Jumping to conclusions can land us in the wrong place. We are rushed, we are pressured, and we don’t have time for the fine details. Instead, too often we mentally leap to the bottom line, and in that leap we often fly past a few things that could lead us to more accurate understanding.
We may read that a dietary product provides “Up to 4 hours hunger control,” but how many of us remember that “up to four hours” includes one, two and three hours as well as four?
Sometimes we even teach others on the basis of our wrong conclusion.
The simplest answer is NOT always the correct one.
How often have you read or been told that words carry only 7% of the information conveyed in communication, that 38% of the information is conveyed by tone of voice and 55% by body language? You can find this misinformation in many books and all over the internet. It has been quoted in learned papers and taught by at least one national training organization that really should know better. It is wrong, and yet it is based on some excellent research by a professor at the prestigious University of California at Los Angeles so… how can it be wrong?
It is wrong because somebody, somewhere, over-simplified. No doubt in a hurry, or because of a word-count limitation assigned by an editor who in turn was bound by page space, a very important piece of information about that research was omitted, not by the original researcher, Dr. Albert Mehrabian, but by someone in the subsequent reporting chain.
The fact is that Dr. Mehrabian was not researching communication in general. He was very specifically researching the communication of feelings. So when we say that 55% of the information about how someone feels is conveyed by body language, we are quite likely to be accurate. Think about it. How often can we tell how someone is feeling just by the way they move as they enter the room? The way they walk, hold their head, the droop of their shoulders, the expression on the face… oh yes, we can see Dr. Mehrabian’s research as solid. That does not mean that we know anything more about that person’s situation, about any information they may have received that led them to feel that way. It just means that we can have a fairly good idea about how the individual is feeling.
Yet, because someone over-simplified, misinformation is passed on around the world, and courses on body language are seen as even more essential to interpersonal success than they actually are.
Don’t get me wrong – body language IS important. However, it is extremely unlikely to carry 55% of the meaning of whatever interaction you may have with someone who is reporting on what is going right or wrong with a project, or if they are training you on the policies and procedures of a business, or even discussing plans for a vacation. Body language does not convey facts unless those facts are actually feelings.
One term for what happens when this type of mistake occurs is “over-generalization.” Someone took a specific situation and assumed that it applied in a much broader context than was correct. This happens a lot. A child told that a large furry animal in a field is a cow is likely to call all horses and camels “cow” until it learns better. That is over-generalization. As adults, do we really know if research done with white male college sophomores from an Ivy League college can be generalized to group of people who are far more diverse in race, age, gender and life experience? The results may indicate a possibility, even a probability, but if we are to avoid over-generalization it needs to be replicated with a population that is far more diverse in race, age, gender and life experience before it be applied to the majority of people.
Yet that, of course, is exactly what we do when we stereotype. We take an experience, or an incident, and assume that it is always going to happen in the same way based on whatever is most noticeable about what happened. We take a person who behaves in a certain way and assume that all people like that person have the same behaviors or beliefs. Not only do we base stereotypes on our own experience, but on what we have read or heard from others, whose knowledge may be even further removed from the truth. Anyone who talked to Dr. Mehrabian about his research would have learned the truth, but the further the misinformation traveled, the more firmly wrong it was.
I once started work in a new environment in the U.S. and found myself welcomes warmly by all the staff… except one. She – I’ll call her Susan – was barely civil, and would often not respond to my cheerful “Good morning.” When she did she mispronounced my name often enough that it appeared to be deliberate. It took a while, but after some months she began to relax, and confessed to having been influenced by an episode in her teens. Her family spent some time in England, and after having become accustomed to American high school life she suddenly found herself in a far more highly structured English school being taught, and reprimanded, by English school teachers who did not appreciate her introduction of American ways and accent into their domain. She remembered the experience as truly horrible, and still hated the memory of her teachers, who were all middle aged women with, of course, English accents. Many years later, with my English accent still noticeable, I kicked up all the youthful anger and resentment she had stored up since that time. She had taken the past situation and over-generalized it to “all” middle-aged English woman – in this case the “all” being me. Stereotype. And, as she eventually realized, inaccurate. Yet it certainly slowed the efficacy of our work together.
Sometimes, when we over-generalize, or stereotype, it can hurt other people, as her lack of welcome hurt me. Sometimes it can be harmful to those who do it, and who act or make decisions based on inaccurate information.
In my work in addiction counseling I have met people from many different backgrounds and learned much from them. One day in the midst of a conversation that I don’t remember a man turned to me and commented,
“You know a lot more about ‘the street’ than you look like, don’t you!”
I smiled and replied, “It occasionally gives me a thirty second advantage.”
He nodded thoughtfully, “My mom always says that thirty seconds is enough to hang a man.”
When a stereotype leads us to underestimate other people’s knowledge or abilities, it can indeed be harmful to us as well as to them. A bluff may be called. An employer may pass over a potentially brilliant employee who could do much for the organization. A competitor, under-estimating the abilities of other competitors, may not train or practice sufficiently prior to the contest. Serious, and maybe irrevocable mistakes may be made.
“Insufficient information” is the typical response from computers when asked to solve a problem for which the data provided is insufficient. It is worthwhile for us to take the time, and make the effort to check on whether or not we, too, have sufficient information before we make assumptions, and even more so before we act on them. An assumption that hunger is controlled for four hours can leave us hungry, even with dangerously dropping blood sugar, long before we had planned it to happen if we assume that “up to four hours” means “four hours.” It doesn’t.
We all tend to do it. Are there unfounded assumptions are leading you astray from your goals?
Please let me know your thoughts about this post, or the website in general, in the comment form below.