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Boxes, Boxes, Everywhere

I was recently asked to speak to a conference in London, held by Nucleus. The event took place on International Women’s Day, and the theme was Unlocking The Power In Diversity.

The day opened with the screening of a TV advert made by a Danish station, that explores the very human nature of putting people into boxes. You know, those social boxes we’ve invented where we can put people who don’t look like us, don’t agree with our values, our principles, or our beliefs.

It brought back a memory of when my wife and I travelled, not long after we’d married, visiting amazing places and staying, predominantly, in youth hostels. In the deep south of Florida, we encountered a 30-something, heavily tattooed, skin-head, who on first impressions, would have firmly been placed into a box titled “must avoid”.

I judged him purely on his looks. I didn’t make eye contact, and didn’t engage. However, one day, I had no real choice. We went on a trip to the Everglades National Park, and we sat next to each other… and engaged.

Turns out he was one of the loveliest people we met. Kind, considerate, very well educated, and a joy to be with. I still keep in touch with him to this very day. I was only 24 years old at the time, and I’d just learned that ‘never judge a book by its cover’ was incredibly valuable advice.

But, memories fade, and we start to mis-remember, and soon we fall back in line with the rest of society. We slowly, one teeny bit at a time, start to rebuild our boxes.

Watching the TV advert reminded me of this, and it moved me to realise that whilst I may not have as many boxes as some, I still have boxes, and I feel this is wrong.

The Power of A First Impression

Psychologist Leslie Zebrowitz studies the facial information we use to judge other people. Her research shows that although first impressions are notoriously prone to error, we can’t stop ourselves from making them. Even more worrying, is that it only takes a tenth of a second, the blink of an eye, to form a judgment about another person’s character. Staggeringly, we’re so hard-wired to function in this way, that we even make ‘first impressions’ from seeing nothing more than a photograph.

Let’s Experiment

So, with this in mind, I thought we’d test this theory. However, before doing anything, please read the next paragraph in full.

I’d like you to scroll down to the very bottom of the page and QUICKLY look at the four photographs. Do not dwell on them, just have a quick look at each picture, and then scroll back to here.


Right, now you’ve looked at the pictures, I have a question. And be honest!

Just based on the images you saw, based only on first impressions, which two would you prefer as clients?

Now, based on the evidence, my ‘educated guess’ would be A and D. Maybe C, but I very much doubt anyone opted for B.

You can of course try and persuade yourself that all are equally welcome in your business, but the underlying psychology will show that we’re naturally drawn to people who we feel would more likely fit in one of our social boxes, or more accurately, the boxes we are willing to interact with.  Yet we know nothing about them. We don’t know their story.


Picture B is, to me, the most interesting. Have another quick look. Can you see the elderly, down and out? A man who is down on his luck and in need of bit of good fortune?  Of course you can.

But, what if I told you he was actually a multi-millionaire called Hans Langesund, who owns, and still works in a very successful logging business… and his net worth is over €10m.

Can’t see it? Of course not. That’s because of a cognitive bias called the horn effect; a bias that causes your perception of another person to be disproportionately influenced by a single, negative trait. So, in Hans’ case, you see a scruffy, elderly man, and even when furnished with more positive information about him, you can’t help but still see a scruffy, elderly man. It’s powerful stuff, and very influential in how we function as humans. It’s why we put people in boxes and why we generally struggle with diversity and equality.

The Conclusion That Isn’t a Conclusion

Instead of drawing this article to a concrete conclusion, I’d like to suggest taking part in a little, interesting task.

  1. In your own time, grab a sheet of paper and write down the names of your ten favourite clients. The ones you really like interacting with the most. The ones who are great to see, and great to spend time with. Do that first, then continue to read…

  1. Now you have the ten names written down, write down next to their name, their demographic profile and what you like about them. What makes them stand out enough to make it into your top ten. Do that next, then continue to read…

  1. Now you’ve done that, look at it, and ask yourself, “how many of them are just like me?” The same values, principles, personality, humour… All of them? None of them? How diverse is the group? Is it mixed gender? Mixed ages? Mixed educations?

It’s a really interesting and revealing task to do – if you can be honest with yourself and answer without bias (i.e. oh, I better pop a youngster on the list!).

It shows how we are built to live our lives in a single, or relatively few, boxes, surrounding ourselves with people who are just like us. And for me, that’s the tragedy of it all. I believe that if we can break free from the social shackles, and interact with people who we may never have mixed with, then not only will our lives will be enriched, but the lives of those around us will be, and in more ways that we can imagine. For me, that’s the secret sauce to a happy, successful, and fulfilled life.

About Neil Bage

Neil is an engaging and dynamic public speaker, and a specialist on the sub-conscious behaviours that drive our decisions. He is an expert at bridging complex theory with real-world understanding and application.

Neil is also an entrepreneur and founder of multi- award winning Behavioural IQ (Be-IQ), a UK-based financial behaviour specialist. Be-IQ’s behavioural software is at the heart of many customer propositions provided by high street banks, and other large financial services organisations.

To register your interest in the upcoming Adviser version of Be-IQ, click here.

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