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Why We're Quick to Label Others

How social signals and mental shortcuts unexpectedly color our judgment.


It’s well known that we use imperfect mental shortcuts—and sometimes, unfair stereotypes—to determine who’s trustworthy, who’s talented, and who can join a group. Luckily, research continues to uncover new strategies for how we can recognize and correct such unconscious forms of bias.

Leader of the Pack

Often, we generalize about a group based on one prominent member—and recent research concludes that we may be inclined to zero in on the first one we come in contact with, even if that person was “first” for arbitrary reasons.

In one experiment, participants learned that one gymnast on a team—who was randomly selected to compete first, fourth, or last—executed her routine particularly well. Those who were told that the exceptional performer went first had the highest expectations of how her teammates would do. In subsequent experiments, the so-called “first person heuristic” seemed to influence other judgments, such as whether a group of immigrants was seen as worthy of having their visas extended.

Dirty Looks

If multiple people hint that so-and-so is bad news, you’ll likely be inclined to stay away. Such messages may have an effect even if they aren’t uttered out loud, a recent study finds—but you may be less aware of their influence.

Study participants watched video clips in which certain characters were the target of nonverbal signals that were either negative (an angry look, a disapproving head shake) or positive (smiling, nodding affirmatively). The video was edited so that the character always behaved neutrally, regardless of the signals he or she received. Afterward, participants expressed less willingness to help or connect with the person who was the target of negative signals. What’s more, they were most likely to incorrectly attribute their attitudes to the character’s behavior, rather than to how he was being treated by others.

The next time someone gives you a “bad vibe,” advises study author Allison Skinner of the University of Georgia, take note of the signals she’s getting from others and weigh it against her actual behavior. “Maybe you’ll decide that your first reaction is justified. But maybe it’s not.”

The Eye of the Beholder

Snap judgments are often closely tied to a person’s appearance. But characteristics of the perceiver play a role as well—perhaps an even greater one. In a recent study, more than 5,000 participants rated how trustworthy, dominant, or attractive targets’ faces appeared. Overall, perceiver characteristics like race and gender were found to contribute more to the final impressions than did the appearance of the targets.

“If different people look at the same face, their own idiosyncrasies drive how trustworthy or warm they find it,” explains study author Sally Xie, of McGill University. For female faces, however, target appearance mattered more—indicating, she theorizes, that observers rely more on stereotypes when assessing women. Evaluating women more on achievements and less on first impressions—particularly in the workplace—can lead to more equitable practices, she believes. “Awareness is the first step to correcting or eliminating these biases.”