With the world at our fingertips, it’s nearly impossible not to fall prey to the temptation of the pre-meet.
The pre-meet: conducting research on someone before officially becoming acquainted in person.
The pre-meet has been modernized by dozens of social media websites and apps, but the act of splicing together a mental picture of the unknown is age-old.
Before what we know as Facebook existed, colleges would mail incoming freshmen physical books — face books — with a photo of everyone in their class captioned by their high school and hometown. With only a few tidbits of information, the over-zealous freshmen would paint mental pictures of their new classmates, using only a few facts and a photo to piece together a life story.
We do this verbally too, relying upon friends’ descriptions of others to help us perform a pseudo-background check on the people assigned to our group project team or the guy we brushed elbows with at Smoke’s.
Especially at Penn — a world in which six degrees of separation feels more like two — it’s all too easy to “know” someone despite never having met them.
We’re wired to rely on heuristics: the human brain is able to learn quickly by using information from past experiences to make inferences about current ones. While you’re in the midst of your pre-meet, you probably don’t realize that your mind is forming judgments, but undoubtedly it is. Perhaps to you, Sperry shoes signal “preppy,” Syosset signals “spoiled” and a mechanical engineering major signals “nerdy.”
When we finally come face-to-face with the subjects of our “research,” the opinions we form upon meeting them are undermined by what we already “know.” Before even shaking hands, we probably have some predetermined idea about whether a potential friend or love interest is “our type” — especially thanks to social media. Each click adds a new piece to the puzzle, and soon, it feels like our jigsaw is complete.
The real problem is that the mind gets exactly what it expects, according to Dan Ariely, a behavioral economics professor at Duke University. Ariely has performed dozens of experiments that demonstrate the overriding influence of expectations on our opinions.
For example, he conducted a taste test at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in which he offered students two beer samples. One was regular Budweiser, while the other was Budweiser with balsamic vinegar added. Almost every student who was unaware of this difference chose the beer with vinegar — apparently it makes beer taste much better. But the results were the opposite for students who knew about the vinegar. They wrinkled their noses and chose the untainted Budweiser. They expected it to taste weird, and so it did.
Other experiments demonstrate that the bias of our expectations impacts our perception of people too. World-renowned violinist Joshua Bell was asked to play in a Washington, D.C. metro station during rush hour. Only 2.5 percent of people stopped to put money in Bell’s case, even though his beautiful music and skill should have led the vast majority to stop and listen. They simply did not expect a famous violinist to be playing in the metro station, so they didn’t hear one.
As for life at Penn, I bet the philosophy class that received a 3.9/4 difficulty ranking on Penn Course Review feels harder than it actually is because you expected it to be grueling. And maybe the food at a new restaurant downtown tastes especially delicious because Yelp said it would.
This isn’t inherently problematic until we realize that our brain applies the same thought patterns to our interpersonal relationships. All too easily, our social media puzzle-piecing becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy: what we “learned” online shapes our perceptions once we’re in person.
I suspect that the “post-meet” is a problem is well. After meeting someone for the first time, we use social media to fill in the gaps. Suddenly the girl who seemed perfectly sweet in person is perceived as self-entitled and spoiled when you view her daily photo uploads from various Steven Starr restaurants.
The impulse to virtually learn about things and people is natural — simply a manifestation of curiosity. But our longing for information might lead us to miss out on the beer with vinegar.
Caroline Brand is a College junior from Ft. Lauderdale, Fla. You can email her at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her at @CBrand19. “A Brand You Can Trust” appears every other Tuesday.Comments powered by Disqus
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