Why Read the Book When You’ve Got the Cover?

We should have learned our lesson by now:  the lesson that one shouldn’t judge a book by its cover.  Nonetheless, time after time, we rush to judgment with precious little objective evidence to support our position.

I was reminded of this when a trail of links led me to some clips from Britain’s Got Talent.  In this instance, Simon Cowell could have been any one of us.  He clearly reached a negative conclusion based on appearances alone and then had to backtrack in the face of evidence that completely undermined his premature judgment.

For those of you who are devotees of this show, the encounter with Jonathan Antoine will remind you of Susan Boyle’s introduction to the world:

And there was Paul Potts as well:

In fairness, research indicates that we may not be able to help ourselves when it comes to judging faces:

…when we see a new face, our brains decide whether a person is attractive and trustworthy within a tenth of a second, according to recent Princeton research.

Princeton University psychologist Alex Todorov has found that people respond intuitively to faces so rapidly that our reasoning minds may not have time to influence the reaction — and that our intuitions about attraction and trust are among those we form the fastest.

“The link between facial features and character may be tenuous at best, but that doesn’t stop our minds from sizing other people up at a glance,” said Todorov, an assistant professor of psychology. `We decide very quickly whether a person possesses many of the traits we feel are important, such as likeability and competence, even though we have not exchanged a single word with them. It appears that we are hard-wired to draw these inferences in a fast, unreflective way.’

Nonetheless, we owe it to ourselves to try to be as rational as possible when making decisions.  We owe it to ourselves to be aware of the tendency to act without rational thought and then counteract it with an evenhanded search for evidence. If we aren’t always capable of rational thought, we should at a minimum be honest about that failing.

Lest you think it is only folks in the entertainment industry who persist in reaching judgments on the strength of the cover alone without bothering to read the book, consider how some folks in the legal industry reach their judgments on non-legal matters. Have you heard someone dismiss a technology out of hand without taking the time to try it properly?  Have you seen someone purchase a device or software without doing much due diligence beforehand? Have you heard anyone make a pronouncement about the adoption or usefulness of  “X”  without first looking at the relevant data? (You can replace X with the name of almost any law firm knowledge management system or IT system.)

Rapid cognition may be supremely helpful in a life-or-death situation where quick reflexes and decisions can mean survival. But, for all the other circumstances in life, what do we lose when we make snap decisions?