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Mixed Signals: Why People Misunderstand Each Other

The psychological peculiarities that make it difficult to gauge someone’s feelings accurately Submitted—Emily Esfahani Smith

Heidi Grant Halvorson offers readers a tale about her buddy Tim in her new book No One Understands You and What To Do About It. When Tim began his new position as a manager, one of his primary goals was to communicate to his staff how much he appreciated their contribution. Thus, at team meetings, Tim made a point of putting on his “active-listening face” to demonstrate his interest in what each member had to say about whatever project they were working on. There are many being misunderstood quotes available in the literature and other online sources.

However, after meeting with him several times, Tim’s team received a message that was much different from the one he meant to deliver. “After several weeks of meetings,” Halvorson explains, “one team member had the nerve to ask him the issue on everyone’s mind.” “Tim, are you furious with us right now?” was the query. When Tim replied that he was not upset and was simply putting on his “active-listening face,” his colleague politely pointed out that his active-listening face resembled his furious face.

Tim’s experience, according to Halvorson, a social psychologist at Columbia Business School who has conducted considerable study on how people view one another, encapsulates one of the major difficulties of being a human being: Despite your best efforts to seem a certain way to others, individuals frequently interpret you in an entirely other light.

For instance, one individual may believe that by assisting a colleague, she is demonstrating generosity. Her colleague, on the other hand, may view her offer as a lack of confidence in his talents. Likewise, she misunderstands him: she gave him assistance because she believed he was busy and anxious. After all, he has been arriving early for work and leaving late every day. However, this is not why he keeps odd hours; he just works better when the workplace is less busy.

His colleague kindly pointed out that his “active-listening face” resembled his furious face quite a bit.

Such misconceptions result in tension and anger not just at work, but also at home. How many quarrels between couples have begun because one person misinterpreted what the other said or did? He stares at his plate at dinner while she tells a storey, and she feels he is uninterested in what she is saying, but in fact he is admiring the lovely meal she prepared. She goes to bed early instead of watching their favourite television show together as they normally do, and he feels she is uninterested in spending time with him when she is simply fatigued from a long day at work.

Oftentimes, Halvorson adds, individuals are unaware they are not communicating in the manner they believe they are. “If I ask you how you view yourself—what characteristics you would say define you—and then ask someone who knows you well to list your characteristics,” Halvorson explained, “the correlation between what you say and what your buddy says would be between 0.2 and 0.5.” There is a significant disconnect between how other people perceive us and how we perceive ourselves.”

As Halvorson describes in her book, this chasm is caused by various peculiarities of human nature. To begin, the majority of individuals suffer from what psychologists refer to as “the transparency illusion”—the conviction that what they feel, desire, and intend is crystal obvious to others, despite the fact that they have done nothing to explain what is happening within their heads.

Because the perceived believe they are transparent, they may not take the time or make the effort to be as forthright and candid about their intents or emotional states as they could, providing the perceiver with few information with which to make an informed assessment.

“Chances are,” Halvorson says, “how you seem when you’re somewhat annoyed isn’t that dissimilar to how you look when you’re mildly anxious, perplexed, disappointed, or nervous.” Your ‘I’m slightly hurt by what you just said’ expression very certainly looks identical to your ‘I’m not at all hurt by what you just said’ face. And the majority of the time when you tell yourself, ‘I made my intentions plain,’ or ‘He understands what I meant,’ you didn’t and he doesn’t.”

Meanwhile, the perceiver is confronted by two tremendous psychological pressures that distort his capacity to interpret people effectively. To begin, a substantial corpus of psychological research indicates that humans are what psychologists refer to as “cognitive misers.” That is, humans are sluggish thinkers.

According to Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman’s research, the mind analyses information, including knowledge about others, in two ways: through cognitive processes that Kahneman refers to as System 1 and System 2. Kahneman discusses these “systems” in his book Thinking Fast and Slow as metaphors for two distinct modes of reasoning. System 1 efficiently, intuitively, and automatically processes information. As Halvorson notes in her book, System 1 is activated when individuals engage in effortless thinking, such as when they solve simple math problems such as 3 + 3 = 6, or when they drive familiar roads while conversing with a friend in the car, or when they see someone smile and instantly recognise that person as happy.

In terms of social perception, System 1 relies on shortcuts, or heuristics, to form judgments about another person. There are several shortcuts the mind uses when interpreting others’ facial expressions, body language, and intentions, and one of the most potent is referred to as the “primacy effect,” which explains why first impressions are so critical. According to the primacy effect, the information that a person learns about another during his or her first contacts with that person has a strong influence on how that person will be seen in the future.

For instance, Halvorson notes in reference to research on the primacy effect that children who score better on the first half of a math test but worse on the second half may be perceived to be brighter than those who perform poorly on the first half but well on the second half. Both students would have done identically objectively, but one would benefit from the primacy effect’s biassing influence on the mind. “The ramifications of these results for late bloomers, or anyone who suffers initially but excels later, are alarming,” Halvorson writes.