I flew up to my parents’ house yesterday, and our plane came in late due to storms. Over the intercom, the flight attendant said that there was “a newlywed couple in row 14 trying to make a tight connection to their flight to Amsterdam, so if rows 1-13 can please let them through before getting up, they’d really appreciate it.” I leaned over to my sister, and said that such an appeal would never work, as I’d seen it fail on a couple other flights. My sister said she’d seen it work several times, and, in fact, the first 13 rows did stay seated until the couple got to the front of the plane.
I was trying to figure out what was different about this time versus the other times I’d seen it fail, and realized that it was the specificity of the appeal. On the other flights I remember, the flight attendant said “We have several people trying to make close connections, please let them through”, and that appeal had no effect, as everybody considered themselves to have close connections, so everybody got up. What was effective this time was that the flight attendant had framed it as a story – the one-line story of the couple trying to get to Amsterdam reified them in our brains as “real” people. The story also invoked our social sense, and made us defer to them as we would for any member of our community.
To give more background on my thinking, my post on the ultimatum game explores how our brains react differently when we have a one-off transaction with somebody (where we try to get all that we can from that transaction) versus how we react when we are part of a community (where fairness becomes a factor as we’ll have to interact with them again in the future). I also argue in the following post that we can use stories to expand our “monkeysphere”, the number of people that we consider to be “real” people as opposed to strangers who we distrust and/or take advantage of.
Making people persons by associating stories with them comes up in many different situations that I can think of:
- One obvious application is that of user interface design, where I’ve been heavily influenced by Alan Cooper’s tactic of using personas to model real users. In particular, one of the reasons I was effective as a software developer is that I was always developing software for specific people with whom I interacted, rather than for a generic “user”. Because my target audience was specific and real and I knew the stories of how they worked, my software was more effective at helping those people accomplish their goals.
- Another example is in the area of management, especially in the creation of a divide between managers and workers. When the two sides don’t know each other, there is the tendency to ascribe the worst motivations to the other side, and assume that they are actively working towards one’s destruction. But both sides are just fallible humans doing the best they can. Sometimes there are no good choices as a manager, and the manager is doing the best he or she can under the circumstances. As somebody who interacted with both sides, I saw both viewpoints and therefore couldn’t demonize the managers as arrogant control freaks or the workers as entitled whiners. I couldn’t flatten them out into stereotypes, as their stories kept them real people to me.
- One last example is in the area of politics, and specifically homosexuality. I grew up in a very sheltered and religious suburb of Chicago, where the default assumption was that homosexuals were deviant and evil. When I got to MIT, and found myself living in a house with such people, I was initially wary. But of course, once I got to know them as people, I realized how stupid and broken the stereotypes in my head were. And this has been my observation of others as well – it’s difficult to treat somebody as a stereotype once you know them as a person, because their specific details supercede the stereotype in your head.
It takes practice to remember to treat others as people, and not as puppet players on whom you are projecting your own fears and hopes. I still fall into the trap of ascribing my own stories to other people and assuming the worst or best, and being surprised either way. Learning to treat others as real people in their own right remains a goal towards which I strive, and I think it’s an essential skill to learn in a massively networked world where we are always interacting with people outside of our own core community.
What do you think?
P.S. A friend’s new blog, Made of Happy, has a neat star rating WordPress plugin, and when I inquired about it, she said it was GD Star Rating, so I just installed it. Now you can provide feedback on my posts without the trouble of having to come up with a comment!