Miscellaneous content from the original enlightened caveman. Some serious, some not. Take your chances.

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Thin-Slicing and Attraction Triggers

Even though I finished it a while ago, I continue to dwell on the notion of thin-slicing that Malcolm Gladwell writes about it his latest, Blink. " 'Thin-slicing' refers to the ability of our unconscious to find patterns in situations and behavior based upon very narrow slices of experience." Gladwell covers a variety of situations that exemplify how thin-slicing works, and more importantly, how it often works better than making decisions based upon a great deal of information. Indeed, this is really the point of Blink. But, upon further consideration, one example, the one I referred to in my appearance delta theory, has prompted me to extend the concept to include what I'll call attraction triggers.

Gladwell, in illuminating the "dark side" of thin-slicing, spends some time on how we often form our opinions of individuals based upon the slightest of information. Our visual first impression often has the effect of coloring our assessments dramatically. He refers us to a test some psychologists have developed called the Implicit Association Test (IAT). Subjects are given a list of words and are asked to choose which of two categories the words belong to. For example, the list may be a list of names and the category choices may be male or female. Subject responses are timed. Since most people have considerable experiences that say the name Mary is a female name, responses in this easy test are very fast (between 400 and 600 milliseconds). The association between name and gender is well established within our culture. But when the categories and words are changed, interesting things start to happen.

Suppose, there are two possible words for each category - say male or family on one side and female or career on the other. Then, the subject still has to put the words into one of two categories, but they have to figure out which is best by considering four alternatives, not two. Confused yet? Here's an example.

Male......................................... Female
or............................................... or
Family ......................................Career


So the subject simply has to place an X either to the left or the right of the word (Babies, for example) to indicate which category the word falls into. Interestingly, because we naturally associate maleness with careers and femaleness with families, this test is pretty tough. Our natural tendency is to want to put entrepreneur on the male side, but it is clearly related to career. That little mental wavering manifests itself in additional time to taken to make the choice - on the order of 200 to 300 milliseconds more than what is seen for a naturally strong association. The point is that, by pairing certain words together, the psychologists administering the IAT have found evidence of all sorts of inherent bias in how we assess things and other people.

One bias that we might not expect or want to accept is a racial bias. You can go here to take the Race IAT for yourself. (Be warned - you're likely to be dismayed by the results.) When the categories are European American or Bad and African American or Good, all hell breaks loose. When we should be able to breeze through a series of pictures and take no more than 400-600 milliseconds to make our choices, we take much longer. When we should be able to take words like Evil, Hurt, and Wonderful and easily place them into their proper categories in short order, we simply do not. It appears that our thin-slicing proclivities are very much a function of our personal experiences and of our assessments of cultural norms. Though tests like the Race IAT should give us some serious pause, I wonder if we could take the same idea and apply it to how we assess appearance deltas.

Though the IAT asks subjects to assign words to categories, it isn't very much different than the "hot or not" craze that has taken up residence in many corners of the Internet. In this case, subjects are asked if a person in a picture is hot or not. Now, they are not timed, so this isn't particularly rigorous experimentation. But what if they were? What if the point was to determine one's hotness or not hotness as quickly as possible, and the responses were meaured in milliseconds? Would be there be ways that we could manipulate the pictures to get faster or slower responses? I say there would, and they would revolve around attraction triggers.

Suppose we put up a picture of a girl with a dead-pan look on her face and then gave the test to 100 people. Then, we put up the same girl, but with a big smile on her face. Would she get more "hots" than she did in the first test? Who knows? If she was on the fence - say 50 out of 100 said she was hot in the first test - we should expect that number to go up on the second test (unless she had major dental issues). This is because, all things being equal, someone who smiles is more attractive than someone who does not, and we know it in a fraction of a second. Is there more?

Ever seen someone from a distance and thought they were attractive, only to learn as they got closer that you were wrong? Of course, it's happened to all of us. But can you put your finger on what it was that contributed most to the assessment early on? Maybe the person had an attractive walk, or maybe he or she was wearing a flashy outfit. Whatever it was, I think we can think of it as an attraction trigger, something that, when it is thin-sliced, leads people to think "hot." Of course, a distant attraction trigger often dissipates as the distance closes. But, is it possible that there are attraction triggers that are seen up close and contribute disproportionally to one's delta (or lack thereof)?

Teeth might be a good example. If someone has a brilliant smile, it may be so captivating that it offsets other features that might raise one's delta. And this is not insignificant. As Gladwell's book points out, the biases that are invoked when we're thin-slicing are not just fleeting impressions. They color how we behave going forward. So if we could do something to alter those first impressions in our favor, we may find interpersonal acceptance easier to come by.

Again, we find ourselves up against the sell-out conundrum - which is to say, is it worth it to modify our appearances to get what we want from other people? In some cases, whether we want to admit or not, the answer for all of us is yes. So the real question is when. And now, with the notion of attraction triggers, we can consider large-scale changes (such as dieting, exercising, and cosmetic surgery) and more subtle changes.

One friend of mine loves girls in pony tails. On a scale of 1-10, she can be a 6 but he'll go for her like she's a 9. It's weird really, but I'm convinced that most people have these quirks. So if an average girl happened to be interested in my friend, she would be well served to know his attraction trigger and wear her hair accordingly. This is a simplistic example, I know, but I'm just trying to throw another twist into the appearance delta concept. I think it's useful, even if as only a more descriptive way to observe and contemplate the human drama as it unfolds. Would a working familiarity with attraction triggers constitute enlightenment? Why not? Maybe it makes things just a little bit brighter.


Blogger alice said...

"This is because, all things being equal, someone who smiles is more attractive than someone who does not."

What I have been seeing for the past ten years or so in advertising is that girls are not smiling, but are " in heat". As you know I have a daughter and when we went into her favorite clothng stores I would look around and see giant posters of very young girls with luscious lips and a sullen, distracted look on their faces. In some ways they looked
like they had just had sex.And they didn't look particularly happy about it. They looked bored.

I often wondered why this was considered a good advertising ploy.
I make it a point not to buy anything Calvin Klien produces because he had (and maybe still does) an advertising campaign which used seemingly pre pubescent boys and girls in various stages of undress. It came close in my estimation to kiddie-porn.

Fast forward to the way kids are dressing today. All girls whether they have the figure for it or not wear very low-cut jeans. Many of them have a very unattractive bulge over the top of the jeans and from the back they look pretty bad. They also feature their stomachs which again may or may not be in shape, but that doesn't seem to matter.

The boys, on the other hand have clothes which they swim in. The crotches of their pants fall somewhere around their knees which should make it very hard to walk, but they don't seem to mind.

I continue to wonder "what the hell is going on with these people? Don't they own a mirror?" But of course it can all be chalked up to a fad and the fact that these kids are almost totally driven by peer pressure. They really don't care what anyone thinks of them outside of their group. But from any objective standpoint they look like clowns.

And the same holds true for anyone. We all have our niche that we operate in. I suppose the most exposed group would be the twenty somethings, people who are entering the "real world" and are obliged to impress a wider range of people. Their very lives depend on it.

Most people by the time they are established in career and family don't put much effort into changing what they are. There are a few, a real minority, of women who go for face lifts, etc.

But really who are we trying to impress?... The people who already know us.

I guess one group which encounters new people on a regular basis would be salesmen. But I doubt that their appearance would be more important than their product and one more very important thing, their self confidence. That trait I believe is, in the long run, far more important than anything you can find in a bottle.

4/06/2005 10:53:00 AM

Blogger Chris Wilson said...

Alice, as always, you bring up a good point. My first response is to wonder if the important point of the attraction trigger concept is the trigger itself. Could there also be a sexual trigger?

I think this is behind these teen ad campaigns, and behind the lower waistlines. Perhaps these images, to a hormone delirious teenage brain, are triggers that put the older parts of the brain in charge.

I think most fads come about as a result of our caveman quest for concurrence using our quest for status as a tool. Step 1 - everybody agrees on what is cool. Step 2 - everyone tries their hardest to get on board. Step 3 - those who get close to the cool standard assign themselves a higher place than those who do not, thus forming their own little team, a concurrent group. (Incidentally, this sequence of events is not at all limited to the young.)

Now suppose this teen tendency can be kicked into overdrive by taking reason out of the equation. That's where these ads are coming from (though probably not by way of my theories). The brooding girl exudes sex much more than the frolicking girl in the same clothes. Lovely, isn't it?

4/07/2005 12:02:00 AM

Blogger alice said...

I haven't read "Blink", but I did see it through the window of someone's car last Sunday. Does that count?

I think I get what you mean about the trigger. The other thing I noticed about the posters I described is that they really weren't showing clothes that were actually hanging on the racks. They were showing a "look". So is it that when these girls enter the portals of this establishment they are hit with the trigger that says....what? "If you shop here you can be as bored and self absorbed as the girl in this poster who looks like she may have just had sex."

What I'm saying and I think you are saying is that for some reason this image is effective, but not on any rational level. Some advertising genius has figured out that they just need to flash these images and it will put people in the mood to buy. They really aren't interested in these kids' sex lives.

But in order to do this effectively there needs to be focus groups and research. What appeals to one segment won't neccesarily appeal to another.

That's the trouble I have with your idea of trying this at home. First you would need to know exactly who you want to impress and find out their likes and dislikes and after all that they may reject you because they sense your desperation. People can smell a phony a mile away.

Better to work on perfecting who you already are.

4/07/2005 08:50:00 AM

Blogger Gus said...

Ok - so I understand the phenom in the kids clothes stores and this has been going on for quite some time. However, I would imagine the guys look at it a little differently. I imagine they look at the pictures of the attractive, bored, post-coital, teenie-boppers and think "If I wear clothes from this store I might be able to get something like her." Here’s where I get a little confused - I have seen the pictures of the skinny, half naked young men and wonder what the point there is. I agree that the clothes in the pictures are seldom, if ever, present in the store so this leads me to believe that these pictures serve the same purpose as for the girls. However, there my be a dirty little twist here...

So taking what I think I know about girls/women - they are looking for way to make themselves more attractive in order to gain attention from males. If you follow this then you’d agree that they are surely looking at the pictures of the sultry girls as example of how to attract males. So, if the males are looking at the pictures of the females as motivation to purchase clothes and the females are looking at the pictures of the females as examples. Then why are the stores spending money on the pictures of the half-naked males. This leaves only that they are targeting individuals that might find these images useful – young gay males. They may be using these images to set the example for the ultra-image conscious young gay male population.

I’m not making a judgment here about gayness or about this marketing strategy. After all, gay people have money too so they are a good target market and I’d also rather they were clothed like everyone else. Although if we took all their money and didn’t allow them to wear clothes that would be pretty funny – they sure would stick out (no pun) in Abercrombie. This makes me wonder why there aren’t pictures of masculine females with short hair, square jeans and jack boots?? Is this group economically undesirable, does the female gay phenomenon happen later in life and thus not a target for the adolescent stores, or are these individuals taking the same cues as the young males? If this is the case then does that mean there are gay genes (and jeans) driving these females to be motivated like the males. How do gay genes survive natural selection?

4/08/2005 09:41:00 AM

Blogger alice said...

"I imagine they look at the pictures of the attractive, bored, post-coital, teenie-boppers and think "If I wear clothes from this store I might be able to get something like her."”

I need to clarify. The images I was seeing are in stores that sell only girls clothes so they are not catering to boys at all except maybe the occasional guy who goes in with his girl-friend while she buys a thong. (how would you like to wear one of those?)

So you are confused by the skinny half naked boys. You think the posters of girls target both the female and the male. It is interesting that you never considered that girls would look at those pictures and think "I want a guy like that!"

You may be on to something with the gay angle. “Gayness” has become and is becoming much more mainstream. And in fact it has always been my belief that given the right circumstances anyone (almost) could engage in gay sex. So maybe this whole thing is reaching out to that “gay” side. These images seem to have a lot to do with sex and sexiness, but since there is no one else present it feels very self-absorbed and anonymous.

As for the dykes among us…because they have always been on the fringes of society, even more than gay men, perhaps they have had to get their stimulation and motivation by whatever means possible. It would be the rare company which would have a “dyke” advertising budget.

So I guess we can agree that “sex sells”. And if it does, how was that determined? Did they flash images on a screen and watch to see if the viewer reached for his/her wallet? How does they know??? I guess what I am most confused about is the looks on their faces. They don’t look happy or even sad; they look bored and aimless. They seem to be saying “I have no brain.” I am curious about why that sells.

PS one of my favorite pastimes when I am forced to go to the mall with my daughter is watching guys in Victoria's Secret. They try to look like they've been doing this all their lives, but they really look like they feel pretty foolish. What the heck is this silly world coming to?

4/09/2005 09:39:00 AM

Blogger Psybertron said...

In response to Gus's point - the double-double-bluff confusion of which feature attracts the opposite sex or the same sex (by association with the kind of opposite sex partner, and potential offspring that same sex individual appears to attract) is well documented by Dawkins et al. (The story of tail-length in wagtails is fascinating.) This is pure genetic reproduction mating game stuff re-inforced in the memes of the associated fashion images. The key word is game - it's about a strategy for winning - a deadly serious game.

As far as Gladwell goes - I'm not a fan of his writing, and I read some negative reviews of Blink, but I may give it a go.

4/10/2005 03:54:00 AM

Blogger Chris Wilson said...

OK, so if this isn't about looking sexy, perhaps there's another explanation. As we know, a central feature of adolescence is rebellion against the world. Maybe these bored young ladies are not meant to come off as sex symbols, so much as they are meant to come off as status symbols.

They're cool because they're indifferent. It seems to me that teens typically look up to people who thumb their nose at authority, people who, regardless of how good they have it, find some reason to call bullshit on the world they live in. So maybe the girls shopping in these stores see *role models* and not just fashion models adorning the walls.

"Jeez, like, if I could just look totally bored with it all like that girl, I'd probably, like, get noticed."

4/14/2005 01:13:00 AM

Blogger Karan said...

ThinSlicing has it's benefits but also has it’s downsides – sometimes fatal!
Check out this story for more.

7/18/2013 02:56:00 PM


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