Why People Don’t Know the Real You

Why People Don’t Know the Real You

Do you ever feel like the people you work with don’t really get you? I know you have, because likely as not, they probably don’t. But the real question is: Why?

Why is it so hard for other people to understand you and where you’re coming from?

The answer comes, in large part, from a simple fact. Your brain—like all human brains—is hesitant to expend too much of energy and processing capacity unless it really has to. It is a survival thing. To keep from having to work too terribly hard, your brain relies on simple, efficient thought processes to get the job done, not so much out of laziness (though there is some of that) but mostly out of necessity. There is just too damn much going on, too much to notice, understand, and act on for the brain to give every individual and occurrence its undivided, unbiased attention. There are about 2,000,000 bits of information in front of you; your brain can only process about 134,000 bits at a time.

So when it comes to perceiving you, your colleagues are, without realizing it, relying heavily on assumptions. They make a collage of images and compare it to what they see. It’s the penny-pinching brain’s favorite shortcut. Those assumptions guide what the viewer sees, how that information is mapped and interpreted, and how it’s remembered, forming an integral part of their perception of their world…or you.

Assumptions come in many varieties, but two of the most powerful and pervasive of these are confirmation bias and the primacy effect.

Confirmation Bias

When other people look at you, they usually see what they expect to see. If they have reason to imagine you are smart, they will quickly find evidence of intelligence in your words or actions, whether or not there actually is any. If they have reason to imagine you to be dishonest, they will interpret your lack of eye contact or embarrassed body language as evidence that you have something to hide. It won’t cross their mind to consider you shy, distracted, or maybe suffering with a stomach ache.

People interpret your current behavior in a way that is consistent with your past behavior. They will be inclined to play down or completely ignore evidence to the contrary; evidence contradicting their dominant opinion of you. What’s more, they will have no idea that they’re doing it.

Confirmation bias is shaped by lots of factors. Stereotypes about the groups to which you belong is one. Your apparent similarity to other people the perceiver knows is another. Cultural attitudes—yours and theirs—are among some of the most significant. And of course, never forget the weight given to their own past experience with you, if they have any.

That last part makes sense as far as assumptions go. If you have been outgoing, cynical, or hot-headed in the past, it’s perfectly reasonable to assume that you probably will keep on being that way in the future and interpret your behaviors accordingly. If you say something that could be considered offensive or humorous, and I know you to be a jokester, I’m more likely to go with the humorous interpretation and to find the comedy in your off-color remark. My past experience with you helps me to make the right call.

The problem, however, is that your early impressions of a person can hold far too much weight and quite often lead us astray when they paint an incorrect picture.

The Primacy Effect

First impressions matter most. Let me say it again.

First impressions matter the most. You only get one.

The information you get about a person early in your relationship with them influences how you interpret and remember almost everything that comes after.

Imagine two people are each taking a 30-question math test. On the first half, Janet gets 14 out of 15 correct, while Harry gets only six. In the second half, the scores flip, with Harry getting 14 and Janet only getting six correct. Objectively, the two people have both performed at exactly the same level by getting a total of 20 out of 30 problems correct. Anyone watching would conclude that they have the same level of mastery in math, right?

Wrong.

That’s not what happens, not even a little. Researchers found that Janet is perceived—even by experts like math teachers—to be the more talented of the two. This is because performance on the first half of the test carries greater influence on the testers judgment than performance on the second. In essence, when the test is only halfway finished, the tester has already concluded that Janet is smart and Harry isn’t. What happens afterward does damn little to alter those initial impressions.

The implications of things like this for late bloomers—or anyone who struggles initially only to excel later—really are terrifying. It’s not impossible to change these initial impressions, but it’s really tough. Harry now needs to present overwhelming evidence of his math skills in order to override the impression, while Janet can happily coast on her early success to advanced classes for quite a while. The problem for Harry is that in most cases he isn’t given the chance to override that impression. Once placed in a remedial math track or discouraged from pursuing math altogether, that sets the tone for his life.

The primacy effect is also the reason why your parents still treat you like you’re 12 even when you are 40. In their eyes, you are still the person they first knew you to be: naive, inexperienced, and likely more than a little foolish. My dad still insists that I am disorganized, despite the fact that I literally make my living writing and speaking about coaching and goal setting. He constantly tells me that I should “learn to write things down.” Heavy sigh.

So now that you know about the confirmation bias and primacy effect, what should you do?

  • First, try really hard to make an accurate first impression. Often this means making your thoughts and intentions clearer than you think necessary. Don’t leave people to guess or assume what you like or what you want because they may guess wrong, and then you’ll have built yourself a steep hill to climb to undo the damage that you did yourself.
  • Second, recognize that confirmation bias is a serious problem for most people. To get someone else to not just see what they expect to see, you’re going to have to go out of your way to do something do something to gain attention. If your boss thinks you are a procrastinator, turning a few things in on time won’t help you very much. Turn everything in early, for a month or two at least, starts to put you on the right track. Evidence has to be hard and consistent to ignore the past and defeat confirmation bias—think big.

Want to learn more about how to come across the way you intend to, and have people really “get” you?  Let’s have a talk… give me a call and see what is happening in your life and what we can do to change it.


Do your friends know the real you?  If they don’t, would you like them too?

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