We shouldn’t assume that we know other people’s motives and character based on limited data (and it’s almost always limited)

I have a long and very important letter to write today (I haven’t been this nervous about writing something since college), so I’m going to keep this relatively short, but I did want to write something, at least.  It’s on a subject that troubles me quite a bit, that apparent tendency—at least on social media—for people to act as if they were telepathic or clairvoyant regarding other people’s motives and thoughts.

It happens so easily, and probably without much thought (probably without much ill-intent).  We see a post or declaration, or a political or social statement, and we infer from it all sorts of things about the source’s character, intentions, and morality.  It’s remarkable that we imagine we’re so good at such interpretations, since most of us very rarely have any idea what our own motivations and deeper thoughts are.  It’s apparently true that often we can recognize by facial expression and body language how our friends and colleagues are feeling more clearly than they recognize it themselves, but this is broad and crude.  Recognizing that someone is sad or angry before they realize it themselves doesn’t give us any reason to think we know why someone is sad or angry.

Yet if a person posts a meme supportive of the Second Amendment—or conversely, one supportive of stricter gun control—those who see this meme often seem to draw far-reaching conclusions, straw-manning the person and their supposed motivations.  The sharer must be a right-wing, racist, homophobic, misogynistic, anti-government bigot, say; or alternatively, they must be a “regressive leftist,” communist, SJW, crusading vegan, who wants to emasculate all men.

How many people in the world would meet those descriptions accurately?  There are probably a few—there are a lot of people in the world, after all, and the Gaussian is broad.  But surely, most people don’t honestly fit into any such broad stereotypes.

Of course, maybe I’m making my own error by guessing that people perform such acts of unwarranted attribution based on limited statements and data.  Maybe I’m straw-manning the people online.  Certainly, there are many to whom I’m being unjust—or would be if I were thinking of them.  But mostly, I’m thinking of the people who respond to trolling and counter-trolling, and the ones who take part in internet-based debates that rapidly, or immediately, degenerate into name-calling matches of which most six-year-olds would be ashamed.

I wonder how people can feel comfortable engaging in such interactions on a regular basis.  Perhaps the anonymity, or pseudo-anonymity, of the online world helps people let slip their baser natures more easily.  We are free from the subtle cues of body language and expression that, as I stated above, give us a sense of how our interlocutor feels.  Also, the nearly-automatic echo-chamber effect of social media tends to reinforce our sense of identity as a member of a particular group, and that leads us to be more inclined to react to perceived outsiders as enemies—this is probably both defensive and a matter of “virtue-signaling,” or what would probably be better understood as tribe-signaling.  We are declaring to those in our tribe that we are members in good standing, and thus should remain welcome.

A similar phenomenon might be behind why a lot of people, many of whom don’t honestly subscribe to the tenets of their stated religion, continue to go church (or mosque, or synagogue, or whatever) on a regular basis.  They demonstrate not their actual beliefs, but that they are committed members of the tribe.

This is, I suppose, often relatively harmless.  But it is anathema to honest discourse.  And it’s only through honest discourse (as far as I can see) that we can come to an ever-improving model of the world, to come nearer to truth and understanding.  We can see how tribalism and partisanship, a reflexive judgmentalism and name-calling, has poisoned much of our political system, creating deadlocks even in a government currently dominated by a single political party.  Nothing gets done—or at least very little does—when those involved are just trying to demonstrate their “virtue” by assailing those on the other side.  At least, it seems like that’s what they’re doing.  Maybe I’m misjudging.

I don’t know what the fix for this tribalism is; it seems to be something innate in the human character.  But it’s surely not the only thing, or we would never have created modern civilization.  Perhaps a place to start, a small step, would be for us to try to curtail our instinct to lead or to respond with accusation and insult.  If we think we know someone else’s motives, we should stop and think again before believing ourselves.  If we want to bring a point of criticism to their attention, instead of reflexively spewing, “It’s gross!  It’s racist!” we might start by saying, “I don’t know what your intentions are here, but when you say something like that, it comes across—to me at least—as racist.  Is that what you wanted?”

I don’t know if that will work better or not, but I’d love to see the experiment tried on a large scale.  In the meantime, remember, just because you infer something doesn’t mean that it was actually implied.

2 thoughts on “We shouldn’t assume that we know other people’s motives and character based on limited data (and it’s almost always limited)”

  1. The key phrase is ‘social media’ where there is no real requirement to know a person and ‘anonymity’ or the lack of any real ‘face to face’ interaction emboldens people. At this point I think we can safely chock this up to human nature. There is a song titled “If Everyone Cared” by that well hated Canadian band whose name I will not utter here. I see that song one among many of a long line of ‘what ifs’ that life tosses headlong in our minds from time to time.

    Your perspective is a thoughtful one but also flawed as human nature is flawed. You cite “An ever improving model of the world”. By whose perspective would this model be created? This type of thinking reminds me of something a long time ago, my old friend. Where the 4 horsemean were to ride out and change the world to the way they wanted it to be. Well, that would not be what many might think as evolution or improvement. Most of us can quickly decide if we like something or not. But there are a lot of people who say they disagree or that they don’t like something, not because they honestly do. But rather because they want and often need to disagree.

    A point that is so true and honest and good that it makes disagreeing absurd would still bring forth dissenting opinions and disagreements on social media do to this ever evolving inner exigency and need for people to be critical and cynical and difficult.


    1. I think you make good points. I would say that a crucial part of trying to seek an ever improving model of the world. especially considering the fallibility of human nature, is to keep that model CONSTANTLY open to principled criticism and revision from any and all comers, at also to constant challenging of what is actually the good. Even if all those criticisms turn out to be wrong, this would make us that much surer in our understanding of the truth we seek…but never, in principle, absolutely sure. It may be that the only truth that we can ever know FOR CERTAIN is our individual “I think therefore I am.” Everything else is provisional–in principle–though many things are good enough for all practical purposes.

      They key point I’m making in this post is just that, if one approaches another person’s point of view as if they are assumed to be the enemy (and evil, at that), they will reflexively assume that role…even if they might otherwise have been open to reasoned discussion. I like the expression in the Tao te Ching (the Stephen Mitchell version) that points out that a “Master” does not go into battle with hatred or malice, for he knows that his enemies are not demons, but men, much like himself.

      The point about anonymity of social media is one of the crucial ones (though that doesn’t explain why politics is so uncivil). We all need to be reminded every now and then of that Tao te Ching reminder of the humanity even of those with whom we strongly disagree.

      And, of course, we can all try to steel ourselves not to respond too often to the trolls who are just exercising some unwholesome need to, as you say, be critical and cynical and difficult. If we had world enough, and time, it might be worth engaging them, but given the limits of our lives, its better for us to pick our intellectual engagements more carefully, and to engage in them as politely and thoughtfully as possible.


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