Over 400,000 people visited Farnam Street last month to learn how to make better decisions, create new ideas, and avoid stupid errors. With more than 100,000 subscribers to our popular weekly digest, we've become an online intellectual hub. To learn more about what we do, start here.

Do we judge a book by its cover?

It's impossible not to.

Sam McNerney writes:

For example, back in the early 1980s psychologists John Darley and Paget Gross showed a video of a girl, ‘Hannah’ to two different groups, one who saw her in an affluent neighborhood and the other who saw her in a poor neighborhood. Then, Darley and Gross asked both groups to assess her academic ability as they watched a video of her taking a test in school. Darley and Gross found that the group that watched Hannah in an affluent neighborhood described her as having above average academic ability whereas the group that watched her in a poor neighborhood described her as having below average academic ability, even though both saw the same tape of her testing.

In a complimentary study, researchers told elementary school teachers that a group of their students performed in the top 20% of a test meant to identify bright individuals. In reality though, the test was phoney and the students were randomly selected. A year later, they found that the children who scored in the top 20% of the “test” outperformed their peers by 10 to 15 IQ points. They concluded that the teachers, who didn’t realize that the test was a fake, pushed these students more with the impression that they were harvesting unseen talent. This study reinforces the idea that we are easy swayed by unsubstantiated descriptions.

These examples are brief and cover a wide spectrum but the point remains: while we like to believe that we evaluate things like Doctor Spock, the reality is that even the smallest elements manipulate our world views. Given how susceptible we are to fancy marketing and spurious labels placed on people it seems down right impossible to not judge a book by its cover. Sometimes this isn’t consequential, as was the case in the wine experiments, but other times, as the Hannah example demonstrates, this greatly dictates how we judge other people.

Read what you've been missing. Subscribe to Farnam Street via Email, RSS, or Twitter.