"The mind's construction in the face"

One of the hallmarks of Greek drama is that a character's strength is also a great weakness.  Indeed, the very qualities that lead to Oedipus' downfall--rashness, over-confidence, stubborn persistence--allowed him to save Thebes from the Sphinx.  In other words, flaws are actually strengths in different contexts. 

One of my flaws is a complete inability to form accurate first impressions.  I am dead wrong about people every time.  If I met Mother Theresa, I'm sure I would think she was a greedy sneak thief.  I'd be hiding the silverware.  Chuck Manson, on the other hand, would seem like a prince of guy. I'd be loaning him money.  The upshot is that I've learned never to trust my first impression.   I don't even try to second guess myself because I still get it wrong. 

I've noticed, however, that a lot of people pride themselves on their ability to read others.  A casual remark is parsed for seventeen levels of nuance.  I used to envy these people, but more and more I've come to see my obtuseness as an ironic blessing.  I know I am clueless.  Consequently I avoid drawing any conclusions about people until I've known them six months (and even then I hang on to the possibility that I'm wrong). 

Other people form a quick first impression and spend all their time confirming their brilliance.  They are convinced they can accurately read facial expresions or tones of voice.  It doesn't matter that a great deal of research says we're far more likely to be wrong. 

In 2008, for example, Norwegian researchers tested police officers' ability to judge the credibility of rape claims. Sixty-nine investigators watched taped versions of a victim's statement.  The victim was played by an actress. The wording of each statement was the same, but the actress varied her emotions. These trained professionals prided themselves on their objectivity, but the results showed that the objective facts of her statement weighed less in judging credibility than faked emotional cues .  Keep in mind that none of the statements was true.  It was an actress every time.

Nevertheless, people remain stubbornly convinced that they can read others well.  Princeton psychologist Emily Pronin has dubbed this "the illusion of assymetric insight."  Since we are intimately aware of how we feel, we overstestimate our ability to pick up on what others are feeling or thinking.  Knowing that I'm a clueless dolt, I don't even try.  Others, however...


I'm unsure if this makes me a good person or a bad person to have on a new faculty hiring committee.  Even so, that's what I'm doing this semester and I can't tell if my personal flaw is a strength or a weakness.  Heck, everybody looks good to me, but why shouldn't they?  They're all trying to make a good impression.  Of course I think they are wonderful.  That means they may not be, or it likely means nothing at all. 

Don't ask me.  What do I know?

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