The Power of Belief

When someone believes something about you, good or bad, you’ll always end up proving them right!

I RECENTLY met up with a group of people I’d known years ago. We all got a little tipsy and even though much time had elapsed since we’d seen each other, they felt comfortable enough to chide me. ‘‘Yes, but you’re the type of person who…” ‘‘Tell Ruth that story, she loves that sort of thing . . . Ruth’s a party girl…’’

I found it all very odd at first since I wasn’t quite sure what they meant. And then I worked it out. They were talking about a Ruth they knew a decade ago. And although so much had changed over 10 years, they were guilty of what so many of us are guilty of: primacy error.

Primacy error is an irrational process where the brain remembers its first impressions of a person’s traits and gets locked into its original opinion. Examples of primacy error are: ‘‘Jenny is mean with money’’; ‘‘Simon isn’t that bright’’; ‘‘It’s always grey and cold in Melbourne’’. The error doesn’t make rational sense. Jenny may well have been mean at one stage, but may have been short of money at the time, and is now comfortable. Simon may have had depression at the time he was judged. He then went on to invent the internet. Melbourne can have lovely days too.

But still the primacy error remains, according to Stuart Sutherland, author of Irrationality: The Enemy Within. Evidence doesn’t come into the equation. And even if Jenny bought a hospital for sick kids, there would still be scepticism. Must be a tax deduction. Or Simon just met up with clever people who pushed him through.

These first impressions, which are formed immediately or over the first period of a relationship, don’t take into account that 10 years later someone may well have earned their stripes, had therapy, had a baby, a breakdown, a breakthrough, gone on Ritalin, grown up, gone mad. People change.

The irony about primacy error is that when people believe something about you, you’ll always end up proving them right when they’re about. My mum always warns me to be careful when I’m clearing her table. I must have been clumsy as a child. Who would ever have believed that over several decades I’d learned to use both my right and left hands, together. ‘‘Careful, careful,’’ she mumbled recently, which was like: ‘‘Don’t think of pink elephants!’’ Smash!

We are often irrational and unfair. Perhaps a small pause before generalisations might allow us to be very pleasantly surprised. Share your stories of primacy error with me. Does your mother; partner or friends believe something about you from 100 years ago?

Full story The Australian



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20 Responses to The Power of Belief

  1. Jessica Evrist 7 November 2011 at 1:28 am #

    “As a man thinketh in his heart, so is he.” “Guard your heart with all diligence for out of it flow the issues of life.” Proverbs from the bible.

  2. Wendy 17 September 2011 at 9:12 pm #

    Interesting topic, and timely too! I had a recent experience with this myself. At a recent party I bumped into an old ‘friend’ (if you could call her that, she was actually a pretty awful friend back 10 years ago when we used to school/uni/flat together but I figured that maybe she had matured with age).
    How wrong was I? Within 2 minutes of our conversation she had made her classic passive-aggressive swipe (just like old times!) saying that I ‘wouldn’t be able to handle the pressure’ of a new venture I was undertaking (granted I used to have no self belief once, maybe something to do with the company I kept?).

    Funny, as this comment came from someone who couldn’t finish a simple uni degree even though she was plagiarizing other people’s work and lasted a whole 3 months in her first marriage telling me I couldn’t handle pressure. I nearly choked on my wine!!

  3. Ruth Ostrow 12 September 2011 at 11:45 pm #

    Sorry Dennis I didn’t get your original letter, pls resend. Ruth

  4. Dennis 12 September 2011 at 3:29 pm #

    No comment, just correcting my email address

  5. Ruth Ostrow 5 September 2011 at 10:34 pm #

    Sorry Nada you ended up in spam, but I appreciate your comment. Ruth

  6. Ruth Ostrow 4 September 2011 at 10:06 pm #

    Thanks Lucy always great to hear from you!

  7. Lucy 4 September 2011 at 6:36 pm #

    Post script: Ruth, your friends referring to you as a ‘sex writer’. Would that be a subtle put-down at all? I read it that way. I completed three university degrees and people still say, “You haven’t changed. Still funny and entertaining”. Both things are true of me; being educated doesn’t change one’s basic character. But it’s strange how I’ve spent decades trying to debunk the myth that I’m a perennial comedienne!! It’s not something my post-university friends say about me, however.

  8. Lucy 4 September 2011 at 6:32 pm #

    “Primacy error”? I call it ‘stereotyping’, but if you want a new-age psychological label, then PE will do it! All the same, people are very cynical and, for whatever reason, it SUITS THEM to think the way they do about others (and themselves!). Makes them feel better about themselves. I cannot agree with Ruth’s original example; that somebody was ‘mean’ and now that he/she had money they no longer were. People are mean when they are rich – it has little to do with economics and everything to do with greed, fear and preoccupation with the self. Also, intimacy problems – since being generous is also about sharing the self, being open-hearted etc. A ‘mean’ person has problems in all these areas, from my experience. Anyway, another thought-provoking article from Ruth. Thanks

  9. Lilian 4 September 2011 at 12:02 am #

    wonderful topic, your articles just get better. Lots to discuss about them, but just got home, and read article,so will express my thoughts tomorrow, [its 12.30 am] will write tomorrow, and give it some thought tonite xx

  10. Nada 3 September 2011 at 10:10 am #

    Ruth – you are amazingly topical. I just had that experience during the week. I met a friend I hadn’t seen for a while and although she was being very nice and friendly all she wanted to talk about was stuff I was into 10 years ago, and she totally related to me as I was. It was noticeable to me how much I’d changed. But no, darl, I don’t care about all the same crap I did then, and I don’t have the same interests – I’m not saying I’m a different person – but I have changed and in my mind evolved. All I can hope is that I’ve done the same to her during our lunch!!! LOL

  11. Ruth Ostrow 2 September 2011 at 9:43 pm #

    Both sexes generalise. Women are the nags; hormonal; too demanding. Neither gender plays fair in the war of the sexes. I could complain equally about stereotypes put on we females by you guys. Or should i say in response to calling us “ladies” – you “gentlemen”.

  12. Eric 2 September 2011 at 9:40 pm #

    I think women do have very unfair views of their husbands. Sorry to sound sexist but I always hear women complaining like Staunch Listener’s Wife that men don’t do enough around the house.That is primacy error against a whole gender! I have always pulled my weight, many men I know do. Some don’t but how can you generalise like that ladies?

  13. Ruth Ostrow 2 September 2011 at 9:36 pm #

    Yes, I try to stay clear of that with my daughter But its a fine line between trying to be positive and give a child courage and confidence – or as you say burdening the child with all your expectations. Good letter. Thanks for your honesty

  14. Fredrica 2 September 2011 at 9:34 pm #

    It’s an excellent topic. My mother had all sorts of beliefs about me, and I could never live up to them. I don’t know what made her think I had talent as a dancer because i didn’t. But every week ballet classes, up on the toes… and then all the disappointment. Then she made up a new story that I was good at basketball which I didn’t even like that much. I don’t want to drag this story on. But parents do a lot of damage to kids when they have some fantasy story they made up because its a big burden to wear.

  15. Ruth Ostrow 2 September 2011 at 9:28 pm #

    I have a similar problem with old friends who see me for the first time after a few years and remember me from my days as a sex writer. I just grin and let them believe it 🙂

  16. Ruth Ostrow 2 September 2011 at 9:27 pm #

    Primacy error is a funny thing. I agree that suddenly someone can make up a new mind about you. I think that one is called recency error where people believe the last judgement they had about someone is the most accurate. Read the book I mention in Saturday’s The Australian article I refer to at the end of tonight’s blog. (Stuart Sutherland, author of Irrationality: The Enemy Within).
    I have written a lot about depression. As a sufferer it makes me angry that people think it means we are unhappy. Its just a chemical biological state we have no control over guys. Just like some people have no control over their migraines coming on.

  17. Meredith 2 September 2011 at 9:21 pm #

    My girlfriends have made up that I am so wild. I was so wild about ten years ago. Surprising how a child can change that. Nowadays spending the day in bed means under the doona asleep because my partner has kindly taken our son to the park. I wonder how that reputation can linger when its obvious I am just like them, tired, food stained, trying to balance work and child, in my tracky dacks when they see me. Maybe they just want to believe one of us still has it in them. It ain’t me.

  18. Karen 2 September 2011 at 9:16 pm #

    The husband and wife made me laugh. But my story is not funny. About six years ago I fell into a depression. It was possibly post natal although my daughter was not a baby when it happened. At any rate I felt so terrible I didn’t come out of my room. I just wanted to sleep. And I cried a lot. With medication I got a lot better, and within a year I went off the meds, and now use exercise when I feel a bit out of control. But my husband has now decided I am unhappy and disgruntled and says that my former depression proves it. Is that primacy error, because he never thought that about me before I got sick?

  19. Wife of Staunch Listener 2 September 2011 at 9:10 pm #

    Hi Ruth, Deb here. I just saw what Simon posted to you. I am laughing because in fact, he is very lazy still. It’s not primacy error at all. I call it the loll-about syndrome. If there was an award for lolling, he would be the loll king. I love him and married him anyway. I love my loller. But the reason he wrote to you is because he spends so much time in front of the computer — yes, watching sport!

  20. StaunchListener 2 September 2011 at 9:05 pm #

    Hey Ruth, good one. My wife is convinced I am lazy. No matter what I do around the house, or in the garden. she just keeps complaining that I do nothing. The error came because when we were dating ten years ago, I was not house trained. That was the truth then. I was clueless and spend any free moment in front of sport. Times change, people change. But she seems to have that set in her mind and it makes me so angry I end up not wanting to do anything. You are so right about that!

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