If a guy in worn-out clothes, covered with tattoos, with hair hardly combed approaches you then asks: “Where is the way to the church?” Would you help?
Would your reaction be the same if it were someone in a long-sleeved polo, smelling good, clean-shaven, with hair properly styled?
Stereotypes. Let’s call the first guy “Guy 1”; the second guy “Guy 2”.
Guy 1 gives the audience with whom I shared the scenario a mental picture of a drug addict, a rapist, a gangster, a kidnapper. One was kinder: “A devil in search of reformation.”
Guy 2 is their “boy next door”, a successful young professional, a desirable husband, a devout Christian.
With Guy 1, majority in my audience replied that they would pretend they didn’t know where the church is, that they are also tourists, or they are in a hurry to leave, or would gesture that they are hard of hearing. They wouldn’t dare risk their lives. As someone in the audience remarked: “I might get abducted!”
The pulse is the complete opposite for Guy 2. More than those who would shun Guy 1 said they would give directions to Guy 2. Some would even volunteer an extra mile so Guy 2 could locate the church and not miss the mass.
What if I tell you that the first guy has been through a lot of tough times in life? That he is recovering from bankruptcy. That every tattoo on his body tells a story of love, hope and perseverance commemorating loved ones he had lost to a disaster. That until he confirms the whereabouts of his daughter who has gone missing for weeks, he promised not to comb his hair and get a haircut. That he needed to hold on to his faith, thus, the question on church.
What If I tell you Guy 2 is a conman. That he pretends to be successful at what he is doing, thus would go to church to blend into a grateful flock. That he dresses up so charmingly to easily prey on senior citizens, tricking them into anomalous investments. Now, would you still give him directions?
There are many of us who are quick to judge. We do a mental profiling of the people we come across with based on “psychological noise”. This is that noise that doesn’t automatically hold any psychiatric connection but one sourced from social norms, cultural influence, public opinion, or bad or good personal experience. Oftentimes, our actions are dictated by it – by how we perceive others and analyze the consequences of our dealings with them.
Psychological noise is a disruption in one’s mental framing of a person, a subject, an act or a circumstance. It leads us to (re)think, (re)examine and/or (mis)calculate our actions based on perceptions or misconceptions. It’s not necessarily a bad thing nor is it all the time a good thing.
When someone enters a wake of a dead relative in a red shirt, psychological noise is describing that person as “insensitive” for culturally, the color red is associated with joy and celebration. When a woman initiates a conversation first and becomes more excited in exchanging text messages, psychological noise is perceiving the woman as “aggressive”, if not “desperate”. Or when a customer who falls short of our unfair qualifications of beauty and wealth enters a nice restaurant or shopping place, psychological noise is the frontline personnel showing lack of interest in engaging the customer and making him feel valued.
While psychological noise, stereotypes being a product of it or being one of it, can keep us on the side of caution, the same can push people away and deprive us of a learning opportunity. Many of us allow for psychological noise to prevail over instances where the heart is best invoked. We limit the extent to which we can be ourselves in circumstances where we assign stereotypes to individuals. In like manner, sub- or unconsciously, we reinforce, break or completely establish an image (accurate or not) of ourselves in the minds of the people that we come in contact with. In many ways, what can be actions influenced by our stereotypes or false assumptions on others can be the very foundation for others to build on a “factual” personification of who we are as a person in their minds.