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Summary Judgments

Kerri L. Johnson, associate professor of communication studies and psychology, offers tips on how to see each person as a unique individual.

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By Dan Gordon '85

Published Oct 1, 2014 8:00 AM


When we see people we don’t know, we begin to make judgments about them and categorize them. Kerri L. Johnson, associate professor of communication studies and psychology, offers tips on how to see each person as a unique individual.

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Illustration by Daniel Zalkus.

"Don't judge a book by its cover," we’re told from an early age — a warning not to make assumptions about the people we meet based on first appearances. But decades’ worth of social psychology research suggests that whether we mean to or not, we do make such judgments — readily and rapidly.

“As soon as we catch a glimpse of another person, we are likely to be perceiving things that will have an impact on how we evaluate them and how or whether we interact with them,” says Kerri L. Johnson, associate professor of communication studies and psychology, whose UCLA Social Communication Lab studies the production and perception of cues to people’s identity. “These judgments happen outside conscious awareness and are quite efficient, based on visible cues in the face and body.”

Our snap judgments about people we meet start with the “big three” of social categorization: sex, race and age. We take note of these immediately and make assumptions accordingly. But the work of Johnson and her colleagues has shown that we also spontaneously and involuntarily parse people into other social category memberships, from religious and political party affiliation to health status and sexual orientation.

Our snap judgments tend to be surprisingly accurate — not perfect, but in many cases far better than chance, Johnson notes. For example, a 2010 University of Toronto study found that people could predict the success of managing partners at major law firms by looking at their college yearbook pictures. In a 2012 UCLA study, Johnson and her doctoral student Colleen M. Carpinella M.A. ’10 found that simply by viewing photographs, undergraduates could determine the political parties of female politicians they had never seen with a degree of precision exceeding chance. The students’ predictions tended to be based on the extent to which the faces adhered to gender norms — the more feminine-looking the person in the photo, the more likely she was to be tabbed a Republican.

If we’re so good at snap judgments, why worry about them? The problem, Johnson says, is that knowledge of social categories tends to bring to mind stereotypes, even when we don’t believe them to be valid. These judgments affect our evaluation of traits such as competence and likability. Moreover, even if our snap judgments have a level of accuracy above chance, they’re far from perfect. On some characteristics, they’re not very good at all. We want to judge people by what’s inside, not by their covers. But how, when snap judgments are so inevitable? Johnson suggests keeping these things in mind:

It’s Your Problem, Too

When she explains the universal nature of snap judgments to her students, Johnson often encounters resistance. “Many will agree that biases might be pervasive in society but are reluctant to even entertain the notion that this applies to them,” she says. In fact, Johnson notes, the mere knowledge of derogatory societal stereotypes about a particular group is likely to influence our initial perception of members of that group, even if we consider the stereotypes unfair or inaccurate. While we’d like to think we aren’t biased, the research suggests otherwise.

Knowledge is Power

Accepting that we tend to make subconscious snap judgments is the first step toward overcoming them. “We need to recognize that these processes unfold so automatically that if we don’t stop them short, they will affect our judgments of other people in ways that we wouldn’t want,” Johnson says. She advises looking inward to examine the ways we divide people into groups, as well as the stereotypes we hold about the categories to which we assign them. “If our goal is to see people as individuals, knowledge of our biases is critical,” she says.

Go Gray

If it’s inevitable that we’re going to mentally categorize the people we meet, we can improve the fairness of our calculations by factoring in the multiple group memberships we all hold. “Sex, race and age might be the ‘big three’ social categories that spring spontaneously to mind, but the recognition that we can all be categorized along many dimensions can help to give a more nuanced impression,” Johnson says. Bear in mind that the person you’re snap-judging is more than just a young male Latino or an older white woman; he or she comes from a distinct city, has unique interests and talents, and is perhaps a parent of young children or a child of older parents. “There are any number of ways we can parse the social world around us,” Johnson explains.

Stay Focused

Laziness is what drives us to mentally divide people into groups: It enables us to streamline social perception and bring certain expectations to our interactions. Not surprisingly, then, we are especially prone to snap judgments while multitasking. “If we’re busy, we are more likely to believe stereotypes about a social group to be true about another person, even when we disagree with it,” says Johnson. “Thinking with the aid of categories is so useful and habitual that it’s very hard for us not to do it. But if we focus on the person, we are better able to overcome that by reminding ourselves that people belong to multiple groups.”

Think Hard

While it’s true that culturally shared stereotypes will often come to mind when we make snap judgments, we can influence these spontaneous perceptions by cultivating our own beliefs. “By harnessing the automatic processes that exist, we can affect the outcome,” Johnson says. “We can change our knowledge structures so that what automatically comes to mind is more desirable and accurate. These cultural stereotypes have accrued over decades, so it takes effort to begin to think about groups differently. But it’s certainly a desirable and attainable goal.”

Aim High

Having an explicit goal of conducting fair and egalitarian evaluations of others makes us much more likely to move beyond our natural biases. “Snap judgments are unavoidable,” Johnson concludes. “But what we do with them and how we allow them to shape our behavior is a personal choice.”

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