Why We Ignore the Obvious at Our Peril
By MARGARET HEFFERNAN
Walker & Company
Copyright © 2011 Margaret Heffernan
All right reserved.
Affinity and Beyond
In life one and one don't make two; One and one make one. And I'm looking for that free ride to me: I'm looking for you. —The Who, "Bargain"
The first thing you will notice is that she is very tall— just under six feet. Mid-thirties. Healthy, wholesome— and even today, when she's had to bring her two children in to work with her, she has plenty of energy.
He's tall too— just over six feet. Mid-thirties. Handsome, clean-cut, and, despite some looming deadlines, unfailingly polite.
Meeting Rebecca and Robert together, you will notice what all their friends comment on: they look very alike. Not the same, of course; they're not twins. They're husband and wife. And their looks are not deceptive.
"Amazing similarities," Robert concedes. "Similarities in background that I didn't notice, but I like more and more. Not rich, not poor. Went to the same university, both Christian. But then there are more nuanced things, like the way we both think about family and friends and believing in hard work. And of course we work in the same industry and," he looks over at Rebecca and beams, "wear the unofficial uniform: neat jeans, crisp shirt." They both laugh.
Rebecca and Robert enjoy the fact that they are similar, because it makes them feel comfortable, safe, located within each other.
"It isn't that we like all the same things," says Rebecca when she's on her own. "I love going for walks— and Robert's had to learn to like them! But the skeleton of our lives, that's what we have in common. Very settled home lives, parents still together, parents who were always very encouraging. We didn't think consciously about these things when we started going out, but you look back and see these things, these patterns."
Rebecca and Robert enjoy the fact that they're so similar. They have very little sense that it limits them, narrows their perspective on life, or blinds them to a wide array of opinions, experiences, and different ways of thinking and being. But the fundamental human preference that they exemplify— for the familiar over the alien, the known over the unknown, and the comfortable over the dissonant— has insidious but important consequences. Embedded within our self-definition, we build relationships, institutions, cities, systems, and cultures that, in reaffirming our values, blind us to alternatives. This is where our willful blindness originates: in the innate human desire for familiarity, for likeness, that is fundamental to the ways our minds work.
Because for all that their similarities are so pronounced, in fact Rebecca and Robert are typical. Most people marry other people very like themselves: similar height, weight, age, background, IQ, nationality, ethnicity. We may think that opposites attract, but they don't get married. Sociologists and psychologists, who have studied this phenomenon for de cades, call it "positive assortative mating"—which really just means that we marry people like ourselves. When it comes to love, we don't scan a very broad horizon.
Gian Gonzaga used to work as a senior research scientist before leaving to join eHarmony, the online dating site. The "science of compatibility" that the site promotes argues that "compatibility is not enough! 29 Dimensions(tm) predict great relationships."
This is not romance, it's business. So eHarmony stands or falls on its success in finding people who really will like each other. In 2007, eHarmony claimed credit for 44,000 weddings, which amounted to 2 percent of all the marriages in America that year. Today, they claim to average 236 marriages a day. What were all those people looking for?
"We know that people select for appearances, which is why you upload your picture. But our questionnaire goes a lot deeper and that's really based on what we know works. So we ask lots of questions about personality— how neat you are, how punctual— and about values: Do you value religion, altruism, volunteering? Values are the things you hold on to even in tough times and they are the things you most want validated by others. Of course interests count, too, but they change. You can learn to love walking, but values are really sticky."
Gonzaga and his wife, Heather Setrakian, don't just practice what they preach— they are what they preach. They met while working as academic researchers in UCLA's marriage lab; they're both in their thirties, dark-haired, and, according to their friends, brilliant, witty, and wise. The eHarmony system could have matched them, Gonzaga says, except that when his wife filled out her questionnaire she said she wanted someone two years younger.
That questionnaire certainly tests for patience and endurance. It takes at least a half hour to complete— longer if you're seriously committed to finding a mate. The questions are all designed to identify your key values and attitudes— those twenty-nine dimensions— and to match them up with someone else whose dimensions are as close to yours as possible. It may be software but it is, quite literally, matchmaking. It is not looking for opposites or quirky combinations.
"People may have an interest in people who are different from themselves," said Gonzaga. "But they don't marry them. They're looking for confirmation, for comfort."
Gonzaga bases his claims on data from twenty-five million questionnaires. What these tell him is that, whether we're using the wiring in our brains or the software underneath eHarmony's site, we go through life looking for people who make us comfortable because they're so much like us. We may be intrigued by diff erence—but ultimately, we reject it.
"For a while, I went out with women who looked different," Robert told me. "And women who really were different—sometimes very different indeed. But the turbulence of those relationships really drew me back to the center. You'd think it would widen the circle but it really didn't. I tried but I found I really didn't love Albanian women! Clearly some Albanian women are wonderful—I have nothing against the Albanians! But I think I learned that you're given a center of gravity that is immutable. You've been given a set of rules that you return to almost without thinking."
It isn't that Robert wasn't curious about other kinds of people and other cultures; he was. He wanted, more than many people, to explore beyond his own immediate knowledge and experience. But he rejected a difference that just felt too great. That puzzled him enough to make him think about it, but not enough to change his mind.
"I wonder if I might feel I am looking at myself when I look at Rebecca," Robert said. "Have I chosen myself?"
Robert and Rebecca are well educated and skeptical. They aren't inclined to take anything at face value. What makes them unusual is that they were prepared to analyze and talk about the powerful influence that their similarity has had on their relationship. They both acknowledge that it is a source of delight and comfort, but they worry that sticking to their own kind narrows their experience of life. By choosing to live and work among people like themselves, are they restricting what they see?
These findings—that we mostly marry and live with people very like ourselves—always annoy people. Confronted by the data, the most common response is a challenge: I'm not like that, my husband's not like that. Why are we so affronted? Because we all want to feel that we have made our own choices, that they weren't predictable, that we aren't so vain as to choose ourselves, and that we are freer spirits, with a broader, more eclectic range of taste than the data imply. We don't like to feel that we're blind to the allure of those who are not like us; we don't like to see how trapped we are inside our own identity.
But our minds operate somewhat like eHarmony's software: We go through life searching for good matches and, when we find one, it feels good. And that habit of mind pertains equally to things that really matter (like choosing a wife) and to things that don't matter at all. So when subjects in an experiment were led to believe that they shared a birthday with Rasputin, they were far more lenient in judging the antics of the mad monk than were those who had nothing in common with him. Just the thought that they shared a birthday made people like him more.
Even when it's something as trivial as our own initials, we stick to what we know best. A meta-analysis of the most severe hurricanes between 1998 and 2005 showed that people were more likely to donate to relief funds if the hurricane's name shared their first initial—so Kate and Katherine were more likely to donate to Hurricane Katrina relief than Zoe was. I've always been baffled by monogrammed towels and shirts (do we really not know who owns the towels in our own homes?) but clearly these familiar letters mean a lot to us.
In other experiments, asked to choose a preferred letter from several pairs of letters, subjects tended, quite reliably, to opt for letters from their own names. What's so interesting about these findings is that the letters themselves are pretty meaningless—nothing will happen as a result of the choices made. Yet still the participants gravitate toward letters they see, and sign, every day. Even when it comes to the alphabet, we don't stray that far from home.
When you take this out of the lab and into the real world, the same pattern emerges. Carol, it seems, is more likely to drink Coke while Pete will choose Pepsi. Leo likes Listerine but Tom likes Tom's of Maine—even if he's from Ohio. And while those choices may seem unimportant, it appears that life choices too may be influenced by those initials we love so much. Dentists are overrepresented by people whose names begin with "D" and there are more people named George than you should expect to find living in Georgia.
Familiarity, it turns out, does not breed contempt. It breeds comfort. In a series of experiments at the University of Michigan in the 1980s, one group of sixty-four students was shown photographs of a male college student once a week for four weeks; the other group of sixty-four saw different faces each week. After the four weeks were up, the two groups were asked to assess how much they thought they would like the people whose faces they'd seen if they were to meet them in the future. They were also asked how far they believed those people to be similar to themselves.
The students who had seen the same face for four weeks believed more strongly that these were people they would like in real life. They also believed (on no evidence except the photograph) that those faces belonged to people who were similar to themselves. In other words, the familiar faces—with no supporting evidence—felt nicer. Women responded to the experiment in exactly the same way as men. A similar experiment, using irregular octagons, generated the same pattern of responses. The familiar makes us feel secure and comfortable.
This even pertains when we go looking for emotional experiences, as when we listen to music. It can be hard fully to enjoy a new piece the first time you listen to it; only after repeated hearings does it become a favorite. Part of that may be because if you're trying out, say, Mahler's Eighth Symphony for the first time, there is a lot to take in: two orchestras, two choirs, and eight soloists over eighty minutes won't create an instant impression. And listening to music is a hugely complex cognitive exercise. Even the White Stripes' "Seven Nation Army" can take some getting used to. But once we've heard it a few times, we're used to it and like it. And then we don't want something different. We want more of the same.
"We score hundreds of attributes of every song," says Tim Westergren, the founder of Pandora Internet Radio. "And then we find the matches between those songs—and then that's what we recommend to you. Because we know that if you liked one piece of music, you are very, very likely to like another one that shares the same characteristics."
Westergren's business does for music what eHarmony does for dating. Each song is scored manually by musicians for some four hundred attributes; there are thirty for the voice alone, capturing everything from timbre to layers of the voice to vibrato. Then that "score" is matched to other songs that have scores that are as closely similar as possible. Pandora software is doing to music what we do when we meet people: looking for matches. And, when it finds them, people feel very happy.
"God, I love Pandora!" said Joe Clayton, a music fan in Boston. "I love it. I'm always finding new bands, new stuff that I just couldn't find otherwise—certainly not in any music store. And it's kinda creepy—but in a good way—because they almost never give me something I don't like. Almost never."
More than fifty million people use Pandora, and many are avid evangelists. But what Pandora can't do is come up with that serendipitous suggestion that introduces you to something completely different from anything you've ever heard before. I like Bruce Springsteen, Frank Zappa, and the White Stripes—but I also adore Handel. And given my first three preferences, Pandora wouldn't ever offer me Handel.
Westergren acknowledges that limitation. "We're never going to take you from rock and roll to baroque music. Pandora is about broadening your selection—but narrowing your taste. If you like jazz, you like more jazz. If you like hip-hop, you like more hip-hop. But Pandora is never going to take you from Springsteen to Handel."
All personalization software, whether eHarmony, Pandora, Amazon's book recommendations, or MyShape.com's clothing suggestions, does the same thing: makes our lives easier by reducing overwhelming choice. And software is doing it the same way that our brain does, by searching for matches. It's as though, online and off-line, our life is one gigantic game of Snap! This is immensely efficient: It means that the brain can take shortcuts because it is working with what it already knows, not having to start from scratch. When we find what we like, part of our plea sure is the joy of recognition.
But the flip side of that satisfaction is that we are rejecting a lot along the way. As Westergren says, we are narrowing our taste, reducing the music or books or clothes or people that might widen our horizons. Our brains aren't designed to draw us into experiences that are wild and different; there would be no advantage in doing something so risky. And so, by focusing in one direction and excluding others, we become blind to the experiences that don't match.
This is not to say that strange, serendipitous things never flow into our lives. Of course they do. You meet someone at work who introduces you to Handel and you develop a love of baroque music. Or—more likely—your son introduces you to Rammstein. But these encounters are random and risky. Remember Robert's problem with Albanian women.
There's a circle here: We like ourselves, not least because we are known and familiar to ourselves. So we like people similar to us—or that we just imagine might have some attributes in common with us. They feel familiar too, and safe. And those feelings of familiarity and security make us like ourselves more because we aren't anxious. We belong. Our self-esteem rises. We feel happy. Human beings want to feel good about themselves and to feel safe, and being surrounded by familiarity and similarity satisfies those needs very efficiently.
The problem with this is that everything outside that warm, safe circle is our blind spot.
Because not only are we rejecting music that doesn't match; we use these same processes to make important decisions in our everyday lives. When I had my first opportunity, as a producer at the BBC, to choose my own team, I hoped to hire people who would challenge me and each other and who would invest the entire project with intellectual richness and vigor. With all that firmly in mind, I selected liberal arts graduates who were all female, spoke several languages, and had birthdays within the same week in June. In other words, they were all like me.
Did I consciously intend to do that? Of course not. Like hiring managers the world over, I intended to hire only the best and the brightest and that's what I thought I was looking for. But did I also want people I'd feel comfortable working with, enjoy spending late hours with, people who shared the values of the project? Well, yes.
I was biased, in favor of those just like me. Everyone is biased. But just as we are affronted when told that we're likely to marry and associate with those very similar to ourselves, so most people vehemently reject the idea that they are biased: others may be, but not us. "And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother's eye but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?" is how the Bible puts it. Of course we consider the people who disagree with us to be the most biased of all.
It's recently become easier to identify and mea sure biases with a suite of tests called the Implicit Association Test, or IAT for short. Designed by three psychologists, the computer-based tests examine thoughts and feelings that exist outside of our conscious awareness or control. These may pertain to gender, age, race, or religion. In the test, participants are given two sets of images and two lists of words—one positive, one negative. Images and words appear randomly on the screen and you have to associate them with positives or negatives. You may link "male" with "intelligent" or "old" with "stupid." When making a link that isn't comfortable for us, we take longer. And that delay, say the researchers, is telling: it takes more time to overcome bias. The longer we take to accept a match, the greater our bias.
Excerpted from WILLFUL BLINDNESS by MARGARET HEFFERNAN Copyright © 2011 by Margaret Heffernan. Excerpted by permission of Walker & Company. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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