“Perception is tricky,” explains Dr. Heidi Grant Halvorson, an associate director of the Motivation Science Center at the Columbia Business School. There’s this notion that the way we see ourselves is the way others see us as well — not true. In her book No One Understands You and What to Do About It, she talks about the two phases of perception: automatic and thoughtful. People rarely try to move past that first phase where people have a “gist” of who you are as a person — most of the time, that’s all they want. Halvorson explains some of the barriers that hinder people from going into that second phase and looking at you as a more nuanced person.
Heidi Grant Halvorson: One of the challenges I think that we need to face head on when we think about how we come across to other people is really understanding that perception is tricky and that for your perceiver, the person who’s trying to understand you, it’s really kind of an uphill battle. They’re operating on very little information trying to get the right, accurate image of you. But the good news is that the kinds of mistakes that perceivers make are very predictable. It’s not random. We know a lot about the kinds of signals a person sends and how they tend to be perceived by other people. President Obama, when he was running for reelection, had his first debate with Mitt Romney and he went into it, according to everything that was said afterwards, he had gone into it really trying to seem presidential and not wanting to rise to debate, kind of trying to take advantage of the fact that he was coming in as an incumbent president. And it turned out that at the end of it people who were in the audience, even people who were fans of President Obama, thought that he had come across as lethargic, as disengaged, wondering if he had had enough sleep that night. And afterwards he was really quite surprised when he spoke to his aides to find out how poorly he had done because he really thought he was very successfully coming across as above the fray and presidential when, in fact, he was actually seeming sort of out of it. And so you can think if someone like President Obama who’s really a gifted orator and has a lot of experience trying to come across to other people in a particular way, if he can be so wrong about how he’s coming across, then it’s obviously pretty easy for the rest of us to make the same mistake.
We tend to think that other people are really paying attention, really trying to understand us. I mean most of the time they’re happy to just get the gist of you and the gist can be totally wrong. The first phase of perception, what Kahneman calls system one thinking, is really the part that’s very automatic. It happens completely below your awareness and that’s where the perceiver is really trying to figure out, you know, the basics of you. Are you an anxious person or an honest person or a smart person or a warm person? And we use — the brain uses sort of basic trait terms to understand you, kind of just the gist of who you are. When we go into phase two, we take a more nuanced view of who you are. So then that’s the phase where you start to do things like take the context of someone’s behavior into account, take into account what you know of them outside this one situation. Really try to get a more nuanced view of what this person is like. Now the problem is phase one is automatic. It’s content to just get the gist. It uses shortcuts and rules of thumb in order to really kind of get a sense of who you are in that thin slice sort of way. Phase two is not automatic. It is labor-intensive. It requires a lot of effort and energy to get a more nuanced view of another person. So what happens is that much of the time people are never going past phase one. When they’re trying to understand you, they’re just getting the gist and they’re either not motivated to go into phase two and try to really get a more nuanced view of you or they’re just unable to go into phase two because they’re so busy with all the other things we have to pay attention to. So the point of the book was really to give people that research, that science that shows: Look, if you want to come across as trustworthy, if you want to come across as friendly, if you want to come across as competent or caring, these are the signals, right. This is the body language. These are the kinds of things you can say in order to really clearly convey that intent and come across the way you intend to. So it’s definitely a challenge coming across the way you intend to, but it’s definitely a challenge that, with the right tools, you can master.