Realized that I’ve been dwelling upon the nature of identity a lot of late, dancing around the issue in the subjects I’ve been researching and the stories I’ve been writing. It’s been subconscious, so the “whoa, recurrent themes of identity!” came as a bit of an epiphany. Post-epiphany, I wanted to get some of it down in writing in order to help organize it in my head.
Quickie background: I did a lot of research on the halo effect for “Whatever Skin You Wear.” (None of which I ended up expounding upon, but which I undoubtedly will in some future tale. Research is never wasted, I tell myself).
In a rather large nutshell, upon first encountering a new individual, people spontaneously seek clues indicating whether that person’s intentions are good or bad (i.e., their warmth) and also their ability to act on these intentions (i.e., their competence). And these impressions are based upon appearances. Shallow but true, appearance is the single most obvious and accessible personal characteristic in social interactions, and we’re geared to be influenced by it.
As it turns out, something like 80% of our impressions of others can be loosely clumped into warmth and competence trait categories. These two classifications are markedly universal across cultures and made very quickly, often in as little as 1/10 of one second. Yeah, Mom was right. First impressions are important.
Also, warmth is gauged faster than competence, with attractive people rated as more warm compared to their less attractive counterparts. Furthermore, when we judge an individual as being warm, we tend to judge them as competent too. That cognitive bias, the manifestation of the affect heuristic, is the “halo effect.” Or, to put it simpler, folks tend to assign to good-looking individuals favorable traits like talent, intelligence, and kindness. And they do so predominantly without being aware of the role that physical attractiveness played in the process.
For example, research with school children showed adults interpret aggressive acts from attractive children as being less naughty than when their less-attractive peers engaged in such acts, and also that teachers attribute more intelligence to good-looking children.
So yeah, Psych. 101 no brainer: appearances influence how people perceive us.
The offshoot of that is what I’ve been pondering: how our appearance influences how we perceive ourselves. How much do others’ expectations mold who we are? How much does our self-concept develop from what we observe when others react to us?
With my most recent story, “Whatever Skin You Wear,” donning different virtual avatars allows people the freedom to reconcile who they are inside with their outer appearance. And I realized after the fact that it’s the counterpart/inverse story to “Sinner, Baker, Fabulist, Priest; Red Mask, Black Mask, Gentleman, Beast,” where it’s only when the masks come off that people are able to come to know who they really are. Totally unintentional that. As I said, “whoa, recurrent themes of identity” epiphany.
And also, I really, really want to lock people into rooms and do experiments on them.