Thursday, January 30, 2014

On the Sad Human Tendency to Judge People Based Solely on their Worst Moments

Here’s an exercise:

I want you to recollect the most thoughtless or insensitive words you’ve ever said; or the stupidest or most embarrassing thing you’ve ever done; or the angriest outburst you’ve ever had.

Really, do it.  It shouldn’t take long.  Those moments are typically easy to recall, because we tend to be ashamed of them and they’re therefore imprinted indelibly in our memories.

Now imagine that someone managed to record that atypical instant of your very worst behavior, and has posted it on the Internet.  And now, everyone who has never met you and knows nothing of you — which is to say, outside a tiny circle of friends and family, the entire world — knows you only through that recording, and is gaining a first impression of you via the worst moment you’ve ever had.  The whole world is judging you based solely on that one instant of atypical bad behavior, bad behavior of which you’re already ashamed and wish you could do something, anything, to retract.

Are people forming accurate impressions of you?  Do you feel you’re being treated fairly? Reasonably?

I can’t imagine there’s anyone who would answer any of the preceding questions, “Yes.” So then why do so many people instantly and reflexively judge the totality of a stranger based on a single reported instance of the stranger’s behavior?

I can think of various reasons that might apply case-by-case, but my guess is that the overall explanation for individual such acts of condemnation is self-pleasure through sanctimony.  Sanctimony, contempt, dudgeon, umbrage, outrage… all are among the most self-pleasuring emotions available to humans.  This alone should render them the least trustworthy.  But for many people, the insidious high delivered by, say, a solid hit of dudgeon is too alluring an opportunity to pass up.

Now let’s talk about condemnation mobs.  Have you ever ginned up or joined a dudgeon mob on Twitter or elsewhere on the Internet?  Have a look at the video below, depicting the Two Minutes Hate from the movie version of Nineteen Eighty-Four.  Do you see any similarities between this and some of the wildfire denunciations you sometimes see flaring up (and that perhaps you’ve been part of) on the Internet?  Is it possible George Orwell was depicting not just some fictional behavior peculiar to a certain dystopic novel, but was instead expressing a profound insight into an ugly and universal human tendency?

What’s behind the mob behavior?  My guess is, it has to do with an innate human hatred of the feeling of powerlessness and concomitant attraction to things that make us feel powerful (think vengeance and torture and other such behaviors that logic can’t do much to explain).  It’s the pleasure brought on by a surge of empowerment.  You see someone you typically perceive as higher status or otherwise more powerful than yourself; that person is suddenly vulnerable; you have the force of overwhelming numbers and passion on your side; the typically more powerful person is suddenly less powerful, and the person with the power is you!  It’s a rush.  And who doesn’t love a good rush?

Part of what’s involved in the instant condemnation reflex (group or singleton) is something known as the Fundamental Misattribution Error.  Here’s how it works:

I’m driving along the highway, minding my own business, and I change lanes.  But oh shit, somehow I didn’t see how quickly the car I just moved in front of was approaching, and he had to apply the brakes as a result of my move.  It was just a careless, innocent, and essentially harmless mistake on my part; I certainly didn’t intend to cut the guy off, and I would have waited if I’d seen him.  How do I know all this?  Because I have direct access to my own thoughts and I know my behavior in the context of my whole life, which includes such information as I’m a nice and courteous person and generally a careful driver, and if I do something rude, it’s always an accident and I would apologize for it if I could.

The other guy, though, has access to none of this context.  The only thing he knows about me is that I just did something rude to him.  And he’s a good person.  Courteous, careful, etc.  If someone does something rude to a courteous, careful, worthy-of-respect good person, the rude person must ipso facto be an asshole.

So… he rolls down the window, races ahead, and cuts in front of me, flipping me the bird on the way.  Which he knows I deserve, because he’s already figured out I’m an asshole.

You can see the rest:  now I’m thinking, What?  I made a dumb, harmless mistake; I’m a good person; and he’s flipping me off?  He must be an asshole!  And I act accordingly.

Etc.  Each person perceiving himself with the greatest possible knowledge and context, and reducing the other person to the only thing he knows about the other person, which is that the other person just did something bad to a good person.  I understand my own behavior in the context of character; the other guy’s behavior is his character.

I’ve written about this before (Dudgeon is Easy; Understanding, Hard; also And Why Beholdest Thou The Mote In Thy Brother's Eye...?).  What put me in mind of it recently was the crazy mob reaction to an after-game video interview with Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman (I actually don’t know anything about sports, but I do follow The New Yorker’s Amy Davidson), plus some people going after a friend of mine on a list serv for a long-ago stupid thing my friend had said.  What made me want to write about the topic again, though, wasn’t the interview as such, or what the list serv people were saying; it was that, in my anger at how unfairly the list serv people were treating my friend, I wound up resorting to sarcasm.  And then realized:  I was falling into the very trap I was trying to get them to understand -- treating them as though they were unworthy of respect just because of one unfortunate series of comments they were making.

I’m not much on religion, but there are two bible passages I think are profound, timelessly relevant — and almost universally ignored except via lip service. These are, of course:

Let he who is without sin cast the first stone


The mote and the beam

They're really worth thinking about.  Everybody knows them, but how often are they applied?

Everybody knows the instinct to judge the entirety of a person based on one stupid mistake while ignoring everything else he or she has ever said or done is ungenerous; the conclusion, almost inevitably caricatured or otherwise inaccurate; the practice, innately hypocritical because anyone on the receiving end of such treatment would find it wildly unfair.  I’m hoping this post will serve as a handy link we can forward to others when they slip up — or that people will remind me of when I do.


Frank Zafiro said...

So true. Conflict is so rarely about a difference regarding the objective facts, but more often about a difference in perspective and a corresponding failure to communicate enough to understand those differences.

I worked for twenty years in law enforcement, from street cop to command staff, and you better believe I saw this phenomenon at work, both inside and outside the agency.

The sad part about the human experience is that often the negative actions/reactions are the easiest, and they are habit forming. So instead of failing to jump to conclusions, we leap away. Instead of giving someone the benefit of their intent, we assume the worst.

Very astute entry, sir. I know the comment area is usually for discussion and disagreement on most blogs, and the "Yeah, that's right!" comments are generally not impactful, but I am doing so anyway...because that's how strongly I agree with this one, and how accurately and powerfully I believe you've hit the mark.

Frank Scalise aka Frank Zafiro

Steve said...

Enjoyed ths post. Your example hit the spot. Living in Germany and driving on the Autobahns, I've had it happen to me many times. I mumble sorry and raise a hand when finally passed. Things happen. I hope lots of folks read this and think about what you said.

Anonymous said...

I actually started my drive to work today thinking...I'm not going to get angry or call a single person an asshole on my entire 40 minute trip. I failed. The post was a perfect thing for me to see today. Thank you!

Unknown said...

Needed perspective Barry.

Also of note - your line that goes: "I actually don’t know anything about sports, but I do follow The New Yorker’s Amy Davidson" had me laughing out lout.

For me it's, I don't know anything about numbers, but I do follow Nate Silver.


demosophist said...

"I can’t imagine there’s anyone who would answer any of the preceding questions, “Yes.” So then why do so many people instantly and reflexively judge the totality of a stranger based on a single reported instance of the stranger’s behavior?

I can think of various reasons that might apply case-by-case, but my guess is that the overall explanation for individual such acts of condemnation is self-pleasure through sanctimony. "

You are really very very close, but you follow the false lead of "power." It's more like by condemning someone else your own complicity and wrongdoing is diminished in scale are completely expunged. Also, if the victim can be made to seem the very epitome of evil then the members of the crowd can create togetherness and unity, or community. The mob murder of a surrogate victim is the very foundation of culture, so it isn't a once-in-awhile thing. The book of Job and the show trials in the USSR are not unrelated phenomena.

demosophist said...

Also, your example put me in mind of the character in Notes from Underground, whose animus is launched when a military dandy picks him up and moves him out of the way. He is, no doubt, offended by the action but it's not because he judges the officer as "an asshole." It's because he envies the officer, and his schoolmates, and anyone who doesn't take notice of him. Or more to the point he isn't "self interested" so much as pridefully "other-interested." And that's the modern problem. That's why Dostoevsky is so prophetic about the conditions of a modern world dominated by "internal mediation."

"Who is the third who walks always beside you?
When I count, there are only you and I together
But when I look ahead up the white road
There is always another one walking beside you
Gliding wrapt in a brown mantle, hooded
I do not know whether a man or a woman
--But who is that on the other side of you?" - T. S. Eliot, The Waste Land