When in Doubt, We Fill in the Blanks


I passed this old street sign walking to the library yesterday afternoon. Even though it's missing four letters, the message is unambiguous. That's because our minds fill in the blanks based on the context. 

In fact, we do it all the time when faced with incomplete information. We fill the gaps with what we believe, what we want to believe, or what we hope to believe. 

Behavioral economist Dan Ariely makes this point brilliantly in this short video about online dating services. Hopeful daters fill in the blanks when reading prospective profiles, based on their positive inclinations: 

"If you say you like music, I not only think you like music, I think you like the same music as I do."

AIG learned this week that the same is true when people have negative predispositions. So when the story broke that the insurance giant was considering suing the government over the terms of its multi-billion-dollar bailout, no one came to the company's defense. (Certainly not Andy Borowitz.) 

Big = bad in the minds of many people, especially when it comes to banks and financial services firms. And no matter how much money these companies pump into advertising—"Thank You, America"—the public will fill in the blanks on their own.