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Bookworm: Why snap judgments can mean trouble

The new hire came highly recommended.

His college transcripts proved that he was a good student. Professors liked him, former employers lauded him and he seemed to know his stuff.

You brought him aboard, of course, but you’re not sure he’ll work out and you can’t quite put your finger on why. There was just … something, and you wish now you’d listened to your gut. Read “The Tell,” by Matthew Hertenstein, though, and you’ll see how your inner voice can be wrong, too.

For most of your working life, you’ve been told that you have just a few seconds to make a first impression. You know it’s true because you, too, make snap decisions about the people you meet — but you may also remember times when you’ve been wrong.

Our brains, says Hertenstein, “predict, both consciously and unconsciously, what’s going to transpire before events unfold.” We are “sophisticated statistical whizzes” and are barely aware of it.

The error comes in our propensity toward decision-and-prediction-making “biases of the mind.” We also forget that “predictions are probabilistic” and can go awry (it happens more often than we’d like to think in court cases). And yet, we truly can determine a lot about someone just by watching.

We can, for instance, get a good idea of how a child is being raised by observing his interactions with others. We quickly size up strangers for mate potential (whether we need a mate or not), and we put a lot of stock in the width of their faces (men) and their hips (women). On that note, we’re attracted to facial symmetry and “baby faces.” We can instantly perceive someone who is our social equal and, with a surprising degree of accuracy, we can also determine their intelligence, their honesty and whether or not we want to do business with them.

This all happens often within seconds. The foil comes because we are “dismal lie detectors” and often misread mixed or unclear signals, since supposed “telltale signs of dishonesty” are, in truth, “merely clues.” Instead of relying on a gut feeling, which sometimes lacks in accuracy, we need to “ask more questions” — or, if all else fails, ask a child. Research shows that younger kids were up to 90 percent accurate in predicting the winner of the 2008 election.

Though it does sometimes descend into laboratory-worthy academia, “The Tell” is, overall, an enjoyable, informative book to read.

Obviously fascinated with the topic, Hertenstein lends that enthusiasm to this book quite well, making us excited to take people-watching (and hiring) to another level. We learn why we’re inexplicably drawn to some people more than others, how we can predict the outcomes of marriages and sales, how we make friends and fall in love and how we can be better teachers, parents and co-workers.

In his introduction, Hertenstein warns that this is not a self-help book, and he often urges caution for snap judgments. Here, you’ll learn why. If you’ve ever sized up a situation quickly and felt small about it later, “The Tell” is highly recommended.

‘The Tell: The Little Clues That Reveal Big Truths about Who We Are’

By Matthew Hertenstein

Basic Books $26.99 268 pages