“Boy, Was I Wrong About Him”: Why It’s So Hard to Size People Up

Malcolm Gladwell’s bestseller Blink was premised on the idea that our subconscious minds are more gifted than we imagine, and can form uncannily accurate judgments very quickly in very little time. Now, in the past, I’ve criticized certain aspects of this book, and so have other people. But lately I’ve been thinking about the part in which he extols our intuitive ability to quickly understand, with just a few seconds’ exposure, the essence of a person’s personality. He quotes producer Brian Grazer describing how he intuited right away the actor’s exceptionable likeability, and goes on:

My guess is that many of you have the same impression of Tom Hanks. If I asked you what he was like, you would say that he is decent and trustworthy and down-to-earth and funny. But you don’t know him. You’re not friends with him. You’ve only seen him in the movies, playing a wide range of different characters. Nonetheless, you’ve manged to extract something very meaningful about him from those thin slices of experience, and that impression has a powerful effect on how you experience Tom Hanks movies.

This has always struck me as a rather implausible argument. After all, Tom Hanks is an actor. His job is to charm. To appear to be something that he’s not. Sure, he’s very good at it, but is success evidence that we’re innately good at detecting the essentials of someone’s character, or the opposite – that we’re very easily fooled? Hollywood, after all, is filled to the gills with charming, good-looking people who delight us onscreen and in real life behave like alley cats.

Indeed, having been in a real doozie of a romantic relationship (or three) in my time, I have come to conclude the exact opposite of what Gladwell proposes: not only can we not figure someone out in a blink, we can spend years with someone, sharing their bed and their table, and still not really know what they’re about. (I know a woman who was quite surprised to get a fax from her husband of 40 years informing her that he had decided to end their marriage.)

I’ve been thinking about this lately because the magazine Fast Company has just run an article that I wrote about John McAfee, the antivirus software pioneer who reportedly lost 96 percent of his wealth in the crash and then moved to Belize in order to develop a new class of herbal antibiotics. I went to visit McAfee in Belize for a few days, the second time I had been his guest while reporting a story. Both times I found him immensely energetic and personable. As I wrote on my blog at the time, “McAfee embodies the fear-embracing mindset – given the time and the means to do pretty much whatever he wants, he chooses to push the envelope.” However, soon after I began following some leads that eventually led me to the conclusion that McAfee was not quite what I’d assumed. I’ll spare you the details here; the whole story is on the Fast Company website.

So why are we so poor at accurately sizing up fellow members of our species? Evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar suggests that it’s because, in a sense, deception is what we evolved to do. His “social brain hypothesis” posits that the reason we evolved such large brains is that, as social animals, our ancestors were constantly jockeying for position within the social group. As I write in Extreme Fear, for mammals like us, heirarchical rank can be a matter of life or death; that’s why we seem to have a separate fear system devoted to social threat. In order to survive, we have to be able to figure out what’s going on in our friends’ and relatives’ minds. And at times, to prevent them from accurately understanding what’s going on in our minds. So deception is part of our evolutionary inheritance. We lie for the same reason a bird flies and a whale spouts: it helps us survive.

Some of us are better than others. My wife, for example, is a particularly bad liar, which is one of the reasons I married her. (At least, this is what I believe about her; ask me again in 30 years.) Others are exceptionally good. I’ve learned not to trust my gut when it comes to such matters. Time and again, it’s the person who I really, really like on first meeting who turns out to be an incorrigible rogue.