How we feel about ourselves influences our decisions, but it also influences how others feel about us. One of the more interesting studies in this area was the one lead by Craig Roberts, who was at the University of Liverpool at the time, as reported in the “The Scent of Man” (The Economist, December 20, 2008 edition).
Essentially, Roberts’ team found that men who wore cologne were more attractive to women. Here’s the interesting part though: women never smelled the cologne. All they did was watch videos of the men. Since the men felt more self-confident by wearing the cologne, they carried themselves more confidently. Apparently, how men move has significant influence on women’s evaluations of their attractiveness.
Since attractiveness influences perceptions of competence and in turn compensation, improving another’s self-confidence will alter how others perceive them and their work. Others will treat them better, which can synergize and influence their performance. People do better when they feel good about themselves and their talents.
Yes, there is the danger – and the reality – that the incompetent move ahead simply through displaying high levels of confidence. However, the converse is also a danger – and very real – that the competent don’t move ahead because they display low levels of confidence. This is especially true for sensitive people. These dangers only highlight that often people’s self-perceptions differ from reality.
Nevertheless, it’s incumbent upon leaders 1) to immunize themselves to these subliminal influences through awareness to their existence and 2) to work relentlessly on the development of healthy, positive self-perceptions among their teams. While we can easily see the effort as complex and multi-faceted, it’s those characteristics that give us reason to be optimistic: there are many ways to accomplish this to fit our styles.
And, compliments are the easiest way to begin.
Allison Bond’s article, “Haunting Scenes” (Scientific American Mind, November/December 2011 edition), discusses the research of Phillip Isola (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) as to what makes a memorable photograph. While Isola generalizes it as “’related to strangeness, funniness or interestingness,’” specifics exist:
- People – unknown people work too
- Movement – the implication of it such as people running, waves crashing, birds flying
- Human-scale objects – chairs, cars, tools, toys
Photographs with these elements tend to be far more memorable rather than those with beautiful landscapes and environs. In short, we are not likely to remember pictures simply because they are beautiful. Moreover, these findings are consistent with evolutionary theory that:
. . . our brain is wired to notice movement, other people and objects we can interact with . . . because these things would have been the most important features of the landscape we evolved in.
Just as important is that these properties are “largely constant from one person to the next.” This means a memorable photograph isn’t as subjective as we once thought. The general parameters of memorableness are coded in us. Said another way, we do not consciously, completely control our preferences. They are to an extent predictable regardless of who we are.
Thus, in our decision making and problem solving we are living to a degree under the illusion of freely deciding. In reality, unconscious forces are influencing our thoughts, and what seem legitimate reasons for decisions are nothing more than rationalizations of wants. In short, rationalizations are masquerading as reasons.
Of course, we aren’t totally at the mercy of these influences as long as we make ourselves aware of them and believe they influence us. However, many times, while we acknowledge these forces, we often believe they influence everyone else but us.
Confederate Attacks (Red) on the Union (Blue) at the 3-Day’s Battle of Gettysburg
In business, people often see aggressiveness as a virtue; however, it can be a defect. Exploring this will give us insights into dealing with aggressive personalities in our lives and examples of how different perspectives help in problem solving.
The Battle of Gettysburg in 1863 from the American Civil War, the turning point in that war, is a good initial example. The Union won this battle over the Confederates but never attacked. That’s because the Confederates relentlessly attacked a different part of the Union line on each of the battle’s three days (see diagram to right) despite the Union being on higher ground and firmly entrenched. Consequently, the Confederates suffered heavy losses and retreated.
In nature, the article, “Unnatural Selection” from the May 23, 2009 issue of The Economist, reports on the work of Laszlo Garamszegi from the University of Antwerp. He found that the aggressive animals were most likely to be caught in traps. The Battle of Cannae from 216 B.C. is a human form of this. Hannibal had tapped into his Roman opponents’ aggressiveness and hubris to lure them into a trap, thus destroying an army twice his size. In American football, the screen pass takes advantage of aggressive defenses by luring them into the backfield.
Thus, aggressiveness alone is defective without intelligence, wisdom or insight. As these examples show, we can defeat aggressiveness by:
- Allowing it to tire itself on extremely difficult tasks
- Giving it “a bone” (a lesser important task) to distract it
- Tapping into its hubris and goading it into wasting time on irrelevant things
In business, we see examples when companies expand too aggressively, thinking they have the “secret,” taking shortcuts and ignoring planning. As a result, aggressiveness produces huge losses for them, just as it did for the Confederates.
My October 13, 2011 post, “Eloquence Trumps Honesty in Trust & Likeability Wars,” discussed how style affects our assessment of talent. Now, in the November 2011 issue of the Harvard Business Review, the article, “It’s Not What You Say but How You Say It,” cites the research of Timothy DeGroot’s team from Midwestern State University indicating the attractiveness of leaders’ voices influence our perceptions of their effectiveness.
Again, the challenge is that we often don’t realize this influence is occurring. Moreover, we tend to believe other people are influenced but we aren’t. Combining this with the way labels influence our perceptions of content and how beauty and attractiveness influences us, we begin to see easily how incompetent people can receive promotions especially if they are confident.
In combating this influence, it’s important to begin with two perspectives:
- Acknowledge that style influences us (“That includes me!”)
- Remain focused on more intrinsic indicators of talents such as process (how a person works, thinks and interacts)
Often, we erroneously focus on results when we don’t factor in extraneously factors such as the team, timing and situation of the person’s experience. Perhaps the person was just along for the ride. Culture, processes and tools can also affect outcomes. When we fail to account for these, we tend fall into the trap of believing people are “winners” if they come from “winning organizations.”
In the final analysis, what makes assessing talent difficult is not the intrinsic analysis of it but rather being able to do so while trying to navigate the murky cloud of our own perceptions and biases. Many forces intuitively influence us on a subconscious level to stir up this mud.
Beauty’s power often influences us without our knowledge and thus distorts our decisions. In other words, we think we are making them based upon objective criteria, but we’re not. In order to understand this better, it helps to see beauty beyond something feminine and physical.
In the August 27, 2011 issue of The Economist, “The Line of Beauty” reviews three books examining the “economics of good looks.” While it focuses on physical attractiveness and implies it’s somewhat the same as beauty, it includes a masculine aspect to the concept. For instance, it cites:
- Homely NFL quarterbacks earn less than their comelier counterparts, despite identical yards passed and years in the league.
- Attractive people also have an easier time getting a loan than plain folks, even as they are less likely to pay it back.
- [Attractive people] receive milder prison sentences and higher damages in simulated legal proceedings.
- . . . looks have a bigger impact on earnings than education . . .
However, the real point is that beauty applies much of this power below our consciousness. For example, in none of the citations above did anyone think these:
- Quarterbacks are attractive so we should pay them more.
- Loan applicants are attractive so we should give them a loan.
- Prisoners are attractive so they should get milder sentences.
- Plaintiffs are attractive so they should get higher damages.
- Employees are attractive so they should get paid more than those with better educations.
Moreover, the overwhelming number of folks making these decisions didn’t feel that people’s attractiveness was influencing them. Now, if this can happen with physical attractiveness, imagine the impact beauty can have. Disciplines such as advertising, marketing, merchandising and retailing contain many examples of beauty’s sublime power.
My post, “Beauty as Power”, resulted in a commenter questioning, “Is beauty the same as attraction?” The short answer is, “No.” However, elaboration helps us to position beauty better as an attracting force by comparing and contrasting it to other attracting forces. Beauty is just one such force. Many things attract us not just beauty.
For instance, we can find ourselves attracted to low prices, flashing lights, accidents, disasters, loud noises, foods, water, statistics, designer labels, celebrities, power and many other things. On hot days, ice cold drinks attract us, on cold ones, hot beverages and soups attract us. Sporting events, musical performances, movies and plays attract some of us. Advertisers, merchandisers and politicians certainly work hard to attract us. News programs and publications attract us with bad news. Politicians attract us with negative advertisements. Some reality shows attract us by displaying personal conflict.
Some of us will find beauty in all and some of these things. Beauty is a higher form of attraction. Beauty is to attraction what skill is to work and what talent is to effort. It’s true that beauty attracts us, but not all things that attract us are beautiful. This also explains the difference between beautiful and attractive. Beauty is a far stronger attracting force than attractiveness alone. Beauty is the qualitative aspect of attraction in the same way a fine restaurant is of all eateries.
What this means in terms of beauty as power is that beauty is more powerful than attractiveness. In other words, the attraction we have for certain things becomes more powerful if we also find them beautiful. It also means that as we discover the beauty in something or someone that thing or person will come to exert more attraction on us.
“In the modern world the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt.” -Bertrand Russell, from his essay ‘The Triumph of Stupidity’, published in 1933.
Professors Justin Kruger and David Dunning provide supporting research. Their findings are categorically called the Dunning-Kruger Effect (DKE). In my earlier post about lying, we saw liars using confidence to encourage lies to take hold. Since confidence is a feeling that taps into our security needs, it naturally attracts us. Thus, a mother’s embrace is to a child what confidence is to an adult.
It seems natural though that those who are most competent should have the most confidence; but why does DKE claim the opposite? The incompetent don’t really know what they don’t know.
Imagine two generals. One sends his scouts out and finds no enemy forces. Another does the same and finds a force twice his size. Which general is going to feel more confident about his situation, the one with no enemy around or the one with? However, we then find out that the first general only sent his scouts out five miles while the second fifty miles. Which now? The answer doesn’t change because the first general didn’t know his scouts should have gone out fifty miles.
However, measuring competency isn’t as easy as measuring how far scouts ventured. The potential problems that concern the competent are staging far beyond a horizon the incompetent can’t see or don’t know exists. Thus, ignorance is not only blissful but confident.
Want proof? Next time you’re before a group of CEO’s ask how many of them believe their earnings growth over the last year is in the lower half of the group? You’ll get a number far less than 50% . . . maybe even 25%.
Related link: Why People Fail to Recognize Their Own Incompetence