How accurate are first impressions? How often does it happen that you look across at the person sitting opposite you on the bus or the train and think “She looks nice” or “I wouldn’t trust him an inch”? How often do you make these snap judgements, meet the person and find that you were completely wrong?
We all make these quick judgements and there is a good reason for it. The world is a dangerous place and when you come into contact with a stranger you have no idea what his intentions are. Walk away, and you might miss the opportunity of a lifetime; get involved, and you might end up losing your life’s savings to a fraudster or worse, end up dead.
Are things easier in the animal kingdom? In theory, each species has its prey and its predators. Normally, the predators are of a different species and therefore easy to recognize and run away from. For example, if you are a rabbit and you see the fox approaching, you don’t hang around to see if he is going to make you an offer you can’t refuse.
With people it isn’t so simple. Frauds and murderers look disconcertingly like the rest of us. How many times have I been stopped in the street by a kind passer-by who has warned me that my backpack is unzipped or that I have just dropped something? I would – perhaps literally – be the poorer for not having responded in a welcoming way to these people. On the other hand, any of them could have been a crook ready to do me down. Somehow I guessed they were not.
I think that, consciously or unconsciously, we maintain a list of attributes in our minds – faces, postures, expressions, manners of speaking – and use these to evaluate the likely motives of the person confronting us. I remember that in a club I briefly joined was a man whom I immediately classified as “dangerous”. I kept away from him. Yet he never spoke to me, never made the least aggressive gesture. Somehow he looked dangerous and that was enough to make me keep my distance. If you were to ask me what these indicators of danger were, I can’t tell you. Nor can I say whether my instincts were right or wrong.
Some people put this down to a “sixth sense”, the sort of thing that comes into play when you are driving along and suddenly just know that the driver in front is going to do something silly. I don’t believe in a “sixth sense”. I think that we continually absorb little clues – movements, gestures, facial expressions – that indicate what people are thinking or planning. If we were conscious of them and had to think about them, by the time we had made up our minds it would be too late. We have to react quickly and the subliminal processing of information allows us to work at speed. Unfortunately, we usually cannot recall the data afterwards and explain what went through our minds or, rather, didn’t.
Inevitably, we will sometimes get it wrong, either passing up the opportunity to make a new friend or letting a predator into our lives. At one end of the scale, we call it “prejudice”. That’s when we reject all members of a group determined by some indicator such as ethnic origin, hair colour, religious belief or facial features. It is not always easy to be sure which side of the line we are on, whether on the side of prudence or that of prejudice.
Now, see that person sitting opposite me on the tube? I wonder what conclusions he has drawn about me…