Friday, December 28, 2007

Filling in ambiguity to find a mate

In a recent article entitled Ambiguity Promotes Liking for the New York Times, Marina Krakovsky reported on a piece of research conducted by Michael Norton at Harvard Business School. The research examined perceptions of attraction between people on online dating sites. What Norton and his colleagues did was to have people who were arranging dates via an online dating site to rate the attractiveness of the other individual before the date and then do the same thing post date.
What they discovered was that people are much more likely to assume that people are attractive and similar to us online in anticipation of the date as opposed to the reality of the first date, on which the team discovered daters were much more likely to down rate their dates considerably where as before they had a fairly rosy view of them from the largely ambiguous data provided online.
Norton explains what is happening “People are so motivated to find somebody they like that they read things into the profiles” creating their own reality from ambiguous data. The example given in the article is that if a man writes that he likes the outdoors, his would-be mate imagines her perfect skiing companion, but when she learns more, she discovers “the outdoors” refers to nude beaches.
This is a beautiful example of a typical mode one and two response to ambiguity - ignoring the ambiguity and creating their own reality and expectations, in other words filling in the gaps with their own model of the world.
Whilst this is just an irritation for people trying to find a partner, when it comes to political issues like taking a nation to war over ambiguous data or ignoring ambiguous data on the flight deck of Florida flight 90 which plunged into the Potomac in Washington killing 75 people, or ignoring ambiguous market data and plunging a company headlong into disaster, things are more serious.
Part of the problem is that we train people to plan for the things that they can see. We don't teach them how to spot ambiguities and know when they are making assumptions.

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