09/13/07 - hindering a friend

In today's encore excerpt - Daniel Gilbert speaks to our predisposition to select both friends and facts that reinforce the self-perceptions and opinions we already hold. Gilbert is the Harvard College Professor of Psychology at Harvard University, and his work is characterized by extensive testing and research:

"... Of course other people ... are the richest source of information about the wisdom of our decisions, the extent of our abilities, and the effervescence of our bubbly personalities. Our tendency to expose ourselves to information that supports our favored conclusions is especially powerful when it comes to choosing the company we keep. ... [W]e spend countless hours and countless dollars carefully arranging our lives to ensure that we are surrounded by people who like us, and people who are like us. It isn't surprising, then, that when we turn to the folks we know for advice and opinions, they tend to confirm our favored conclusions—either because they share them or because they don't want to hurt our feelings by telling us otherwise. Should people in our lives occasionally fail to tell us what we want to hear, we have some clever ways of helping them.

"For example, studies reveal that people have a penchant for asking questions that are subtly engineered to manipulate the answers they receive. A question such as, 'Am I the best lover you've ever had?' is dangerous because it has only one answer that can make us truly happy, but a question such as 'What do you like best about my lovemaking?' is brilliant because it has only one answer that can truly make us miserable ... Studies show that people intuitively lean toward asking the questions that are most likely to elicit the answers they want to hear. ... In short, we derive support for our preferred conclusions by listening to the words that we put in the mouths of people who have already been preselected for their willingness to say what we want to hear.

"And it gets worse ... to be considered a great driver, lover, or chef ... we simply need to park, kiss, and bake better than most other folks do. How do we know how well most other folks do? Why we look around, of course—but in order to make sure that we see what we want to see, we look around selectively. For example, volunteers in one study took a test that ostensibly measured their social sensitivity, and were then told they had flubbed the majority of questions. When these volunteers were then given an opportunity to look over the test results of people who had done better or worse than they had, they ignored the tests of the people who had done better and instead spent their time looking over the tests of the people who had done worse. ...

"And if we can't find people who are doing more poorly than we are, we may go out and create them. Volunteers in one study took a test and were then given the opportunity to provide hints that would either help or hinder a friend's performance on the same test. Although volunteers helped their friends when the test was described as a game, they actively hindered their friends when the test was described as an important measure of intellectual ability. ... Once we've successfully sabotaged their performances and ensured their failure, they become the perfect standard for comparison."


Daniel Gilbert


Stumbling on Happiness


Knopf, a division of Random House


Copyright 2006 by Daniel Gilbert


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