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I enter the elevator in the building where I keep an office. I tap the access card to the sensor and press 3R. There is a strong odor of cigarette smoke. So strong that it’s reasonable to wonder if the smoking had taken place in the elevator. I assume the culprit is part of the construction team that has been remodeling an office on our floor. They use the elevator a lot. I quickly realize I’m hurtling to this conclusion and that there must also be other explanations. It takes me no time to come up with two other possible scenarios. (I now possibly owe an apology to a mystery smoker I’ll never meet.)

Symbols and their associations, whether accurate or not, are powerful in shaping our thoughts. Part of the stereotype of a construction worker is that they are more likely to smoke. While it’s true that construction workers smoke more than the average person, the vast majority of construction workers don’t smoke. Still, it’s obvious we pay attention to symbols and associations. Look at our language.

“I enjoy going the driving range when my friend invites me, but that’s about it. I’m just not really a golf kind of guy.”

“I’d rather watch it on Netflix. I’m not really a movie theater person.”

We talk about Starbucks people and Dunkin’ people.

Apple people and everybody else.

There are truck people and there are ride share folks.

There are people who vaccinate their children and people who don’t.

All of these project specific mental images and I’m not giving you a lot to work with. But you’re having no trouble filling in the blanks. It’s what we do. And we do it automatically. There are all kinds of people and we are lazily guided into assuming all sorts of other things about them based on very little information. And I think it’s healthy to remind ourselves of this so that we don’t get too removed from the knowledge of the forces that stir our intentions.


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