Ever had someone you thought you could trust just totally betray you?
You may have had it coming…
OK OK, it’s not really your fault. Bear with me while I explain.
Do you consider yourself to be good at assessing people? Do you find yourself saying “I’m pretty good at reading people” or “I’m a great judge of character”?
Most people I know, when asked, tell me that they are good at reading people. Most of us believe that we can accurately assess others based on observation and gut-instinct.
Pretty interesting when you start looking at it a bit more honestly.
To be frank, we must be lying to ourselves, because scams, back-stabbing, betrayal and sabotage happen to all of us. No matter who you are, I bet you’ve been surprised by either an act of kindness from a jerk, or an act of betrayal from someone you thought you could trust.
What’s happening here is that your ego and cognitive biases are backing you into a corner. There’s a tendency us humans have to put people into categories that we think are consistent.
FUNDAMENTAL ATTRIBUTION BIAS:
We think that people are easily categorised, and use words to describe people in absolutes, such as:
Our lazy brains make it easier for us to function. We don’t have the hassle of having to re-assess a person every single time we see them. And of course we are spared the difficulty of actually assessing them properly in the first place.
I think you can see the danger in that…
If you think someone is a bastard, you will probably think they are always a bastard. That means if they are actually capable of making your life better you will never get the opportunity to experience that.
If you can’t accept that someone could manipulate you, then of course you are now set up to get royally screwed. If you think someone is generous, you will be angry at them if they become tight, as you hold them to a different standard than others.
Basically, Fundamental Attribution Bias can cost you friends, lovers and even money. Scam artists trying to steal your money start by gaining your trust. This is because they know that if you trust them at all then you probably trust them entirely. And then they’ve got you hooked.
There’s been plenty of times when someone surprised me, both positively and negatively, and caused me to re-assess what I originally thought of them. This is mainly because I’ve learned the hard way that us humans are TERRIBLE judges of character. I no longer trust my “instincts” when I meet people, despite being a highly trained coach with a background in psychology.
What’s the real problem here? Why can’t we assess accurately?
Firstly, people are not as consistent as your brain would like to believe. We all change, all the time. New experiences and influences affect us significantly. Who we are today is never exactly the same as who we’ll be tomorrow.
We need to understand that our brain is trying to categorise everything all the time. It doesn’t really care about how this affects our longer term success in life. Our brain does not subconsciously make the connection, so we have to train it to stop categorising people so broadly and permanently.
Secondly, the evidence we choose to base our assessments on is usually faulty at best. We judge people on their physical appearance and the body language they exhibit during their first impression. This is known as the “thin slice”. This is how beautiful people statistically get more lenient sentences in Court, and how seemingly smart girls can fall for flashy players who just cheat on them.
Most psychologists take HOURS to assess someone, using the latest and most accurate measurements tools for personality, behavioural prediction and emotional stability. These are people who actually are “really good at reading people” and look how much care they take. This tells us something…
Yet the rest of us reckon we can do the same thing by gut instinct, or based on what the person tells us. Have you ever stopped to consider WHY you feel so certain in your judgments of people? Even when you have no formal assessment training or no real evidence to base it on?
Is it possible that part of you does not want to admit something? Like how people are actually a complete mystery unless you make an effort to get to know them.
If you’re ready to stop being manipulated by evil intentions or miss out on great relationships, it’s time to change the way you interact with people.
The simplest and best way to avoid falling into the trap of trusting someone who you shouldn’t, or losing interest in someone you could love, is to start consciously assessing people based on their BEHAVIOUR. No matter what a person says, how they will actually impact your life will be through what they DO.
Here is where we get to see both consistency and inconsistency. If you observe someone objectively for long enough, you will see that they are not as simple as they first seemed. Some situations make them trustworthy where others make them lie. Sometimes they are upbeat and other times they are low.
You will see the patterns and triggers much more clearly over time.
In particular, learn more about their PAST behaviour, which is statistically the most accurate predictive factor for FUTURE behaviour. Despite being influenced to change, people do have a habit of repeating themselves. If you do not have access to that information, then consciously reserve your judgment of them until they have been around you long enough for you to observe patterns.
This is not to be confused with CURRENT in-the-moment behaviour, which includes whatever they are doing right now to impress you. This is known as “impression management”, and most people to some extent consciously try to shape your impression of them.
For example, you could be on a date with a guy who opens doors for you, pays for dinner, and tells you all about how big and bright his future is going to be. He seems like a better catch than the last guy, who made you go halves on dinner and didn’t bother trying to impress you.
Actually, neither of these experiences tell you much about either of the guys. Both could be great, either could be terrible. To find out more, you’d need to either date both of them some more to see if any “cracks” start to appear in how consistent they are, or find out more about their past. Just acknowledge that your brain will either be trying to love them or hate them based on crappy evidence, and you have to fight both of these tendencies.
If you totally love someone or hate someone within minutes of meeting them, it doesn’t mean that you have good instincts about people. It actually means that you are completely owned by your biases without even knowing it.
THEN THERE IS CONFIRMATION BIAS:
Not only do you make snap judgments about people and everything else, you also only look for evidence to SUPPORT those judgments. Your brain is not interested in conflicting or challenging new information, so without you even being aware of it, your brain filters out any contradictions to your judgements.
This is why you think you are so good at reading people. According to your conscious mind, you are never wrong. You have been tricked by your own brain! I know, it’s messed up, right?
Very few people have the confidence to just “be themselves” around new people. If you make a real effort to put aside any reactive judgments of them, they will feel that you are open. This will relax them and make them more likely to be honest with you.
Then you get to judge the real them. Imagine if every time you went on a date with someone, they behaved the same as they would around their closest family and friends. That’s the real person you want to see.
Removing your judgments will make people feel comfortable, and you will get to meet the authentic version of their identity. And you also get to avoid being scammed or betrayed whilst simultaneously being open to someone pleasantly surprising you.
By the way, this won’t suddenly go away because you read this. I still have to battle my biases every day, and I’ve been focusing on it for YEARS. But I keep fighting because it’s better for my long term success. There are times when I could have missed out on friends, clients and great experiences because of my biases.
I shudder to think of the mistakes I don’t even know I made earlier in my life.