Bayesian Listening

For those interested in statistics or decision theory the “Bayesian Theorem” should be known material.

And then there is the rest of us.

All the same, I much enjoyed an article on Bayesian thinking presented by the Danish nudging expert Morten Munster. One of his strengths is that he explains complicated things in a language even I can follow.  I am sure that is part of his nudging strategy.  (After all, it is a little difficult to make people change their thinking if they have no clue what you are talking about.)

Morten’s explanation was filled with great examples; let me shamelessly steal his wedding couple:

During a wedding ceremony, the couple most likely assumes that the chance their union will end in a divorce is less than 50:50.  All the same, that is the baseline chance of divorce based on the general statistic.

First step in Bayesian thinking is to neutrally be aware of the baseline for whatever you are engaged in, based on what similar activities that you were not involved in have shown. (Bayes referred to this as a Prior.)

The next step is to refine our thinking because we know a little more about our couple than about all the other couples.

Some factors make a divorce more likely down the line:  Prior divorces, parents’ divorces, divorces among friends, history of infidelity, history of substance abuse, employment in jobs that have historically had higher than average divorce rates…

Some factors make divorce less likely:  Add a “no” in front of all the above.

Notice that all this has absolutely nothing to do with how you feel about neither the factors, nor the couple getting married.

Finally, when you learn that the couple doesn’t live in USA, you adjust your prior or your other factors to reflect the data for their country.

Again, a piece of new information makes you adjust your expectations regardless how you feel about the higher/lower divorce rate of the other country.

This is not so hard, is it?

Well, in real life it is. We probably have opinions about divorce and/or know the people getting married, and our gut feeling is screaming to be allowed to have a say: This marriage is made in Heaven!!!

(Or alternatively: What does she/he have that I haven’t? / What a loser! / You just wait; I told you so…  )

Even worse, we may earlier have expressed an opinion that is now contradicted by the somber facts. That means we must change our mind. And that can be difficult – if we are too invested in our opinions.

All that can lead down a discussion trail in which I don’t wish to go with this piece. Because what I really want to point out is that Bayesian thinking can also be useful when we meet people – online or in real life.

This thought came by way of Susan Rooks who talked with The Rabbi and the Shrink, a.k.a. Yonason Goldson, and Dr. Margarita Gurri.  Susan described how she had grown up seeing pictures and hearing her parents’ enthusiastic praise for the people they had met abroad.  Consequently, although she grew up in a rather homogeneous environment, she always assumed that people different from her were kind, interesting, and had something valuable to contribute.

How is that for a great Prior when it comes to building relationships?

When you meet people for the first time, do you think they are kind, interesting, and have something valuable to contribute before any of you have opened your mouth?

To some people, “strangers are friends you don’t know yet”. Even if they don’t look or sound like you.

To other people, “Stranger = Danger”.

One of these is likely your Prior. If you are not aware of what your worldview is when it comes to strangers, totally innocent people will be unwitting actors in a play you set up in your head.

Even if you start out as positive as Susan, if the stranger says something you disagree with, do you get curious why they say that – or do you suddenly think they are not really as kind, interesting, or valuable?

This is another of the central points in Bayesian thinking:  If there is a significant Prior, the real outcome doesn’t change very much by single random events.

Let us take another example:

Think about your valedictorian high school student with a clean 4.0 GPA just before the final examen. 4.0 is the prior.  Even if the student gets a D on a test that counts 30% towards the grade in that class, the impact on the overall GPA earned over four years is miniscule.  (Literally from 4.000 to 3.996.)

But I bet that the student thinks they are a complete failure.  Their focus is on the one 30% D, not on the 47.7 A+s.

This indicates that we are not very good in Bayesian thinking – neither when it comes to our successes, nor when it comes to evaluating the value of other people with whom we may disagree.

So what can we do about that?

We can emulate Susan and stay curious.

You may have had the MMR vaccine and hence never have had mumps, measles, or rubella. But you probably trust your parents if they tell you how unpleasant that was.  They are from a different generation so you trust that their life has unfolded differently from yours.

If people don’t look or sound like you, is it likely that they also may have life experiences different from yours and hence they say something that may be true for them even if it is not true for you?  Stay curious.

If your trusted friend over 30 years says something that is “way out”, your many years of friendship should be the prior. The blip that is way out should not make you jump to the conclusion that you have been mistaken about this person for 30 years; it should lead you to think that you misunderstood what your friend said.  Stay curious.

And if the friend really means whatever was said, stay with them and figure out what their prior is for what they said, what is the context, what data informs their opinion.  If they have been duped or fallen into a Facebook wormhole, isn’t it likely that they might listen to somebody with whom they already have a 30 year prior, who is truly curious about how they think, and who is willing to help them research data supporting or contradicting their position?

After all, you have 0% chance of influencing people with whom you are not on speaking terms.


Charlotte Wittenkamp
Charlotte Wittenkamp
Charlotte Wittenkamp is an organizational psychologist who counsels international transfers, immigrants, and foreign students in overcoming culture shock. Originating from Denmark, where she worked in organizational development primarily in the finance industry, Charlotte has lived in California since 1998. Her own experiences relocating lead down a path of research into value systems and communication patterns. She shares this knowledge and experience through speaking and writing and on her website Many of these “learning experiences” along with a context to put them in can be found in her book Building Bridges Across Cultural Differences, Why Don’t I Follow Your Norms?. On the side, she leads a multinational and multigenerational communication training group.

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  1. It is my impression, Simon, that depending on how long tenure people usually have in different countries, the more or less they are interested in forming personal relationships with business partners.
    If one expect to personally have interactions with somebody for years, naturally one will invest in getting to know that person. If he/she is somebody else’s problem in a year or two, perhaps one doesn’t invest as much. If the other person is from a different country/organization with different tenure patterns: mismatch in expectations.

    As for the factors that may influence divorce rates: if divorce is seen as no big thing in our family or society, we may also take that way out without putting as much effort into keeping the marriage healthy as we would have if divorce was much frowned upon. Likewise, friends may advise us differently depending on whether they have been through a painful/easy/no divorce, helping us stay in or get out of our union.

    Thanks for your comment, it also made me think one layer deeper.

  2. Understanding how the first impression is formed is fascinating.
    The brain seems to act unconsciously and enter a lot of data even though it doesn’t have it, and it’s very quick to create a complete picture of what we see.
    From this we can deduce the importance of our body language and our appearance towards the outside. The way we present ourselves or show ourselves at first will be part of the image that others have of us.
    We are influenced, consciously and unconsciously, by society and culture. What is around us and our history of living with it condition this first impression that we keep in our brain. Sometimes even without having processed it. And then we act accordingly, almost without realizing it.
    First impressions, while good, are rarely accurate. Their main advantage is that we need them to create expectations or develop action plans: for example, so that the other has a good impression of us. The disadvantage is that in them there are pre-assumptions that often distance the possibility of really knowing the other person.
    What we can do is be cautious in evaluating the reliability of the images, trust them enough and be open to changing them. It will be beneficial to ourselves, because it will improve the quality of our new relationships.
    We are not just a first impression, we are not just an external image: each of us has a lot inside and we deserve someone to take the time to get to know us. And this also applies to the other.

    • Thanks for this rich comment, Aldo.

      It has been an interesting time when we have had to form first impressions of people not based on the lower half of their faces because we have (almost) all been covered up. Perhaps we have paid a little more attention to other data points – like how we feel in their presence and the tone of their voice? Whether they seem to think before they speak or shoot from the hip.
      Let us hope that when we have put the face masks aside, we will still use these other data points because unmasked doesn’t necessarily mean without any mask.

  3. Dear Charlotte,

    Your article is to say the least revealing. It opens up areas of human interactivity that we would not normally consider. We do tend to go our own way and make conclusions about people without even exchange one word. In other words body language rules at first and this is so with both individuals.

    There are many factors on a ‘first meeting’; posture, eye contact, what the person is wearing and generally ‘vibes’; sixth sense that is either projected or received; not be design, but subliminal. Perhaps this dates back to when humans first ‘arrived’ on the planet.

    I am intrigued about the historical aspects where parents, grandparents may have at one time divorced and other aspects of life that have a potentially negative impact, but as you describe, the opposite is a realistic scenario.

    Susan Rooks is such a good person and I feel she has experienced a stable life. She projects calmness, strength but also gentility.

    Your article is really thought provoking and analytical and will require another visit or more.

    As for a first meeting, for some reason there can be an instant feeling that a person is good, negative, positive, friendly, potentially naturally engaging and this without exchanging a word.

    When in European exec search, first impressions were crucial. A negative first impression is challenging to eliminate, but I always tried to keep an open mind and asked many questions about as the Dutch say anything and everything. The Dutch Germans never ‘jump’ into a business conversation without talking about the weather, how the journey was, coffee or tea! It works. It breaks the ice.

    Thank you so much. Charlotte, you have opened up a aspect of human relations that deserve further investigation.