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Why Do We Misjudge Others

Projecting one’s own motives to others

When we interact with a new person, our judgments are colored by our own past experiences, projections, and expectations. In essence, we are imposing the blueprints of our past relationship experiences on the new person. Below, I will describe three key concepts to increase awareness to avoid this error in judgment.

1. Self-Fulfilling Prophecy

The idea refers to a false belief of a situation that evokes a behavior that in turn makes the false belief become true.

Consider a decision facing Joe, a waiter working in a busy restaurant, assuming his goal is to maximize his tips. Based on a limited number of observations, he forms a belief (hypothesis) that well-dressed people are good tippers and that badly dressed customers are not. By acting on this belief, he sets in motion a self-fulfilling prophecy by providing different level of services based on the customers’ appearance. When the restaurant is busy, well-dressed customers do leave above-average tips, and badly dressed customers do not, precisely because of the differential level of services that Joe provides. Had Joe wanted to test his belief, he should have conducted an experiment in which he randomly provided good service to well- and badly-dressed customers alike. The resulting data would have told him whether there really was a relation between dress and tipping behavior.

In the context of health behavior change, our learned self-doubt becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. That is, by expecting to fail, we make failure a certainty. We never really try, and the end result is more of a self-control problem.

2. Transference

Do you find yourself attracted to people that have similarities to your ex? The resemblance to significant others colors one’s judgment of the new person. Transference refers to the re-surfacing of past relationships with significant others with new people you interact with. The resemblance serves as a trigger for transference. Significant others include a parent, best friend, sibling, or romantic partner. These individuals deeply influence the way we interpret and emotionally respond in many, if not all, to new personal interactions in daily life. Thus, when the new person resembles your ex, the feelings and goals associated with the past relationships tend to be re-experienced in a new relationship. The interpersonal cues, such as the way she (or he) listens, her gestures, and attitudes remind one of the former romantic partner. And the person tends to evaluate this new person as if she were the ex. However, this may result in inappropriately superimposing flawed responses learned in the previous relationship onto the new one.

The transference can be triggered outside of conscious awareness. For example, a person with an abusive parent interacting with a new partner who resembles her parent is more likely to experience dislike and mistrust toward the new person. In contrast, we gravitate to people on the basis of their similarity to a previously positively regarded significant others.

3. Expectations

We may turn down a pitch or idea that is presented by a college student, but blindly follow the same advice of someone who is highly regarded (e.g., a graduate of an elite college, or someone with a PhD). Expectations shape stereotype (e.g., female students are weak in math).

People’s expectations influence their views of subsequent events. For example, when people are told that previous participants have found the movie to be very funny they showed similar preference (a self-fulfilling prophecy). If you tell people up front that something might be distasteful, it is highly likely that they will end up agreeing with you – not that their experience tells them but their expectations.

Using brain scanners to monitor the minds of wine drinkers, researchers found that people given two identical red wines got more pleasure from tasting the one that they were told cost more. The author concludes that the pleasantness of consuming a product depends on more than the product’s intrinsic properties, such as flavor in the case of wine. The brain also relies on certain beliefs, such as the notion that expensive wines probably will taste better. People have general beliefs that cheaper wines are of lower quality, and that translates into expectations about the wine tastes.

In the case of addiction, individuals formulate beliefs about the emotional consequences of using a substance (e.g., feeling relaxed after a cocktail). People who state that they expect alcohol to help relieve tension are more likely to turn to alcohol when stressed. Theses expectancies are acquired through social learning and media messages, and are shaped by repeated experiences of positive and negative reinforcement with a substance. Common alcohol expectancies include relaxation, social and physical pleasure, increased assertiveness.

In short, what one expects to happen tends to strongly influence what actually happens. When we believe in advance that something will be good, therefore, it generally will be good, and vice versa. This is not to suggest that feeling (sensation) plays no role in experience. It is rather that feeling is always colored by our beliefs.

More from Shahram Heshmat Ph.D.
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