Judging A Book By Its Cover

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We all do it. We can’t help it. We’re predominantly visual creatures. (The visual area at the back of our brains comprises 30% of our cortex.) The wrappers in which things come not only powerfully affect what interests us but also how we react to the contents we find inside. This certainly holds true for companies, which can convince us with professional-looking marketing materials, web sites, and offices that they produce professional-quality work. It also holds true for books, whose covers draw our attention, create an expectation that excites us, and suggest a certain quality of writing. Certainly the truth is laid bare once we start reading (just as the truth about a company’s quality is laid bare soon after we hire them), but if anyone doubts how their expectations for a book they’re about to read are affected by its presentation, I’d challenge them to examine their initial reaction to a book not with an unattractive cover but with an amateurish one.

This is also true to some extent with the way we react to people. By this I don’t mean that we’re more interested in and think more highly of attractive people (though research suggests both are true). Rather, I mean that our expectations of others are triggered by not only how they look but how they present themselves overall (what clothes they’re wearing, whether they’re clean-shaven, their accent, and so on). This wouldn’t be a problem by itself, however, if it weren’t also true that we’re so often more influenced by our own biases than we are by actual evidence. When we have a powerfully positive or negative emotional reaction to someone upon first meeting them—often due to their overall presentation—it powerfully affects our reaction to the “content” we find inside, meaning their personality and character. As Proust famously wrote:

We pack the physical outline of the creature we see with all the ideas we already formed about him, and in the complete picture of him which we compose in our minds, these ideas have certainly the principal place. In the end they come to fill out so completely the curve of his cheeks, to follow so exactly the line of his nose, they blend so harmoniously in the sound of his voice that these seem to be no more than a transparent envelope, so that each time we see the face or hear the voice it is our own ideas of him which we recognize and to which we listen.

We all carry around with us conclusions we’ve drawn about other people through which we filter everything they say and do. Certainly over time a person’s actual personality and character alter these conclusions, but even then our conclusions often remain highly biased. Further, we seem to err mostly on the side of overestimation, thinking people far worse—are far better—than they actually are. It’s the rare person, in my experience, who looks more skeptically at his beliefs about someone than at any evidence he observes that contradicts them.

But that, I would argue, is exactly what we should do. It takes more cognitive work—which is undoubtedly part of the reason so many of us are so reluctant to do it (as Daniel Kahneman famously asserted, we’re all cognitively lazy)—but people are not only more nuanced than we typically acknowledge, but also change more often than we realize. If we really want to understand our fellow human beings accurately, we must allow them to surprise us, to contradict what we think we know about them. Like good scientists, we should cling to our theories about people only loosely and always be willing to revise them in light of new data. The package in which people come to us may be attractive or repulsive, but if we exert a little effort—like opening a book and browsing its contents before deciding whether to buy it—we can see past our visual biases to the truth. That way, we’ll be far less likely to exclude from our lives not only a quality person—but also a quality book.

Next Week: How To Manage Criticism

Contest Winners

The winners of last week’s contest, who will each receive an autographed copy of my new book The Undefeated Mind: On the Science of Constructing an Indestructible Self, are as follows:

  1. Jesse L.
  2. Richard B.
  3. Laura C.

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  • I tried and for some reason it wouldn’t work. I wonder if other people had that same experience. It was a complete failure!


    Donna: Please don’t feel badly. I so very much appreciate that you tried. Spreading the word about anything on the Internet is quite a bit harder than most of us—including me—realize!


  • Alex—how can we comment about the book when we haven’t read it? I look forward to it and will eagerly purchase it, but don’t feel like I can comment yet. And yes, I read the parts you can read online, but it’s still not the whole BOOK. I can comment about how much I like your website, but that’s not the BOOK either.

    chris: I meant only that you should mention it. 😉


  • I once was given the advice to always meet someone as if meeting them for the first time. It’s very useful, especially with the odd person whom I find difficult… try to start afresh.

  • Agree wholeheartedly with this. All I’d add is that the same effect happens internally; that is to say: we tend to do the Proustian filling-out trick on ourselves as much as on others. One consequence of this is that people in their natural environments (amongst peers, colleagues, etc.) appear less individual than they really are (because whatever self-concept prevails in that environment tends to be amplified).

    I learnt this early, when as a young, provincial and fairly well-educated young man, I ended up accidentally living amongst a group of inner-city criminals. En masse they were just awful people—amoral, misogynist, hard-drinking, occasionally violent. But I got to know several individually, and in truth, away from the group, they had exactly the same range of human attributes as any other human group. There was stupidity and great intelligence, sweetness and evil, no different in variety or range from what I’ve come across in later life amongst more respectable folk. Every one of them would have been judged extremely harshly by conventional standards. Some would have merited it, others not.

    As an aside, I wonder if one reason for the lack of a ‘winner’ in your book contest might be that some may find the idea of promoting a book to ‘friends’ in pursuit of a win a bit distasteful? I probably would have entered a more random contest, and been happy to recommend *after* reading. But I don’t spam friends. (I realise you didn’t mean any harm by it, btw, just suggesting one possibility. I may be wrong).

    Cris: Regarding your last point, you very well may be right. I’m a bit of an amateur when it comes to marketing and promotion, I’m afraid.


  • Some of us carry the belief that the sum total of all human beings share but one spirit or soul, and that we should train ourselves to look beyond a person’s physical appearance to his higher self (mind). However, I have to agree with Donna that it’s nearly an impossible task.

    P.S. Good fortune on THE book. Sooner or later it’ll grace a place in my library.

  • I think the cover of your book looks great, don’t worry. I hope The Undefeated Mind will be made available as an e-book!

    Allen: Thanks, I like it, too. And yes, it will be available as an e-book.


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  • I’m taking you at your word, Alex, when you say “If we really want to understand our fellow human beings accurately, we must allow them to surprise us, to contradict what we think we know about them.”

    We don’t “all” judge a book by its cover. I agree our mass-advertising world has encouraged us to use the visual skills we evolved with for survival in order to browse consumer goods and evaluate much of what we encounter by how it looks alone. But some of us have resisted this indoctrination. In my family I am notorious for ignoring commercials (effortlessly—they put me to sleep) and “not seeing” print ads or even pictures, unless they are what I’m specifically trying to focus on. The fact that we’re predominantly visual creatures does not mean we can’t develop control over how we respond to what we see any more than being emotional creatures means we can’t develop some control over how we respond to our emotions.

    It wasn’t difficult at all to start zoning out on what the cultural environment was working to promote. All I had to do was to understand the goals of the visual assault, how it worked, and then attach that understanding to the visual material itself. Kind of like the way an animal learns to suspect a trap if it encounters it often enough. How frustrating that so few of us are even as “clever” as so-called “lower” animals are in this regard! Maybe it’s because we are “so smart” we think we are better than our instinctual behaviors?

    This makes the whole conversation about the visual appeal of a book (and how that relates to its sales) more than a little demoralizing. It seems to suggest that the way things are marketed is natural when, in fact, it’s a contrivance developed to take advantage of capacities most folks haven’t become conscious about exercising.

    Yours may be the right path, Alex, but it also seems to me that one small way to change the world is to demonstrate that life is possible even when you resist the dictates of Madison Avenue. I keep asking myself, if I were trying to liberate trained dogs from their conditioned responses, how would I do it?

  • Just pre-ordered your book on amazon.

    Came across you looking for info on fear of dying. I have m.e. and started with anxiety 3 yrs into it after 2nd relapse. Similar to you I think the shock that something so awful can happen. I really took my health, strength, and ability to support my family for granted. Losing it made me lose confidence in everything. Panic attacks are awful but I try and defeat them, trick them into believing I’m not bothered!

    Really looking forward to reading your book (not much else to do stuck in bed).

    Someone once said to me, “When I die I want it to be dramatic; you only do it once; it’s as big an experience as birth. I don’t want to just drift away in my sleep.” I can’t agree: the painless, the better. It’s very hard to comprehend in some countries it’s a reality that you could be murdered in awful barbaric ways we couldn’t even comprehend. We are very lucky when you think about it.