If… Hypothetically…. My website got a complaint from a man with the waistline of Cyril Smith (i.e. Equator size) because we have testimonials on it… As well as having to make some amendments to slot in with a bunch of petty bureaucracy from people with little better to do with their time… (I mean, jumping on a treadmill and shopping for salad might be more advantageous to the person involved)… Then the chances are, if I were a lesser man, that I may well make some presumptions about that hypothetical person, no? Enough hypothesising Adam…

Now then, I have written the above statement on purpose to illustrate the central thought process of todays blog entry, and to demonstrate how we judge other people, and how we can make presumptions and personal decisions about people with seemingly little evidence. It is not actually how I feel, though it is typical of how people make judgments and decisions about others based on a number of factors.

We do all tend to make decisions about the characteristics of other people as a result of their actions, that is part of the human condition, isn’t it? Maybe we decide that someone is aggressive if they shout, think they are better than others, make rude comments, and/or try to push people around, physically or psychologically.

Often though, certain behaviours are ambiguous. By that, I mean, it may not be entirely clear what that behaviour indicates. For example, if someone goes skydiving, that person might be adventurous or that person might be reckless. Someone makes a complaint about the use of testimonials on a website, is that person being petty and small-minded or are they looking to maintain high standards in a professional field? How do you decide?

The Dalai Lama writes about Destructive emotions, that is, we tend to make worse decisions when we are experiencing destructive emtions – especially if we are angry or bitter, for example. So a factor that does influence the way we all evaluate other people are the concepts that we are already thinking about.

Soooo, if you are already thinking about a really active concept, that can in turn affect your interpretation of someone’s behaviour. I had a paper pointed out to me recently that featured in the July, 2010 issue of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin which was by Marlone Henderson and Cheryl Wakslak at the University of Texas.

They looked at the effects of active concepts and distance on evaluation of people’s behaviour. There is a great deal of evidence within this paper to suggest that when people think about things that are near to them in space or time, they tend to think about them much more specifically than when they think about things that are far away from them in space or time.

So, returning to our thoughts on people skydiving…. If you find out that someone is skydiving in a town nearby, you are more prone to think about the specific aspects of strapping on a parachute and jumping out of a plane than if they are going to skydive in a city far away. When they are far away, you treat the action abstractly.

This paper goes on to suggest that “the concepts you are thinking about are much more likely to have an effect on your evaluation of someone’s actions when you are thinking about their actions specifically than when you are thinking about them only generally.”

In one study, they got people to think about recklessness (which is a negative trait) or adventurousness (which is a positive trait) by having them do a word search puzzle that had lots of words that related to either to being reckless (like dangerous and cautious) or to being adventurous (like exciting and bravery). After doing the word search people evaluated a person shown in a picture skydiving. That person was described as either skydiving in a nearby town or across the country.

When the person was skydiving nearby, then people had a more positive evaluation of them when they were thinking about adventurousness than when they were thinking about recklessness. Their active concepts had no reliable influence on their evaluations when the person was skydiving far away. So, active concepts only affect the interpretation of actions when you are thinking about someone specifically.

This research is also related to work carried out on stereotypes. Stereotypes are a general attitude about a group. When someone is psychologically distant from you, then you often use your stereotypes to evaluate them. However, when someone is psychologically close to you, then you tend to evaluate them based on their specific actions. On the positive side, that means that if you hold a negative stereotype about a group, that will not affect your evaluation of people close to you. On the negative side, the positive characteristics of people who are close to you and are also part of a stereotyped group will not make you think better of the group in general.

For example, there tends to be widespread stereotypes about people that are morbidly obese (as I described in the opening of todays blog) being greedy and lazy. You might know a lot of people who are active and eat well, yet are somewhat overweight. Because those people are psychologically close to you, however, their activity levels and healthy diet may not affect your general impression that people who are morbidly overweight are greedy and lazy. Ultimately, combating stereotypes requires thinking generally about a group and recognising that there is no basis for a general attitude that you hold.

I am giving that notion a lot of thought… It means I can understand that if you are dour, at the other end of the country, stuck in a particular way of doing things, then an upcoming, dynamic and successful school like mine, where people are encouraged to have fun, laughter and healthy, fulfilling lives, could affect the judgement of the hypothetical complainants I mentioned at the beginning here today… 🙂

Have a wonderful weekend folks… I’ll be back next week, continuing to fight ferociously for what I believe in!