Sunday, January 16, 2011

Efficient Algorithms in Estimating Personalities

Fair-minded people attempt to reserve judgment about others until they've given the other person a good chance. You don't want to write a person off too hastily, since it might spoil you from being friends with them, and also makes it less likely that you'll see the good parts of their personality.

Perhaps because I've studied too much statistics, I don't quite think this way.  The mark of a good algorithm is that it reaches the best possible conclusion with the smallest possible amount of data. For certain you don't want to form conclusions that aren't justified by the evidence available. But if the person is actually a dickhead (or if they're a nice guy), then you want to reach that conclusion in the shortest available period of time.

For better or worse, I form aggressively fast estimates of other people's personalities. I would say that the impression I form within the first 15 seconds ends up being internally correct about 85% of the time after more data is added. By that, I don't mean to say that if I think a person is a tool within 5 seconds, then they're actually a tool by some cosmically objective measure (thought they might well be). I just mean that if I hang out with them for another week, 85% of the time I'll still think they're a tool at the end. This may still be judging too quickly (with the initial judgment colouring my subsequent perceptions). But on the other hand, there are a non-trivial number of reversals - cases where I write someone off  and then subsequently change my mind. So it's not a final decision.

The fact is, you already know a huge amount about a person within a few seconds if you pay attention. Suppose I'm sitting in a cafe and I see a girl across the cafe talking to loudly to her friend about a guy she knows. What will I be thinking?

Firstly, she's complaining about a guy. This is a weakly bad sign for several reasons. One, if the first randomly chosen words coming out of her mouth are a complaint, it raises my estimate she's likely to be a princess and/or high maintenance. At a minimum, it suggests someone slightly pessimistic about life, and disinclined towards seeing the happy side of things.

Second, the impression of princess behaviour is reinforced by the fact that I can hear her conversation two tables away. This implies a subtle lack of consideration for the other cafe patrons. It also implies a lack of shame about airing one's relationship dirty laundry to her friend (which is understandable) and other nearby strangers (which seems a little more self-involved).

But it's not all bad traits. The girl seems fairly well put together - she's fairly pretty and dresses nicely in a conventional fashion. Takes care in her appearance, hair nicely done. Early 20's. White. We're sitting in a trendy suburb, which suggests a middle class upbringing. Probably graduated college a couple of years ago and working some regular white collar job. Slim - probably goes to the gym a couple of times a week. The fact that she's sitting in a cafe with her friend indicates a general level of sociability, as well as hinting at acceptable SWPL tastes.

If I've gotten the above correct, I start thinking about more speculative propositions (i.e. still true on average, but more likely to be wrong). I'd wager that her parents are probably still married and she came from a fairly stable home. The indications of princess behaviour raise my estimate that she was doted on too much by parents - only child perhaps. Not unlikely that she has either a cat or a small dog.

Back to the conversation she's still going on about the guy. It sounds like he's some guy she's dating, and he's blown her off from some date. Suggests a susceptibility to dating assholes, which is not uncommon for princesses. She won't break up with him though - her complaints hide a sense that she likes his aloofness. Doesn't seem self-aware enough to realise this.

Overall, if I were single I'd be mentally estimating that she seems like more trouble that she's worth as a dating prospect in any medium term sense. I'm not writing her off completely - I'd want to talk to her a bit more and find out if she's just having a bad day and is actually quite sweet. You'd probably have a better estimate after a first date. But as a betting man, that's not how I'd wager. I don't like princesses, or complainers.

The point of this story, dear reader, is that I'm thinking all of these thoughts within the first couple of seconds of overhearing her conversation. Sometimes (such as hearing the above complaint about a boyfriend), it's within the first half a second.

The reality is that behaviours are highly correlated. You might feel that you're completely inscrutable and that I don't know you personally. But if I'm paying attention, I don't need to - I can take what I observe, and add in the information from years of observing about how personality traits tend to go together. It's the same way that you only need to enter 5 movie choices before Netflix can suggest movies to you - it knows the correlations of your choices, and that's enough.

Given enough data about the world, nobody is a mystery. It's all just correlations.

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