Snap judgment: The brain protects from harm but can also confirm dangerous bias

When I was at Brown University, I started my first company with a few professors. We decided to raise money and invited venture capitalists to our offices for our pitch. During one meeting with a well-known VC, he started introducing himself to the group but when he came to me, instead of an intro, he looked my way and asked, “Would you mind getting me a cup of coffee?”

To be fair, I probably looked like an underage intern at the time. But I wasn’t going to argue or take it as an insult, so I said “Sure!”

We had no coffee maker so I ran as fast as I could to Starbucks. Meanwhile, my team sat in the conference room and made small talk until the VC finally asked if we should get started. Members of my team looked at each other awkwardly, until one of the professors finally spoke up: “Well, we could, except that you sent our CEO out to get coffee.”

As you can imagine, I received lavish apologies when I returned with the coffee. The investor made an embarrassing error in judgment, focusing on the cover rather than cracking the book.I didn’t mind: As a brain scientist, I understood why he made a snap judgment.

Numerous experiments have shown us that our brains make quick judgments at an unconscious level before we‘re even aware that we are making a decision. We are especially quick to analyze human faces. One recent experiment scanned people’s brains as they were shown an image of a face for mere milliseconds, not long enough to consciously process it. Researchers found that the amygdala region of the brain lit up and determined trustworthiness almost instantly, and results were consistent with other respondents who had been given time to consciously study a face before deciding who looked trustworthiness.

That’s right, we tend to base trustworthiness on nothing more than a split second impression – and we do it subconsciously. (For those of you thinking of a facelift or nose job, you may want to read the study for tricks to make your face appear more trustworthy). 

Other experiments have shown that our impressions of faces pretty accurately predict whether a person is introverted or extroverted, and which political candidate will win an election. One study even showed that people can accurately predict someone’s sexual orientation, but only if they go with their subconscious gut response. When test subjects were asked to think carefully about their answers, they became less accurate. So much for thinking.

Being able to quickly size someone up is a valuable evolutionary skill. Before civilization, when we encountered strangers in the forest, it was necessary to be able to quickly determine who could be asked for help, who was a potential mate, and who should be avoided at all costs. Those types of gut decisions were likely the difference between life and death. Of course, in modern times, there is less chance that a stranger is going to eat us, and we have incentive to strike a balance between snap judgments and careful analysis.

Charles Darwin once said evolution doesn’t necessarily translate into progress and in this case, nothing could be closer to the truth. Tremendous inequalities and prejudice have resulted from our evolutionary instinct to judge people solely on their faces. Recognition of our own biases and making an effort to treat each other fairly is a keystone to helping societies become less racist, sexist, and otherwise bigoted. When you’re a test subject sitting in a lab, there’s no downside to making a fast judgment. But when you’re meeting a real human being with whom you’d like to establish a real relationship, it can often do more harm than good. Just ask the investor who sent me to Starbucks.

Truth be told, I had no problem fetching the coffee. My understanding of the brain has led me to expect a certain amount of bias from people, and I generally tolerate it when aimed at myself, just not at others. It was a funny and humbling experience and I’m proud of the way I reacted. Besides, the investor’s request perhaps had nothing to do with his prejudice at all—maybe his brain just made the snap decision that I am a trustworthy coffee barista!

Jeff Stibel is the former CEO of Web.com and vice chairman of Dun & Bradstreet, a partner of Bryant Stibel and an entrepreneur who also happens to be a brain scientist.  He is the USA TODAY bestselling author of “Breakpoint” and “Wired for Thought.” Follow him on Twitter at @stibel. 

 

The views and opinions expressed in this column are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of USA TODAY.

 

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