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  • Georgi Danov

"Don't Judge A Book By Its Cover"? Get Real!

The lost cause of arguing against it

Imagine the following scenario: you are standing in the middle of a busy high street, there are dozens if not hundreds of other people around you, you hear indistinct chatter coming from all sides, cars tirelessly drive up and down the road, a couple of kids are chasing each other a few meters away and various billboards and signs constantly flash up every way you look while you smell a mixture of fragrances and freshly baked cupcakes from the nearby stand. It is a sensory overload. The question is, in the middle of all this, is there an imminent threat for your health or life? For those of us living in busy cities, this is a daily occurrence (well before COVID lockdowns it was) and because we have been in this situation many times before, from experience we know, the likelihood is we will be fine. However, our brains are constantly scanning the rapidly changing landscape around us, searching for potential sources of threat; does anyone look suspicious or acting erratic, are cars moving along the expected trajectory or one looks like it could swerve onto the payment and hit us, are there any sudden loud thuds that could suggest trouble? This is a basic function of the brain, developed through millions of years of evolution, to the ultimate end goal - preserving us as species.


We have learned to filter out a lot of this sensory noise and make decisions if something appears to us like a potential threat. What do you think these decisions are based on? Careful analysis of every person, sound or object around us, or instant snap judgements? If it was the former, we would stay there paralysed in one place, while trying to processes all this incoming information. Fascinating as our brains are, they are not omnipotent. They use various mental shortcuts to increase the efficiency with which they operate. This is where snap decisions come into play. Did you know that it takes us mere 0.01 seconds to make a decision? There is only so much information we can process during this time. So, there is no surprise that the speed of decision making often comes at the expense of some quality loss.


Ah, The Old Adage About Books And Their Covers...


We have all heard the old saying we shouldn't judge a book by the cover. But, what is judging by the cover, if not a snap decision? People always say that with a bit of animosity and perceived arrogance in their voices, like you are some primal, underdeveloped animal for doing that. We live in a highly advanced and educated society, where this is not perceived as suitable, appropriate, or acceptable.


I hate it when someone tells me that, because it is just as useless as saying "don't breath, because you will wear out your lungs". Our brains have been wired to make instant decisions as a preservation technique over the course of evolution. Telling someone to not judge by the cover is essentially telling them to go against 6 million years of evolution since we were ape-like creatures. It cannot happen and it shouldn't. Going back to the above scenario, there are very good reasons why we judge by the cover - it is efficient way of processing information and it allows us to continue functioning as normal human beings, let alone it can keep us alive.


Fortunately, many of us today, live in a more or less stable environment, where there aren't imminent threats to our lives all the time. We don't have to turn around every time something rustles in the bushes to make sure there isn't a tiger or a bear waiting for its lunch-time treat. But, these are instincts, which we were born with, so not easy to get rid of or suppress, and which we employ on a daily basis.


Yes, It Is Not Always Right


I know some people will say "yes, but we are often wrong when we judge by the cover" or "first impression lies". Of course, we will sometimes get things wrong. If we didn't, we wouldn't be humans. I am not advocating you make life changing decisions on a whim. Snap decisions are useful in some scenarios not others. Nothing can beat a good, thorough analysis, mind maps, decision trees, pros and cons lists, or whatever techniques you might use when making big decisions. But once again, if we do that for every single decision we make, our brains might explode. By the way, did I mention that researchers from Cornell University estimated that the average adult made around 35 000 conscious decision a day? If we spent even 5 minutes thinking each one through, it would take us around 121 days of thinking through a single day's worth of decisions. Unless, we could stop the time and prevent our brains from exploding, forgive me, if I am being cynical and consider this impossible.


Consider interviews, for example. It is often argued that interviewers already know if you are likely to get hired or proceed to the next stage of the recruitment process from the moment you walk through the door. Are you dressed well for the interview, are your shoes shiny, is your hair nice and tidy, do you walk confidently, do you have a firm handshake, do you stand straight... there are lots of cues, which form this first impression. From that moment on, the interview turns from assessment of your fit and capabilities to an attempt to defend the view they already have of you. It is sad, isn't it? We have often lost or won that interview before we even sat in the chair.


Professionals could be better than the average person at ignoring these cues and trying to base decisions on sounder judgement, but they are still humans. Interesting fact - did you know judges are more likely to give a more favourable sentence after they have had lunch than if they are hungry? And also, they are more likely to give a reduced sentence to an attractive person, compared to a less attractive one. There are various biases, mental shortcuts and factors impairing our sound judgement, even if we are highly trained to ignore them.


Maybe in some ideal world, where we had perfect information and unlimited amount of time and energy, we could all be very rational and make great, carefully weighted decisions, but this is not the world we live in. So, we have to accept that like everything in life, judging by the cover has its pros and cons. It is not ideal, but serves an important purpose. Like many things, it comes down to the Pareto rule, we could be wrong 20% of the time, but such mental shortcuts allow us to make 80% right decisions, and we will happily sacrifice 20% if this means increasing processing efficiency.

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