Rachel Cusk’s Outline, Part III

Two young law students walk into a lawyer’s office to interview for a position. You see one has tattoos on her left arm, stretching from her shoulder to her wrist. The other has no tattoos. Who do you think will be working at the firm?

There is little doubt about the answer. The bias that appearance plays on our judgments is among the most powerful sources of discrimination. We rely too heavily on a single feature of a person and then to anchor our judgment thereafter, on that characteristic or trait.

Inferences about a person based on their physical appearance are risky. Consider the same two examples when men are interviewing. They may have the same tattoos as the women, but because they are wearing a suit, shirt, and tie, they are unobservable.

Other cues must then be drawn upon to predict their future performance. Regardless, something about their appearance can often be decisive—are they clean-shaven, with well-combed hair, shoes shined, etc

Rachel Cusk gives examples of this bias in the third segment of her serialized novel, Outline, published in the Summer 2014 issue of the "Paris Review," #209. For example she writes,

It was quite common, the man to her left presently observed, for young people now to use their appearance as a means of shocking or disturbing others: he himself…had seen … tattoos and piercings of sometimes an apparently violent nature, which all the same said nothing whatever about their owners, who were often people of the greatest sweetness and docility. It had taken him a long time to accept this fact, for he was predisposed to be judgmental and to find the meaning of a thing commensurate with its appearance... and though he didn’t strictly speaking, comprehend why people might choose to mutilate themselves, he had learned not to read too much into it.

Cusk also dwells at length on how individuals react to the same experience quite differently. Each person views the experience in the light of their own history and because each person’s history is usually quite different than anyone else’s, they are bound to attach a different meaning to the same experience. She describes the reactions of a woman, who had hoped to become a professional musician, as she was passing by an open window and recognized a piece of music she had always loved.

And instead of appreciating the beauty of the Bach piece, she felt an extraordinary sense of loss. The music she once loved no longer belonged and instead was possessed by someone else or so she felt. Cusk writes:

Certainly another person, she said, passing that window and hearing the D minor fugue, would have felt something entirely different. In itself the music coming out of the window means nothing at all, … And even a person observing these events, she said, from across the road, could not have guessed, simply by seeing and hearing what the story really was. What they would have seen was a girl walking past, at the same time as hearing some music being played inside a building.

How little we know of another person, how easily we are deceived or mislead by what we can observe. How superficial that is and how easily we succumb to its influence with results that are often unfortunate. Of course, none of this is new—“Appearance is only skin deep.” “You can’t tell a book by its cover.”

Cusk gives these generalities a life, she takes them out of the lab, and puts them in concrete situations, situations that we may find ourselves experiencing. By doing this, I think she makes them far more memorable, with much greater impact than reading about a research study of the same phenomena.

Knowing about the pitfalls of this bias does not prevent us from succumbing to it. But perhaps Cusk’s descriptions will keep us from falling prey to it as often as we usually do. It isn’t easy, except perhaps by learning to pause for a moment or two before you judge another person on the basis of some physical characteristic.

We also might spend far less time than we ordinarily do in judging other people in the first place.