The Psychology of Appearances

by
Daulton Dickey.

They say we grind our teeth as a show of affection. I’m so adept at grinding my teeth that I can do it while walking and contemplating the plaque in the clouds. Affection? Hardly. Curiosity, I’d say—at best. But then who isn’t, if not at least slightly, curious about the plaque dripping from the clouds? No one comes to mind.

When I was a child, my father pretended not to care, but it was a vaudeville routine: he’d say, “I don’t care about the goddamn plaque,” while gazing at the sky with shifty eyes. Such behavior taught me two things: 1), don’t take everything adults say at face value; and, 2), never directly confront the plaque. Always pay your respects furtively.

—Dad, I remember saying, when I was maybe three or four. —Why does the sky crack?

—The sky cracks to let in the juice from the sun.

—What does the juice do?

thehumanconditionrenemagritte1933

The Human Condition, Rene Magritte, 1933

—It allows us to see and live, breathe and scream.

—Can we scream without the sun’s juice?

—Yeah, but what’s the point?

What’s the point indeed? I didn’t know it then, but it’s clear to me now that the point of the sun’s juice is to illuminate our deficiencies, a sort of aesthetic truth serum. We wouldn’t know we were ugly or flawed, overweight or weak-chinned or buck-toothed or cross-eyed if the sun’s juice didn’t force honesty into our optic nerves.

We may wax poetic and pretend it doesn’t matter, acting as if superficial appearances are somehow irrelevant, but it does matter: our initial impression of a person informs and defines our subsequent relations to them. Psychologists call it the anchoring effect. In short, our first impressions of someone serve as an anchor around which subsequent information attaches, and, when combined with various cognitive biases, such as confirmation bias, these anchors can drown a person’s representation of his or her beetle—in the Wittgensteinian sense—in a miasma of misinformation.

That’s something we don’t recognize as children; hell, it’s something we don’t recognize as adults—our perception of people are dependent on our intellectual and emotional deficiencies, predilections, desires, and so on. We don’t simply encounter someone and assess them in any kind of objective sense: our perception of a person is an interpretation of him or her, and those interpretations can be predicated on flaws or biases or prejudices we possess and subsequently superimpose onto them.

 

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daultondickeyDaulton Dickey is a novelist, poet, and content creator currently living in Indiana with his wife and kids. He’s the author of A Peculiar Arrangement of Atoms: StoriesStill Life with Chattering Teeth and People-Shaped Things, and other storiesElegiac Machinations: an experimental novella, and Bastard Virtues, a novelRooster Republic Press will publish his latest novel, Flesh Made World, later this year. Contact him at daultondickey[at]yahoo[dot]com.

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