your impression of them changes — how you interact with them changes too. Just think how quickly you’d contort your face if the person you’ve been hitting on all night turns out to be someone who drinks their own urine.

People don’t want to make mistakes like this and that’s why they want to know whether you’re liberal or conservative, whether you’re atheist or religious, and whether you’re college-educated or not. They are looking for labels to assign to you so that they can just go ahead and treat you “appropriately.”

But the thing is, when you’re engaging with a labeled box, you’re not really interacting with a real human being.

I’m an actor — and so are you

Humans engage in what social psychologists call self presentation or impression management: we consciously or unconsciously try to influence how others perceive us. That doesn’t necessarily mean we lie to each other. It may just mean we emphasize or downplay one attribute of ourselves over another depending on the context.

For instance, how I want you to perceive me — in which box I want you to put me — depends on who you are. If you and I are drinking buddies, I will want you to perceive me as adventurous and fun. If you’re my boss, I will want you to perceive me as responsible and diligent. And if you’re my mom, I will not want you to perceive me as a hard-drinking promiscuous party animal who pours cocaine into their coffee machine.

In the end, we don’t show our true selves to anybody. It’s even doubtful there is a true self. I mean, who am I? The blabbermouth writing to you? The quiet and reserved person who seals their lips like an envelope at the family table? The clown fawning over my wife? The wise-ass giving life advice to my brother? Or the idiot that makes funny faces in front of the mirror when alone?

You see, we’re always strategic with how we present ourselves — even how we present ourselves to ourselves. Yes, you read that right, we put ourselves into boxes too.

That’s why we so easily fall for biases such as the self-serving bias (the belief that we have earned our accomplishments but our failures are due to external events) or the blind-spot bias (the belief that others are fooled by biases, while we ourselves are immune). Sometimes, we are not only strategic with how we present ourselves, but we make sh*t up altogether to get into a more advantageous box.

Now, some people think that’s bad — that we should all stop with that whole acting nonsense and just be honest with ourselves and others. But even if there is a true self, it wouldn’t be a good idea. Society would quickly break down if we were honest all the time. I mean, if I have a headache, feel like crap, and you’re happily humming a tune, are you sure you want me to smack you over the head to shut you up?

If I’m your spouse and you tell me how at the post office you ran into aunt Lydia, do you really want me to drop all pretenses and tell you “Sweetie, you’re boring the snot out of me”? And if I’m naturally cheerful, are you sure you would want to hear me giggle if I were to lead an army into battle?

At this point, you might proclaim “But I reeeeeeeeeally don’t care about what other people think.” But if that’s the case, I’m sorry, I have to call BS on you. If you really didn’t care, then the following word should leave you completely flumboozlegasted: embarrassment.

You see, if you truly don’t care about what others think, you cannot feel embarrassed.

Embarrassment would simply not be part of your emotional repertoire. And maybe that’s the case. But I doubt it. I doubt that if you were to loudly fart during a job interview, your ears wouldn’t heat up.

So, you do care about the opinions of others, like every other functioning member of society. If you weren’t, your behavior would be dysfunctional. You would be inflexible and rigid and would be incapable of adapting yourself to different social situations. You might even have a serious psychological disorder.

Now, don’t get me wrong. That you care what others think of you, doesn’t mean you necessarily want everyone to like you. That’s not what impression management is necessarily about. Impression management simply means that you want to control other people’s perceptions of you to achieve certain goals. That’s why, for instance, we have this cliché advice for new inmates to beat up the toughest guy in prison.

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You're not looking for a fight to make everyone like you. It’s to convey the impression that you’re unfckwithable. And you want to come across as unfckwithable to achieve a goal of safety — to be able to pick up the soap from the shower floor without having to watch over your shoulder all the time.

In the end, how people perceive you matters. It determines how people treat you, how they’ll talk about you, whether they’ll support or oppose you, and whether they’ll eventually let you do such things as tickle them. So, if you have goals in life other than spending the rest of your life on a deserted island humping a volleyball, you cannot help it. You have to manage how you come across to others.