Picture the scene, it’s the school holidays, I am, to all intent and purpose, highly stressed. I am juggling childcare with the demands of work, I am frazzled and harassed and, for once, I took my eye off the ball. Isabelle fell, in spectacular style. I was downstairs, she was upstairs and I heard an almighty thud. I ran to her aide, she was crying having fallen off the toilet, yes, the toilet. She wasn’t badly hurt thankfully and I breathed a sigh of relief, as I did so she ran happily out of the bathroom. I followed her, smiling at her clumsiness, tissue in hand. As I cleaned up the floor, I noticed that she had injured herself, and the area in question was her nether regions. Without hesitation I took her to the hospital, little did I know what lay ahead?
I was taken straight through the children’s waiting area and seen, almost immediately, by a warm and friendly Doctor who treated Isabelle with the care and attention that all children deserve. I, however, was a different story. His line of questioning and his demeanour led me to believe that either I or one of my nearest and dearest was responsible and I was horrified.
The events of the next few days were difficult to say the least. I was open and honest with the doctor; I tried not to lose my cool. I tried to ingratiate myself to him, to convince him somehow that I was an all-round good egg, that this truly was an accident and I was simply getting my daughter checked over as any caring parent would. This was the truth and I was, I felt, all of those things I described and it was my job to convince him of that. It worked; this kind and gentle healthcare professional made it his duty to support me, to spend his time trying to understand what had happened to my beautiful Belle. On the second day, after Isabelle’s ultrasound scan, he said I have good news, Isabelle has a diagnosis! Whilst we now knew what was wrong it still didn’t detract from that fact that there was still something wrong. I asked him how this could be good news and he told me of the police and social service involvement he had sheltered me from, he told me of the doctor who was also on duty that day who would have just washed his hands of me and placed me at the mercy of the authorities. He told me that he knew from his interactions with me that this was not what, at first glance, seemed suspicious. He trusted me and thankfully my daughter received the diagnosis she needed and is now being treated. But what if I had been seen by the other doctor? What if someone had not seen something in me that they thought they could trust? My daughter would have remained undiagnosed and would have been removed from me there and then. It is a chilling thought. What was the difference? How could one incident really deliver two completely separate outcomes?
I consider this to be deficit thinking, one doctor favoured logic and process over people, look at the facts I could hear him say, what else could it be? Throw her to the lions and see if she and her family will survive. He was basing his experience of situations like this that he has come across before and felt that it was like that last time so it must be the same again. He did not consider me for a minute and why would he? The results of this approach could have been devastating for us and moreover it would have been devastating for our daughter. The very process that was there to protect her could have actually worked against her and us. Thankfully the doctor we saw used a different thought process, he looked to examine all the facts. He looked not only at the logic, but other softer aspects that presented themselves. Before him I presented myself as articulate and educated, dropping casually into the conversation, my background and good standing. It, of course positively influenced him and thankfully we were able to leave the hospital with a diagnosis and his support, which we were grateful for. However I am not sure either approach was right. If it had been a mother who was not as able as I to express herself but had done nothing wrong, she might have found herself being investigated and the result of this would be far reaching.
But why do we do this? How can psychology help us to understand what went on here? We know that people’s perceptions are based not only on what is in front of them in the present moment but also past experiences. You could argue that our kind Doctor took the right approach, he considered all the facts before making a judgement, but he was still using cognitive bias, just as much as the doctor who would have locked us up.
In 1983 Susan Fiske and Shelley Taylor, in an early book on social cognition, proposed the idea that we are all cognitive misers. The idea that in social situations our thinking is not only emotional i.e. reacting to the situation that is before us, but also cognitive would suggest that something more fundamental is at work here, almost biological, hard wired into our DNA. Imagine, you meet someone for the first time, you take in everything there is to know about them, their hair and eye colour, what they are wearing, their smell, even the way they speak and what they are saying. You like this person, they seem friendly and open. They remind you of someone and you just can’t think who. You converse for a while, the exchange is pleasant and you go away thinking ‘wow what a good egg’. The next time something comes up – let’s say a job opportunity, dinner or tickets to a show – you may think, I’ll give that person a call and invite them to dinner, I’ll offer them that job, they will really fit with me. Imagine again that you meet the same person, wearing the same clothes and smelling the same, saying the same things but you just can’t seem to get on with them and you are not sure why. You make the judgement that they are not an all-round good egg, no dinner plans or job offers ever emerge.
This is the cognitive miser theory in action. In both situations you are unconsciously using all your past experiences to make a judgement about that person you have met. Perhaps they remind you of a good friend or a previous lover or a family member? What happened in the previous experience will often dictate the way in which we will deal with the present situation. Have you ever been in situation where the exchange descends so badly and you have no idea why? You just can’t put your finger on it but right from the off this meeting, date or conversation was never going to work? This is how the cognitive miser theory works in reality, we are subconsciously going through our address book, a metaphorical database if you will, in our heads until we find the closest match and we will respond accordingly. Our brains are simply not wired up to take in each person we meet individually; like water we take the path of least resistance, we use the process that takes the least mental effort. We take in so much information day to day we are programmed to filter out aspects of our lives that are not useful at that time and we store them for later use. If we are in an exchange with an individual we only have a short window of opportunity to learn how to respond to the person who presents themselves to us. Useful if we were running away from a Sabre Tooth tiger in the Serengeti where our biological flight or fight response was crucial to survival but not so useful in the present day where we are challenged to remove bias from our thinking.
There is a basic truth here: as you are busy forming opinions, unconsciously or otherwise, about the person that stands before you, they are doing the same thing. I would like to say my kind Doctor did think openly about the situation, though I can’t be sure. He did look familiar though, come to think of it he did look an awful lot like my lovely Dad?
Fische and Taylor (1984) Social Cognition