Just as most people with cars will tell you they are better than average drivers, I suspect most of us believe we are pretty good at knowing others: estimating their worth, determining their reliability, pegging their level of integrity.
Not so fast. Some of those confident in their capacity to size-up friends and strangers are poor at it, in my estimation. Here are a few of their (and our) possible errors:
- Believing people are motivated in the identical way we are. This amounts to the expectation that you can judge another’s intentions and actions by asking the question, “What would I do in his shoes?”
- The tendency to discard important evidence about personality. I wish I had a million dollars for every time a female patient uttered, “Oh, he wouldn’t do that to ME.” The action they referred to was a betrayal, almost always sexual. The man, of course, had already revealed a history of infidelity. Call this willful blindness by the unlucky lady.
- Sticking with a wrong opinion. Some of us are slow to revise a long-standing error. Even if our original measure of an individual is right, we are in danger of failing to register subtle changes morphing him into something less honorable. One might also miss the ripening of a condemned personality into someone sweeter. It is as if, once done labeling, we are free to put our brains asleep. Richard Posner, a public intellectual and judge, rightly asks the question, “If we sentence a 21-year-old man to life in prison, are we still punishing the same man when he is 71?”
- The difficulty of thinking psychologically, Part I. Most of us base our understanding on surface impressions. A plausible explanation of a person’s behavior “makes sense.” Freud knew better. Actions can be determined by multiple motivations. Many of those are unconscious. A quick acceptance of a single reason to explain the world risks simplifying the complex.
- The difficulty of thinking psychologically, Part II. In observing others we tend to assume a personality is something objective, like pulse or blood pressure or height. Might it be more accurate to think of mental makeup as a creation of our perception, a combination of what we encounter in the other and how we interpret what we encounter? To a significant extent we translate our experience of a man, his words and actions, filling in the many blanks with our history of similar persons and a few educated guesses. Much is lost in translation. This is usually done without careful study, no training, by instinct. How else might you account for the neighbor of an ax-murderer telling the TV reporter he appeared to be a good guy?
- We tend to believe the best of members of our in-group and those we are attracted to.
- We tend to believe the worst of those we dislike, members of an out-group, and people against whom we compete. They become stereotypes.
- The influence of the opinions communicated by friends, relatives, and co-workers. Research demonstrates we are influenced by group opinions even if asked to estimate which of several straight lines is the longest, discounting what our senses tell us if the rest of those present offer different answers. We do not form judgments in a vacuum. Millions of advertising dollars are spent on attempts to modify thought and action — yours and mine.
- We believe people will behave in the same way regardless of the situation. Few of us observe even our best friends in a variety of circumstances. We don’t watch them preparing their tax forms, at work, or facing a moral dilemma. Courage is in short supply. Not everyone can resist taking a surreptitious unfair advantage. Self-interest is a powerful motivator and easily rationalized. Evidence for this opinion is to be found in the large number of political candidates who throw in their lot with a yahoo-like scoundrel and justify it by loyalty to their party.
- Expecting others to be consistent and whole, all good or all bad. Again, public office-seekers provide the example. They are flawed, as are we. Yet there is the tendency to understand people globally, as undifferentiated and organically whole: honest or dishonest, virtuous or criminal, black or white. The best person on earth has secrets, has made mistakes, and will make more. No man deserves a halo, but many benefit from a halo effect or are harmed by its opposite.
- Our limited perspective. We experience everyone from a unique view point: through our eyes and our buzzing brains. The reason pollsters sample large groups is because any one person doesn’t reflect everyone’s opinion. We bring to our understanding of life a very particular set of experiences and beliefs that shade and transform all we think and observe.
- A tendency to judge others more harshly than ourselves. “I wouldn’t have done what he did” is easy enough to say (and thus condemn) because we are not in the identical situation as the one being judged. “He should have known she was no good” is an opinion lacking knowledge of all the history, emotion, and experience which might explain a failure to “know.” Meanwhile, automatic psychological defenses blind us to our own foibles.
- The shifting perspective created by aging. How can a 20-year-old fully understand a 40-year-old? How can a sixty-year-old understand a 20-year-old? Not only do these people have the advantage or disadvantage of years, but of times. Life today is not what it was in the ’50s or ’60s or ’90s. Time machines cannot take you forward and back with appropriate adjustments of your age.
- Transference. Transference is not limited to the counselor’s consulting room. It is like a mistaken identity. While we might have feelings for the therapist derived from our relationship to a parent, we can also react this way to a stranger or friend, a lover or a boss. They too may remind us unconsciously of some other past human contact and reproduce many of the sensations and emotions evoked by the original person.
- The intentionally misleading quality of public faces. Humans try to make themselves “presentable,” just as a gift, an award, or an object of art is better looking when dusted off, retouched, and nicely framed — now suitable for viewing. X-ray vision through and beyond the public face is unavailable, Superman excepted.
- The influence of our off-kilter emotions. Here is an example of how feelings can distort our estimation of another. An insecure person prone to injury by a word or a look is more likely to believe the other harbors a negative attitude toward him, thus overestimating his neighbor’s dark side.
Though subject to the foibles just described, I nonetheless possess considerable experience (personal and professional) in trying to understand others. If I am better than most in making those judgments, I am far from perfect. To whatever extent I can demonstrate success, it is because I benefited from large data sets for thousands of patients with whom I spent many hours. They offered information often not provided to those closest to them. I received instruction in the manner of asking questions, analyzing the answers, administering and interpreting psychological tests, formal education, and supervision. And still I am not perfect.
We do our best, therapists or not, to hone the observational knife to the point of precise dissection of another personality. Or we do it casually — all too confident — and don’t look back. No one, however, gets a complete grasp of the social world. To do that we would have to be both inside the other and outside of him, combining the perspectives of those who know him best and those who are more distant — like a baseball game viewed from different angles by multiple cameras.
A 24/7 off-the-field videographer might help too, making his visual record during all the hours before and after the contest, even when our subject is asleep. We would also need to speak with our subject’s lover, children, business partners, garbage man, and valet, if he has one. Not to mention the person who does his laundry.
And there is the rub, my friend. Not even your therapist wishes to know everything about you.
Are YOU Playing Square? is a World War II poster of the Office for Emergency Management (Office of War Information). It requires a bit of explanation. During World War II the US government created rationing and price controls on certain commodities. This was done to ensure that the people at home faced no shortages, while the armed forces were themselves well-supplied. Nonetheless, a black market existed in which one could get more than one’s proper share of a rationed commodity by paying an inflated price. Thus, “playing (fair) and square” meant respecting the rules, not participating in the black market. The poster is meant to suggest that cheating undermined the war effort and thereby endangered the soldier pictured. The second image of Wisdom is the work of Matt Lawler. Both of these pictures were sourced from Wikimedia Commons.