When I’m writing one of these posts it is difficult to edit them in such a way as to convey my meaning clearly to those without the background I share. I’m not talking about scientific or technical background though, I mean the background that allows me access to my own thoughts. When I re-read my writing I know what I mean so the combination of my own thoughts and the words I have written combine to create a coherent whole. Others however may perceive a hopeless confused mess, words missing, key concepts poorly explained even the underlying theme being unclear (stick with me I’ll explain where this is going in a minute).

It is obvious to the point of absurdity to state it out loud that we can only know our own thoughts and not those of others. However this simple fact leads to consequences that are not so obvious in our day-to-day experience. Aware as we are of our own internal experience we can use these to modify our perception of our own actions but we must judge others purely on what we can see of their actions. This can lead us to attribute actions by others to malice whereas we would attribute it to circumstances out of our control if performed by ourselves.

For example, if I am caught up at work with a problem that leads me to be late home without calling I will see that as being beyond my control and therefore acceptable. However if my partner does the same then I may attribute this to insensitivity and therefore it becomes unacceptable behaviour. My simple inability to fully place myself into the mind of another person has just created a conflict.

Similarly if we encounter a point of view that does not align with our own we tend to see those people as being biased while we are objective.In fact we are all biased in our perceptions, it is merely the accident that we experience our thoughts directly that leads us to discount how much influence that bias exerts over us. In contrast we must infer the thoughts of others by how they behave (or what they say). Given we cannot truly know the intentions behind acts or words we might correctly perceive bias in others while at the same time ignoring it in ourselves.

How about some more examples to illustrate these points? From the review article by Emily Pronin (Associate Professor of Psychology at Stanford University and contributor to The Situationist blog) on this subject:

“People’s lack of awareness of the processes that shape and distort their perceptions leads them to view those perceptions as objective. In one study, participants considered a male and a female candidate for a police-chief job and then assessed whether being “streetwise” or “formally educated” was more important for the job. The result was that participants favored whichever background they were told the male candidate possessed (e.g., if told he was “streetwise,” they viewed that as more important). Participants were completely blind to this gender bias; indeed, the more objective they believed they had been, the more bias they actually showed [E. Uhlmann, G. L. Cohen,  Psychol. Sci. 16, 474 (2005)].”

Here’s how our miss-attribution of motives can have social consequences:

“college students often forgo trying to make friends with students of other races (even though they would like to be friends) because they interpret those others’ lack of trying as indicating lack of interest [J. N. Shelton, J. A. Richeson, J. Pers. Soc. Psychol. 88, 91 (2005)].”

“People may be less inclined to project their own mental states (for example, their objectivity) onto those whose views are dissimilar. In such cases, people may instead judge others according to stereotypes or lay theories about humans “in general” (e.g., “Given the opportunity, people will be self-serving.”) [R. Saxe, Trends Cogn. Sci. 9, 174 (2005), D. R. Ames, J. Pers. Soc. Psychol. 87, 340 (2004)].”

In fact we can also apply this to how we think about ourselves when we consider our past and future selves. We have the same inability to have direct access to the thoughts of ourself in the future as we do for the thoughts of others:

“In one study, people were faced with the prospect of drinking a murky mix of soy sauce, ketchup, and water for the benefit of science (the more they drank the better, the experimenter explained, because she was studying “disgust”). When deciding how much to drink right then, participants chose about two tablespoons; when deciding how much to drink at a future session, they chose about half a cup-the same amount they chose for a peer [E. Pronin, C. Y. Olivola, K. A. Kennedy, Pers. Soc. Psychol.Bull. 34, 224  (2008)].”

To sum up, it can be tempting to view ourselves as more virtuous and less biased than those around us but we must remember that this is a consequence of our psychology and not necessarily a true reflection of reality. Given the choice we should be as charitable as possible when ascribing motives to others whose actions and views we may not share, if we do then they might afford us the same courtesy. (oh and forgive any typos by bloggers who might be oblivious to their own failings, I’m just sayin’)

Pronin E (2008). How we see ourselves and how we see others. Science (New York, N.Y.), 320 (5880), 1177-80 PMID: 18511681

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