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We judge the person we are talking to, so how are people judging you?

In 1984 Robert Cialdini wrote the enduring classic Influence, one of the bestselling books of all time on the topic. This 30-year-old book still sells copies today. In the book Cialdini, Professor of Psychology and Marketing at Arizona State University isolates six principles he calls ‘weapons of influence’. For example, one principle called social proof is the principle that we are swayed by what everyone else is doing. The implication is that saying, ‘we make the world’s best burgers’ may be less persuasive than ‘one billion burgers sold’. If everyone else is eating them then they must be good!

Many years ago, we puzzled over these six influence principles – ostensibly a helpful but disconnected list – wondering if there was a pattern between them. One pattern that emerged was that four of the principles related to how you may craft a message (the aforementioned example of social proof for instance) and the other two principles related to how the messenger themselves was perceived. Hmmm…message vs messenger. Interesting. This moment marks the point where we started investigating this topic deeply.

Why is the messenger such an important part of the equation? Nobel Prize winning behavioural economist Daniel Kahneman characterises the human brain as a prediction machine. In each moment we are obsessed with predicting what will happen in the next moment. Part of this is laziness (we are what he calls cognitive misers). If someone starts talking and we can predict what they are going to say we switch off our attention. This is a crucial evolutionary survival tactic to preserve valuable energy.

Another reason for this prediction machine though is pure survival. It is about predicting threats and rewards.

When it comes to human beings a good rule of thumb is that the best indication of future performance is past performance. Someone who is untrustworthy now is likely to be untrustworthy in the future. Someone who has a track record of cooperating towards shared goals is likely to do so in the future.

So, our obsession with judging other people – the messenger – is about predicting what this person can and will do in the future. We are making these predictions about others all the time and they are simultaneously trying to make these predictions about us.


What Are We Looking For Specifically?

This is where it gets really interesting! Our answer to this question is informed and inspired by many sources. Cialdini’s work on influence of course. Adam Grant’s (Wharton Business School) work on reciprocity styles. Stanley Milgrams’s (Stanford University) work on authority. Zenger and Folkman’s corporate research on likeability. Solomon Asch’s work on impression formation. The work of Amy Cuddy (Harvard Business School), Susan Fiske (Princeton University) and Peter Glick (Lawrence University) on stereotype content. As well as our first-hand experience working with thousands and thousands of leaders and teams in organisations across the Asia-Pacific region and across a diverse range industries.

Two Fundamental Questions

To understand what we are looking for when we judge other people, there are two fundamental questions we need to unpack. These are the two questions we ask ourselves about others when we meet them for the first time (first impression). These two questions are also just as important when we have an ongoing relationship with someone (lasting impressions and judgements).

One way to conceive of this is in a thought experiment…

Imagine you are a member of a tribe. You live on the grassy plains of a distant land, with no modern technology and with little to no contact with other tribes. One day over the horizon you see someone approaching. It could be a member of the tribe returning from a hunt. As their silhouette gets larger though you realise from their gait that they are a stranger.

A stranger approaches…

Here’s the question: what question might you be asking yourself about this person? What do you want to know about them?

We have posed this question to thousands of people. Here are some of their answers:

  • What do they want?
  • Are they friend or foe?
  • Are they a threat?
  • Are they alone? (are there any others following further back?)
  • Do they have any weapons?
  • Do they have food?
  • Do they bear gifts?
  • Are they edible?

The edible question comes up more than you might expect! Usually shouted out by the class clown and always followed by the tittering laughter of their colleagues.

Have a look at that list for a moment. The nature of the questions are pretty similar.

Notice what people don’t guess. It is very rare – very rare – for someone to suggest this question: “does the stranger need help?” Perhaps one in 300 people suggest this. The questions listed above aren’t the most generous or welcoming, are they? These answers are pretty true to the research.

One way to summarise the two questions is: ‘Are they safe?’ and ‘Are they powerful?

How do you think people might be answering those questions when they meet you?

People of Influence ran an interactive session on the Smiling Ox Paradox® at the ATC 2019 Conference. A version of this article also appeared in the ATC blog.

Want more? Find out more about developing leadership capability here, where you can also download a PDF on the Smiling Ox Paradox®, one of our flagship programs.

Posted to Developing Leadership Capability on 1st May 2019

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