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5 Ways to Get a Better Read on People

4. Don't let your history influence your feelings about someone new.

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Which of these common errors do you make when sizing up other people? Identifying your mistakes will help you read people more accurately.

1. Confusing situations and personality.

When we see a snapshot of someone's behavior we often jump to the conclusion that they're acting based on their personality. In contrast, when we think about our own behavior, we often think about situational causes. For example, you know you act aloof when you're flustered or anxious. However, you might assume that when someone you've just met acts that way it's because they're a jerk.

How to avoid this mistake: Remind yourself to think about both situational causes and personality when you're assessing other people.

2. Employing the confirmation bias.

Once we've developed ideas about someone, we typically see everything through the filter of these already formed thoughts. For example, once you decide your sister's new boyfriend is selfish, you notice behaviors that are consistent with that view, but are less likely to notice things he does that aren't consistent with being selfish.

Our initial impressions of someone are often quite accurate, but they're not foolproof, so it's important to consider revising your initial judgments based on further interactions with that person.

How to avoid this mistake: Actively watch for evidence and examples that run counter to your assumptions. In psychology, this is termed "disconfirming evidence."

3. Relying on the attractiveness or similarity bias.

People tend to judge others more positively when they're physically attractive. We also tend to judge people who are similar to us more favorably than people who seem different.

Ask yourself if you're judging someone more or less positively based on their physical attractiveness, or the extent to which you have things in common, such as a shared background or subcultural appearance cues, like having a beard or tattoos.

How to avoid this mistake: Look out for this bias in important situations. For example, if you're hiring someone for a job, or when you're entering a new situation and might gravitate toward people who are outwardly similar to you.

4. Letting yourself be influenced by your past.

If you've recently had a poor experience with a "useless" customer service person, you might be more likely to assume that the next customer service person you deal with is going to be equally unhelpful.

Likewise, sometimes people who cross our paths remind us of someone from our past, and this can influence our judgments of the new person. For example, you go on a date with someone who shares some type of physical feature or mannerism with one of your parents. Or you hated a boy named Trevor in your elementary school and now you find it difficult to like anyone named Trevor.

How to avoid this mistake: Pay attention to when your reactions seem out of proportion to the trigger, or when you find yourself heading into a situation with a defensive or negative attitude. Ask yourself whether you're carrying emotional baggage from the recent or distant past that might be influencing your emotions.

5. Assumed similarity.

In general, we tend to assume other people think like us and have the same preferences. For example, if you love beach vacations, you may assume that everyone else does too. If you think that team-building exercises are a waste of time, you probably think that most other people share that view. If you need a clean office to be productive, you probably think everyone else does as well.

How to avoid this mistake: Make a habit of noticing the diversity in people's expectations and preferences. Give people an opportunity to let you know if their comfort zone doesn't match up with yours. For example, when suggesting a dinner location, offer a choice between one type of food and another, rather than just saying, "You like Thai food, right?"

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