Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Judging a Book By Its Cover

How wrappers affect our expectations about what lies inside them.

Courtesy Health Communications
Source: Courtesy Health Communications

We all do it. We can't help it. We're predominantly visual creatures. (The visual area at the back of our brains comprises 30 percent of our cortex.) The wrappers in which things come powerfully affect what interests us and how we react to the contents we find inside. This certainly holds for companies, which can convince us with professional-looking marketing materials, websites, and offices that they produce professional-quality work. It also holds for books, whose covers draw our attention, create an expectation that excites us, and suggest a certain quality of writing. Certainly, the truth is laid bare once we start reading (just as the truth about a company's quality is laid bare soon after we hire them). If we doubt how our expectations for a book are affected by its presentation, examine our initial reaction to a book not with an unattractive cover but with an amateur cover.

This is also true to some extent with the way we react to people. By this, I don't mean we're more interested in and think more highly of attractive people (though research suggests both are true). Rather, I mean that our expectations of others are triggered by how they look and how they present themselves overall (what clothes they are wearing, whether they're clean-shaven, their accent, and so on). This wouldn't be a problem in itself if it weren't also true that we're often more influenced by our own biases—than we are influenced by actual evidence. When we have a powerful positive or negative emotional reaction to someone upon first meeting them—often due to their overall presentation—it affects our reaction to the "content" we find inside, meaning their personality and character. As Proust famously wrote:

We pack the physical outline of the creature we see with all the ideas we already formed about him, and in the complete picture of him which we compose in our minds, these ideas have certainly the principal place. In the end they come to fill out so completely the curve of his cheeks, to follow so exactly the line of his nose, they blend so harmoniously in the sound of his voice that these seem to be no more than a transparent envelope, so that each time we see the face or hear the voice it is our own ideas of him which we recognize and to which we listen.

We all carry conclusions we've drawn about other people through which we filter everything they say and do. Certainly, over time, a person's personality and character alter these conclusions, but even then our conclusions often remain highly biased. Further, we seem to err mostly on the side of overestimation, thinking people far worse—are far better—than they are. It's the rare person, in my experience, who looks more skeptically at his beliefs about someone than at any evidence he observes that contradicts them.

But that, I would argue, is exactly what we should do. It takes more cognitive work—which is undoubtedly part of the reason many of us are reluctant to do it, as Daniel Kahneman famously asserted that we're all cognitively lazy—but people are not only more nuanced than we typically acknowledge but also change more often than we realize. If we want to understand our fellow humans accurately, we must allow them to surprise us, to contradict what we think we know about them. Like good scientists, we should cling to our theories about people only loosely and always be willing to revise them in light of new data. The package in which people come to us may be attractive or repulsive. However, if we exert a little effort—like opening a book and browsing its contents before deciding whether to buy it—we can see past our visual biases to the truth. That way, we'll be far less likely to exclude from our lives not only a quality person—but also a quality book.

More from Alex Lickerman M.D.
More from Psychology Today