By Simon Makin, New Scientist Magazine 2016
Ever felt love at first sight? Or an irrational distrust of a stranger on a bus? It could be because our unconscious is constantly making fast judgements. And they are often pretty accurate.
In the early 1990s Nalini Ambady and Robert Rosenthal, both then at Stanford University in California, asked volunteers to rate teachers on traits including competence, confidence and honesty after watching 2-, 5- or 10-second silent clips of their performance. The scores successfully predicted the teachers’ end of semester evaluations and 2-second judgements were as accurate as those given more time.
Further experiments showed similar accuracy for judgements about sexuality, economic success and political affiliation. For anyone hoping to use this to their advantage, the bad news is that no one has worked out what to do to pass yourself off as a winner. It seems to be an overall body signal that is both given out and picked up unconsciously, and is greater than the sum of its parts. This makes it very difficult if not impossible to fake.
In some cases, all we need to make these judgements is a glimpse of a face. In a separate study, people saw the faces of US election candidates for 1 second and were then asked to rate their competence – these ratings not only predicted the winning candidates, but also their margin of victory. Trumped up?
A follow-up study found that people could make such judgements given only a tenth of a second. Again, the magic ingredients of what makes a face you can trust haven’t been identified, so this is one area of the unconscious where we have little choice in the conclusions we draw. While the skill is undoubtedly useful, it can also make unfounded prejudices feel like intuition when they are actually the result of our unconsciously held biases towards specific social groups.
“We can accurately judge a person’s honesty in only a tenth of a second“
Although we can’t change easily change our facial features, our unconscious mind has a trick for making us likeable: mimicry. Jo Hale, a psychologist at University College London, is using virtual avatars to study the popular idea that we like people who mimic our body language. While it takes a lot of effort to consciously mimic someone’s body language, we do it effortlessly, without thinking all the time. In a recent study, Hale programmed virtual avatars to mimic volunteers with a 1 or 3 second delay in their mimicry and found that 3 seconds may be close to a natural delay, because it rendered people both unaware they were being mimicked and more likely to rate the avatar as likeable. A delay of 1 second seemed to raise a flag to the consciousness, making volunteers more likely to notice the mimicry. So despite what body language coaches might have you believe, mimicry may only work if you get the timing right.