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11 Probable Reasons For The Strange Behavior Of Others

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11 Probable Reasons For The Strange Behavior Of Others

The fastest way to get beyond “Oh they’re just…” justifications

Why is he so fat?
Why is she so anxious?
Why do they show up late?
Why are they so unreceptive?

We are all folk psychologists. We have to be. All organisms adapt to fit their environments. We’re highly social beings so our environment is mostly other people. We invest a lot in interpreting one another’s psychological behavior.

Still, we’re notoriously bad at interpreting even-handedly. Whether for cognitive or motivated reasons, we suffer from attribution bias, the tendency to explain other people’s failings as character flaws and our failings as a function of circumstances:

My sentence, if I had my druthers
Would be different from that of my brother’s
No proof need be shown:
Their faults are their own,
But me, I’m a victim of others.

It’s not easy to overcome attribution bias by a sheer act of will. There’s another approach I find works better:

Before you judge, inventory the range of possible explanations for people’s apparently strange behavior. Here I’ll apply this approach to explain why Max is fatter and Jean is more anxious than you:

  1. Appetite: Max desires food more intensely than you do. Jean is compelled to err on the side of caution more than you are.
  2. Internal consequences: Max’s metabolism is slower than yours. Food makes him fatter more readily. Jean has higher sensitivity than you do. A little trigger sends her anxieties through the roof.
  3. Self-control: Max has weaker willpower about eating than you do. Jean’s power to override her emotions is weaker than yours.
  4. Means: Max has plenty of money for food. Jean has plenty of time to worry.
  5. Access to supply: Max has regular access to fattening foods. Jean has much to worry about.
  6. Rewards: Food is more ecstatically rewarding for Max than it is for you. Worrying aloud calms Jean more than it calms you.
  7. Short-term costs: Eating a lot doesn’t make Max as uncomfortable as it does you. Jean’s friends don’t give her a hard time about her anxious talk.
  8. Long-term costs: Max is already old so the life-shortening effects of overeating aren’t a concern. Jean won’t lose friends by expressing her anxieties.
  9. Time horizon:  Max and Jean have a shorter time horizon than you do. They don’t pay much attention to long-term consequences.
  10. History: Max grew up poor and never had enough to eat. Jean had a very traumatic childhood and hasn’t gotten over it.
  11. Substitutes: Max has few other ways to have fun. He has little to do with his day other than eat. Jean has little to distract her from her anxieties.

A few tips about applying this approach:

  • The inventory applies equally well to traits you like and don’t like.
  • The list is complicated. Applying it takes work that we tend to avoid by saying “Oh, it’s easily explained as just this.”
  • The best explanation can be a combination. We never do anything for just one reason; it never has just one effect.
  • Obviously, some factors in the inventory won’t apply.
  • Inventory neutrally; then judge. Don’t judge and then inventory.
  • Inventorying involves guesswork. You work from what evidence you have, and it’s always possible you’ve guessed wrong.
  • When it’s someone whose choices have inescapable consequences for you, judging is a practical necessity. You have to figure out how to deal with the strange behavior—whether to accommodate, push, or try to distance yourself from it, either by taking psychic space or leaving. You’ll use your judgment as motivation for whatever choice you make about how to deal with the behavior.
  • Try to honor other people’s assessment of your behavior too. Don’t assume you can override their assessment by authoritatively justifying your behavior.

[Jeremy Sherman]

Vital stats: Berkeley, 57, partnered, three children (M34, M28, F24), married once for 17 years. Educationally: Ph.D. in evolutionary theory, masters in public policy Vocationally: MBA professor of strategic foresight, business consultant and communications trainer, academic researcher. Historically: I've taught over 250k college-student/hours in psychology, sociology, rhetoric, philosophy, advertising, economics, history, English, cultural studies, marketing and strategy. I founded a non-profit environmental lobbying organization in DC, worked as a business consultant and public affairs director for large companies, ran a foundation, designed and implemented water projects in Guatemala. For seven years I lived on the world's largest hippie commune, and was an elected elder there at 24. Authority: None. I never refer to myself as an expert in anything, but rather a specialist in those questions that interest me (see below). I write with no authority. I read lots but cite rarely in my articles which should be read as opinion pieces, not declaration of scientifically proven fact. I will not pull rank on readers: My ideas are only worth considering only if they're based on good reasoning. I change my ideas over time. Caveat emptor. They say "don't believe everything you think. I'll go one further: I don't believe everything I write, in that for every argument I make, I aim to be able to express convincingly the counterargument. I try to live by the F. Scott Fitzgerald quote: "The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function." Self-expressively: I've written over 600 articles for Psychology Today, coined over 400 psychology neologisms. I write songs and limericks. I play bass and sing in jazz, Latin, funk, and Nigerian groups three nights a week. Intellectually, yet intimately, my middle-age spread spans several life-sized questions. * Most cosmically, how did mattering emerge from matter?, life from non-life? mind from chemistry? economics from physics? information from energy, questions I address as a member of a 16 year research project with UC Berkeley scientist Terrence Deacon. * More practically, though not unrelated, how do and how should we shop among interpretations, deciding what's significant and how to respond to what life deals us? * Also practically and related, what is a butthead other than someone we butt heads with? since in a free society we should define morals negatively--not what you should, but what you shouldn't do. We say "don't be a butthead," but define buttheads subjectively as people we butt heads with. I seek a more objective distinction between what's morally in and out of bounds. * How do and should we balance the ambigamist's tensions and what is the underlying structure of such tensions? For this I use the Serenity Prayer as a template, and think about levels of analysis (going meta). I've written five books, only one published but the rest out soon one way or another. Negotiate with yourself and win: Doubt management for people who can hear themselves think. Purpose: A natural history Doubt: A user's guide; a natural history Mind readers dictionary: Terms for reading between the lines with greater comprehension. Executive UFO: A field guide to unidentified flying objectives in the workplace.

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