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We frequently have such interactions with other people. How do we interpret someone's communications-their words, tone of voice, facial expressions, and body language (whether stiff or relaxed)? We have a repertoire of beliefs that we apply to particular situations and consequently make sense of them for the most part. We already have these rules or formulas at our disposal when we enter a situation. Depending on its nature, one or another pattern of beliefs is automatically activated.
The beliefs and formulas tend to be global: "Foreigners are dangerous," or, "Salespeople are manipulative." The global beliefs are applied to fit a particular situation in the form of conditional or "if-then" rules. A global belief, for example, would be, "Tigers are dangerous." However, you will obviously react to a saber-toothed tiger quite differently if you encounter it in the zoo rather than in the wild. The conditional rule activated in this case would be, "If the tiger is caged, then I am safe." The general belief about the danger of fierce animals has been refined to a conditional belief in order to take into account the particular context or conditions.
Similarly, your encounter with a smiling salesperson might be addressed by a conditional or contextual rule: "If a salesperson is aggressive, then it means she is trying to control me," or, "If the salesperson is passive and compliant, I am safe." To return to the earlier example, the conditional belief would be, "If the salesperson is foreign-looking, she is probably manipulative."
While the categorical rules provide a general thesis about a class of individuals or situations, the conditional rules tailor the interpretations to the features of the present situation. The categorical rules are generally loose ("Strangers are dangerous"), whereas the conditional rules are tight and specific ("If a stranger approaches me, I should be on guard"). Both categorical and conditional rules are similar to the legal rules that govern the arrest and conviction of violators: robbery is unlawful (categorical rule); if a person breaks into a house and steals property, he is guilty of a felony (conditional rule).
The effect of the rules becomes obvious in psychopathology. A severely depressed person may interpret all his interactions with other people according to the categorical belief, "I am inferior to everybody," and the paranoid under the rubric of, "People are spying on me." These generalized beliefs become so pervasive that they are applied to almost all situations. A severely depressed person, obsessed with a sense of inferiority or undesirability, will interpret another's smile as a sign of pity, a neutral expression as aloofness, and a frown as absolute rejection. A paranoid person may interpret a smile as a devious attempt to manipulate him and a neutral expression as feigned indifference. Thus, the dominance of the categorical rules can distort the specific features of a situation. The biased beliefs of the depressive or paranoid person produce biased interpretations of reality. Such biased beliefs and thinking occur both in psychopathology and in interpersonal animosity and inter group conflict.
Overly broad categorical beliefs about strangers or foreigners can lead to erroneous labeling of friendly strangers as dangerous or unfriendly ("false positives"). To the degree that the categorical beliefs regarding strangers are a mixture of our evolutionary and cultural heritage and our idiosyncratic learning history, we are predisposed to react to unfamiliar or different people as being alien to us. During an early developmental stage, for example, children generally respond to the approach of unfamiliar individuals with obvious distress, presumably fear.
Even though most children outgrow the fear of strangers, they may retain this categorical belief in a latent form that is called into action when they are in contact with foreign-looking people or when they hear unfavorable comments about them. At a more conscious level, the reflex aversion to people different from us is apparent in xenophobia-ethnic or racial prejudice. Further, the more general biased beliefs regarding outsiders become activated in the presence of conflict with other groups or nations.
How do we extract the meaning of a particular combination of stimuli, as when we are approached by a smiling salesperson? In interpreting what we see, we draw on an information-processing system based on images and memories as well as on beliefs. The visual configuration of the salesperson is matched against templates in our memory. When a match is made between the external configuration-for example, the saleslady's smiling face and the relevant template, "recognition" occurs and the associated beliefs and rules yield an interpretation of her motives.
beliefs flesh out and modify the meaning generated by this matching process. A
memory of a particular person who was deceptive or manipulative may override the
perception of this person's smiling image and our belief that "smiling people
are friendly." The associated rule, "Don't trust her," will modify
our reaction to her smile and evoke a question: "Is she trying to manipulate
me?" In fact, our visualization may even "change" her smile from
an innocent one to a crafty one.
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