Have you ever sat next to the smelly guy? Did you ever wonder why nobody tells him that he smells, or why he can't smell himself? Doesn't he notice people getting up and changing seats when he sits down? How can he live his whole life being unaware of a flaw that is readily apparent to a total stranger 10 seconds after they've met?
Well, here's the thing: According to science, we're all the smelly guy. Figuratively, that is.
Here's something that doesn't make sense: On one hand, we know that racism is still a big deal (you can't argue with it -- studies show it still turns up in everything from jury decisions to hiring practices), but how many outright racists do you actually know? How many people at your office fling the blankets aside each morning and scream, "TODAY I SHALL OPPRESS A BLACK MAN!"?
Only a small one today, though. Maybe one day he'll aspire to insult Kobe Bryant's mother.
Probably not that many. So we have the seemingly impossible situation of a world with a lot of racism and not many racists (and no matter how anonymous you make the poll, you can never find significant numbers of people admitting to being racist). Science suggests it's because all of us are a little more racist than we think.
"I'm not racist; I totally love cosplay girls."
For instance, in one somewhat hilarious experiment, researchers just set up a bunch of conversations -- some between members of the same race, some between different races. Then, to liven things up, they had the conversations take place over a closed-circuit camera system and intentionally inserted awkward pauses into the conversations by adding a one-second delay. No, the participants didn't realize they were doing it.
When a white person was talking to a white person, the pauses were basically unnoticed. But in the interracial conversations, the awkward pauses caused the anxiety levels of the participants to go off the charts -- far more than in control conversations held face-to-face. No matter how nonracist and open-minded the participants thought they were, one second of awkward silence was all it took for a whole bunch of subconscious racial tensions to bubble up. "Goddamn it, I just can't connect with this person! He's different from me!"
"I can't really put my finger on why."
By the way, if you put us in the same room, we'll reflect that tension in our body language, regardless of our relationship to the other person. In another bizarre experiment, researchers showed a group some video clips of two people talking: one white guy and one guy who was obscured so the observers couldn't see what race he was. Test subjects could usually guess the race of the obscured guy just by watching the other one's body language.
The clips, by the way, were from TV shows where the characters were supposed to be equals and/or friendly with each other (that is, they weren't from cop shows where the white cop was arresting an obscured face wearing flamboyant pimp clothes). One of the shows that gave the "subconscious racist" response was Scrubs, for Christ's sake. These are real-life friends and colleagues playing the role of fake friends and colleagues. But put black and white together in the room, and on a subconscious level, things change.
Our funny on-screen bromance is just overcompensating for our acute racial tension!
Finally, and maybe strangest of all, is an experiment in which they gathered a random group of people -- not taken from a Klan rally or anything -- and made them watch an excruciating video of a guy's hand having a needle slooowly driven into the skin.
That involuntary wince you just did is happily a universal human response.
As you can imagine, the subjects literally felt the pain in their own hands ... as long as the hand on the screen was of the same race. The result was the same for the white and black participants -- they couldn't feel as much empathy for a member of another race.
And if you're about to say, "That's not racism! That's an involuntary response based on the fact that the hand being injured just didn't look like their own!" Hey, that's what the researchers thought, too, so they also included a purple hand. Subjects felt empathy toward it just fine. That's right -- the subjects couldn't muster empathy for a fellow human of another race but cringed at the thought of somebody hurting a fucking Night Elf.
The whole racism thing, however, just leads into a larger point.
Imagine that tomorrow you run across a person in need -- say a co-worker loses everything he owns in a fire, and everybody is making donations to help him out. In your imagination, how much would you give?
Now cut that amount in half. That's how much you'd give if the situation actually presented itself.
Which is bad if you gave him your child to help clean up.
See, no matter how much we make self-deprecating jokes or talk about how we suck and play the role of the lovable loser, experiments show that deep down, we think we are nicer and more generous than we actually are. Psychologists have long known that people tend to think they are more altruistic than the world in general, but researchers weren't sure if that was because we overestimate how great we are or because we underestimate everyone else. Hint: It's the first one.
People are dicks except for you; you're an adorable little buttercup!
Which brings us to the hypothetical situation above. A study at Cornell found that over the course of two experiments, of the participants who said they would donate to a charity (a staggering 80 percent), only half actually did when given the chance. Those who did donate gave only half as much as they previously said they would.
But, strangely, the amount of money donated in reality was close to what the participants predicted others would contribute. In other words, we have a pretty accurate idea of how selfish the rest of the world is, but in our imaginations, we don't perceive ourselves as being members of "the world." We all picture ourselves as members of an "elite moral minority."
"All right, homeless man, take the money -- just don't touch me!"
It wasn't just with money, either. Another study involved predicting whether subjects would take on a complex task rather than an easy one when they knew somebody else would get stuck with the task they didn't take. Most people thought, "Of course I'll do the harder task! It's only fair," but when actually presented with the task, they were far more likely to pawn it off on the other person ... even if they were told that person was a 10-year-old girl. Buckle your ass down, little Suzy!
You'd better get on and solve that economic problem we're having!
Forget for a moment the flamboyant, egomaniacal Snooki-type people who clearly are seeing a much more awesome version of themselves when they look in the mirror than actually exists. This isn't about them. No, science says that the odds are overwhelming that you think you're more attractive than you actually are. Experiments on this are downright freaky.
Not unlike Snooki.
For instance, some scientists took pictures of a group of experiment subjects. Then they altered them in various ways, creating 11 versions of each photo. Some had been drastically photoshopped to make the person more attractive, and some to make the person less attractive. One was left unchanged. The researchers showed the photos to the participants and said, "Which one is the unaltered one?" Now, these are their own faces we're talking about here. But time and time again, they were bad at finding the unaltered photo. Want to guess which ones they were likely to pick out as unaltered? The ones that had been fixed to make the subjects more attractive.
The camera might add 10 pounds, but apparently it also makes you look like a supermodel.
In other words, the person we see reflected in the mirror is not the reality of what we look like -- it's warped by our brain to make us hotter. This is one of the reasons people claim not to be photogenic or say they hate pictures of themselves. Yeah, right, it's the camera.
Meanwhile, another study found that 1 in 4 overweight people see themselves as being of normal weight. OK, we can kind of see that, since "overweight" is a medical term and maybe they're not even familiar with where the line is. But then you find out that a whopping 70 percent of obese people thought they were just a little bit overweight. Among the morbidly obese, 40 percent thought they needed to lose just a few pounds.
Just like this blazing inferno needs to lose just a few flames before it horribly suffocates everyone.
And then there's this massive 26,000 person study in which people were asked to rate their own attractiveness. Now, since beauty is in the eye of the beholder, the researchers didn't just line up a bunch of people and say, "You think you're good-looking? Get the fuck out of my lab, Sasquatch!" No, they simply asked the people to rate themselves on a scale of 1 to 10, with 5 being an average-looking person. Virtually everyone rated themselves at least a 6 or 7 -- meaning everyone thinks they're "above average." Which is not only mathematically impossible but violates basic common sense about what "average" means.
Young people were the most deluded, with about 30 percent of men and women under age 30 claiming they were an 8 to a 10. Again, if that were true, we'd have to adjust the scale so the numbers meant something else -- you'd wind up in a whole Spinal Tap amp discussion.
So just remember this next time you're at Walmart or standing in line at McDonald's -- 3 out of every 10 of the people around you think they are at model levels of hot.