Snap Judgment Versus Discernment

As described in the April 2nd issue of The Economist, human beings are highly influenced, in fact, excessively over-influenced by designer labels.  Researchers at Tilburg University in the Netherlands did extensive research on the impact of designer labels on people and discovered, among other things, that people’s perceptions of others varied widely depending in the label/logo of the clothes they wore – even when the clothes were absolutely identical except for that label/logo. 

This influence ranged far beyond merely “rating” people.  When soliciting for charity, for example, volunteer solicitors were again clad in clothing identical except for logos, and those wearing “labeled” clothing received almost twice as much as those wearing garments without logos.  In various transaction games, those participants who wore designer labeled clothing were trusted with more than a third more in funds than those wearing unlabeled clothing.

Over the years, I’ve occasionally asked people why they’ll pay so much more for a “designer” outfit, and, invariably the response has been that they want the quality.  Yet I can recall, years ago, when Ralph Lauren created several items where the logo was not easily visible to others or in at least one case, not visible at all.  Those items were produced for less than a year because sales were so poor, even though the quality was the same as that of other Lauren clothing.  One customer even complained to my son, who was working at a Lauren outlet during his college years, that he didn’t want to buy any Lauren clothing if the label didn’t happen to be visible.

While there are people who can tell the difference between various styles and makes of clothes at a glance, studies have shown that the vast majority cannot – which may explain where the label/logo comes in. In fact, they even have trouble in discerning bad fake logos and labels. In the animal kingdom, such displays as the peacock’s tail essentially can’t be faked.  The healthier and stronger the peacock, the larger, brighter, and shinier the tail. An unhealthy peacock just can’t present a splendid tail. And the pea hens and other peacocks can tell the difference.

Humans clearly don’t have that ability.  According to the researchers, while people can pick up on human bodily physical clues fairly readily, they’re far less discerning when it comes to judging artifacts and clothing – which are stand-ins for wealth and power in a more affluent and technological society.

Could it just be that, in that inimitable human fashion, once again, humans are looking for the shortcut to making a decision?  Or is it a calculated decision because we know, deep down, that most others can’t really tell the difference between a good shirt and a great one, between a good one without a logo and a poorer one with a logo? 

That might mean, again, that we’re all about making decisions on superficialities.  And that we don’t want to admit it, even to ourselves.  But then, is that really anything new?

4 thoughts on “Snap Judgment Versus Discernment”

  1. Bob Howard says:

    The peacock analogy is apropros, and basic biological drives are certainly part of the equation. While our conscious thoughts might follow other paths, as well, we use clothing as a visual cue to desireability in a potential mate. Naturally, other processes are at work, too, but it all revolves around status, in both the biological and cultural sense. Taken to its extreme, it can even be funny. A favorite joke from the early days of post-Soviet Russia involved two newly-prosperous Muscovites who meet on the street. “Check out my new tie…$200!!,” says one, to which the other replied, “Are you crazy?…I got the same tie yesterday for $400!!” Conspicuous consumption, indeed!

    While I understand the motivation of most people for overt symbols of status, my own personal desire has been to avoid clothing that I just see as free advertising for the manufacturer. Some people feel it far more “refined” to sport high quality goods with minimal or no clear logos or markings, confident that others with similar refinement and taste will know without the more obvious indicators. That perspective is equally arrogant, it seems to me and besides, it’s virtually impossible to buy quality goods today without obvious (often blatantly so) designer or corporate markings of some sort.

    On the whole,though, I don’t really see it as a huge flaw in out culture. As you noted, it’s basically driven by underlying biological imperatives. We make initial decisions on superficialities because that’s what we are presented with in society. It’s what we make of relationships after that first impression that defines us. While we might strive to overcome our baser instincts, it’s really futile in the long run–our genes made us that way (insert your own put here!).

  2. Joe says:

    Perhaps all those people wearing designer labels have figured out things go more smoothly when they wear them?

    It reminds me of an experiment. Give a bunch of people red or blue pens at random. Soon they’ll form two groups. Those with red pens, and those with blue pens. If the same tendency applies to clothing, one can easily split a company’s employees into “management types” versus “workers”… Once groups have formed, herd mentality sets in.

  3. Mikor says:

    There is a somewhat more benign explanation. In many cases, a snap judgement is what we need. We either have no time, no expertise, or no desire to conduct a more extensive inquiry. For a hunter, seeing fresh lion spoor was a quick indicator of danger. For somebody stopping in a wine shop on the way to a friend’s party, the price of a bottle is often an indicator of its quality, and so on.

    The last is often incorrect, but the hypothetical guest has no knowledge of wine, and no time to read reviews or ask experts. So he buys a $15 bottle rather than a $7 one, knowing that the consequences of a suboptimal choice are not severe.

    A label on a shirt is in indicator of quality, and the person’s ability to afford such (or to value quality). Much of this is subconscious, and has very little correlation to the actual wealth or trustworthiness of a person. But remember, it’s a choice between this very weak indicator, and none at all. And we have millenia of programming to look for indicators when we can’t, or don’t want to, collect more information.

  4. David Sims says:

    I can tell quality in clothing. I pick my shirts and socks according to fiber content and density of weave. If some brands are inferior, I soon identify which and begin avoiding them.

    For example, if you want a good cotton twill fishing hat, buy an Adams. Their denim color is the best. The 2.5-inch wide brims don’t droop the way some cotton hat’s brims do after you’ve crushed it, sat on it, put it in your pocket, slept while wearing it, gotten it wet, etc. Adams hat brims just keep on sticking out to the side like they are supposed to.

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