Another human folly has made me think about how I look

I wondered, "Why do I need to look good? Why?"

I used to think that how I look or what I wear should not matter. The only thing that should matter is what I stand for: my work, my words and my nature. And yet, time and again as a kid, I was told that I should care too look decent. I was made to make my hair properly and tuck my shirt in neatly. When I rebelled, I was given reasons like the cliche, your first impression is your last impression. With no powers over my parents, I obeyed.

I finally have the right reasons to want to dress well and look presentable. Not that I looked like a mess ever before but now I have a reason to really care about how I look. If any parents are reading this post and have kids who won’t do something without a good reason then you should be happy because in this post you will find that good reason for your kids to want to dress properly.

The reason comes from another human folly discussed in the book Sway: The irresistible pull of irrational forces by Ori & Rom Brafman, called Value Attribution. To explain it, the best methods is through an example from the book:

On a January morning Joshua Bell, one of the the finest violinists alive, wearing a baseball cap nonchalantly took out his $3.5 million Stradivarius violin and started playing on a subway station in Washington DC.

Bell’s performance started with Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas for Unaccompanied Violin, one of the most challenging pieces ever composed for the instrument. Over the next 43 minutes there was no thunderous applause, no cameras flashing and actually no one seemed to care.

Of the 1097 people who walked by, hardly anyone stopped. One man listened for a few minutes, a couple of kids stared, and one woman, who happened to recognise the violinist gaped in disbelief.

This was no surprise to the people conducting a study of which Joshua Bell was part of. Think about it for a moment. Bell looked like an average street performer even though he didn’t sound like one. Without realising it, the commuters attributed the value they perceived to the quality of the performance. As they passed Bell, instead of hearing an outstanding concert, they heard street music.

Value attribution, after all, acts as a quick mental shortcut to determine what’s worthy of our attention.

This human folly creeps up on us all the time. Here’s another neat example, a bank sent out a flyer about an offer to it’s male customers. 50% flyers were accompanied with a really pretty female model and 50% were accompanied by a not so pretty version of the same model. What were the results? The men who got the pretty version of the model were twice as likely to sign up for the offer as the others.

Of course, no one is claiming that if you only look good and don’t act good that you will make a better impression. Instead, all factors remaining constant, looking good might make a better impression on the other person.

The adage about first impressions holds true after all. And yes, we all learn about it through experience but had someone told me this story, I may have been convinced earlier.

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About Akshat Rathi

Science and Technology Journalist
This entry was posted in Personal, Philosophy and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Another human folly has made me think about how I look

  1. Deeksha says:

    Neat! the violinist example makes the point in a convincing fashion.

  2. Abi says:

    It’s all very well to use the “Joshua Bell Experiment” to tell people to dress well. But I would argue that the situation has a lot more to it than Joshua Bell’s clothes. At a busy Metro station (8 a.m. on a Friday!), I don’t think people would behave any differently if the guy was dressed impeccably.

    Do note, though, that I’m not here to argue against dressing well; I just want to point out that this particular example has a lot of other confounding factors. For example, he was standing next to a trash basket!

    In any event, your post reminded me of the wonderful WaPo story on that experiment. And the accompanying video story is good too.

  3. Alex Flint says:

    Yup people are obsessive about determining the status of others and projecting status for themselves. overcomingbias.com has some fascinating examples and studies. In one case it turned out that not looking poor was more important to Bolivians than saving their children from diarrhoea: http://www.overcomingbias.com/2009/08/pick-one-sick-kids-or-look-poor.html.

  4. Mikhail Kabeshov says:

    I have a silly comparison to put forward here. Windows 7 and windows XP. I don’t know about other people, but I stay with a simple design of the old thing. At least for now. As any problem is, it is a complex one. However, I think there is another factor which plays on the side of the author. People like confidence and feeling safe, secure. To follow rules and traditions, especially very old ones, was always worth doing. There is just a higher chance that the people whom you will need will use the same rules as you. And that’s why you will be valued. But.. someone will always be tempted to create something new. :)

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