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How people reduce uncertainty in social scenarios

Researchers from Brown University have outlined a framework that can be used to explain and apply methods of reducing uncertainty in social situations. These methods were first developed for non-social scenarios, the researchers explain, however we’ve adapted them to better navigate social interactions.

“Humans are predicting machines — our whole lives are spent trying to figure out what is the best move to do next,” said Oriel FeldmanHall, an assistant professor of cognitive, linguistic and psychological sciences at Brown. “In general, another person’s motivations, desires or beliefs are hidden, so we have to figure out how to navigate through the world when we’re interacting with other people without that knowledge. What our next action is going to be depends on how others respond.”

FeldmanHall and colleague Amitai Shenhav, also a Brown assistant professor of cognitive, linguistic and psychological sciences, theorize that people use three connected methods to reduce uncertainty. Their findings are published in Nature Human Behavior.

The first method is called automatic inference, and is the process of using another person’s appearance and environmental social norms to predict that person’s behavior. The second method, controlled inference, is done by using new information to update initial impressions — similar to putting oneself in another person’s shoes to gauge their reaction to a situation. And finally, the third method, social learning, is done by using past experiences or secondhand information about the person’s behavior to update one’s beliefs and tailor one’s actions to suit the social situation.

There are, of course, negative shortcuts people use to reduce uncertainty in a social scenario, as FeldmanHall explains.

“First impressions and stereotypes serve a purpose as we live in very noisy worlds where we have to make snap judgements about people all the time,” FeldmanHall said. “You can’t get a holistic picture of every single person you encounter on the street, but the reliance on first impressions can go wrong when people are unwilling to seek more information and get a bigger picture of who the person is, and instead stay narrowly focused on their first impression.”

By Olivia Harvey, Staff Writer

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