Our brains are fantastic machines for sorting, categorizing, and filtering data. It makes sure we don’t get confused easily and that we see what is the most appropriate.
Unfortunately, when we assume that people are not trustworthy, we inadvertently set our brain on a subconscious crusade that will result in proving our opinion.
To help understand why, let’s talk about two psychological principles and how they impact our ability to trust others.
What we seek, we shall find
– Ralph Waldo Emerson
If we think the people in the waiting room around us are untrustworthy, then we find things about them that we won’t trust. They may look shifty, unkept, or too reserved. They simply won’t appear to be the kinds of people we’d choose to spend time with.
The worst part isn’t having arrived at this conclusion. It’s that we never really arrived at that conclusion; we started with it.
Because we felt that way at the beginning, our subconscious brain was busy finding all of the evidence to support this idea and quietly hiding or providing justifications to dismiss anything that didn’t align.
Confirmation bias helps us feel anchored in our outlook and avoid unnecessary confusion. It also ensures that we lose the ability to trust many good people simply because we start by assuming they may not be trustworthy.
Fundamental Attribution Problem
This problem could be summed up as, first impressions matter. They matter a lot more than they should, and a bad one may cause irreconcilable damage.
Once we have an experience with someone, we decide we understand who that person is and what they’ll do in any context. Forever.
We see a well polished professional execute a flawless presentation, and we assume that this person has it together and is exceptionally charismatic. In short, we assume that people are the caricatures that we imagine them to be after interacting only once or twice (if even that much).
At the end of the day, it’s easier for our brain to pretend people are these simple archetypes rather than always needing to consider the context, how others are changing, and the complex interplay between people and the world around them.
Fundamental Attribution + Confirmation Bias
When fundamental attribution combines with confirmation bias, we’ll keep finding evidence to support these characterizations. When conflicting information arises, our brain will either dismiss it or find justifications to support our stance.
We see that charismatic professional hung over a few days later, and we assume he was just blowing off steam. We see him making a fool of himself at a party and we think he’s just having a good time. If he fails to deliver good results, we assume his team didn’t pull through. Those justifications fit, so we add them to our image of him. It’ll take a long time for us to see that he’s a functioning alcoholic whose unable to work with others; if we ever see that at all.
People can change. It’s our perception of them that can’t.
After he drunkenly confronts a client, he’ll get fired and we’ll tell HR to make sure we never re-hire him. Our opinion has now changed, but we’re just as convinced now that we have the right opinion as we were convinced we had the right opinion last month.
These opinions fail to take into account that he is constantly changing and is highly sensitive to his surroundings. Our decision to never re-hire him because he’s an unaccountable alcoholic is as correct as our initial assessment that he is a polished professional we can count on.
Both of those may have been correct at a particular time in a particular context. We can’t know, based on those alone, who he’ll be at some point in the future in different circumstances. Yet, our choice to never re-hire him assumes that we can predict these things.
Immovable Object & Unstoppable Force
When the fundamental attribution problem combines with confirmation bias, we find ourselves unable to see or react to new information. The fundamental attribution problem sets the tone, and confirmation bias keeps us on course.