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Is It Possible to Not Judge A Book by Its Cover?

It’s an age-old aphorism preached to us by our parents, teachers, and coaches – Don’t Judge a Book By Its Cover. The lesson has manifested itself in a number of ways throughout history: Shakespeare said that all that glitters is not gold; MLK told us to judge a person not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character; and Jack Handy quipped that before we criticize someone we should walk a mile in their shoes, that way when criticize them we will be a mile away and have a new pair of shoes. An important lesson no doubt, and it rings true throughout a number of mediums. When it comes to judging people, information, and art it’s crucial that we leave our biases behind and assess things objectivity.

The question is: It this really possible?

We what to think so, but empirical data paints a different picture.

Consider two studies done by researcher Frederic Brochet. In one, Brochet gathered 57 expert wine tasters and asked them to judge a white wine and a red wine. Unbeknown to the tasters, the red wine was actually a dyed version of the exact same white wine. How did this affect their evaluations? Even though both wines were identical, except for the color, the tasters described the red wine as having “jamminess,” and being like “crushed red fruit.” No one noticed the red wine was actually a white wine.

The second study, which also involved a group of expert wine tasters, was worse. Brochet took an average Bordeaux wine and served it out of two different bottles, one with an expensive label and one with a cheap label. Again, the “experts” didn’t seem to catch on to the foolery. Even though they were tasting the same wine, they tended to rate the wine from the “expensive” bottle higher than the wine from the “cheap” bottle.

Similar tests have been carried out over the years with similar results (my favorite is one that shows how preschoolers prefer carrots twice as much when they come from a McDonalds bag as opposed to plain wrapping). And as many advertisers would tell you such findings are anything but novel. One look at how De Beers got an entire society to buy diamonds for engagement rings, or how Marlboro got millions to think that smoking was a good thing should convince you of this.

Sadly, we tend to judge people in the same ways we judge products – shallowly and with little information.

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 complementary 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 phony 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 Mister 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.

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