Every time I drive to work, I have to pass through a gauntlet of three traffic lights that are timed just right for me to hit two reds in a row. Happens every time. The City sure is a bastard sometimes. Anyway, so when I gave up on trying to make it to that last light before it turns red, I decided to experiment with trying to make it to the last light just as it turns green. I now know that if I accelerate up to 25 mph and no higher, that I will be able to pass through the light just as it is turning green without slowing down.

Boring story, right? Here’s the catch: the speed limit on that stretch of road is 45 mph and it takes at least 45 seconds to get to the last light. That means there’s a span of about a minute during which I am driving 25 in a 45. The cars behind me hate it. They zoom past me only to infuriate me when the traffic line ahead of me has gotten long enough that I now have to break before I pass through the light (which defeats the whole purpose).

Almost every time, I experience a rush of emotion, an urgency to prove to them that I AM smart, that I AM going slowly for a reason. For a reason, you guys. So as soon as the light turns green, I fucking step on it, passing everyone who passed me before and showing them that I do not, in fact, commonly drive 25 in a 45.

Of course, I am keenly aware that I have some insecurities to process emotionally, but that wouldn’t even come up if I didn’t know that these people zooming past me think I’m a moron for driving so slowly. Although the desire comes from a place of imbalance, what I want is to show that that if they only assumed that I knew what I was doing, they’d learn something new.


Choosing the Simpler Explanation

Occam’s Razor: All things being equal, the simplest explanation is to be preferred.

– Someone whose name is not Occam.

When I was still in school working towards the philosophy professorship I no longer want, I was secretly obsessed with Occam’s Razor (and not so secretly obsessed with Warcraft III, but that’s beside the point). I don’t think I was aware of this back then, but in retrospect I see that my obsession had two basic motivations:

  1. Simplicity makes everything easier.
  2. There is no logical argument that can demonstrate that Occam’s Razor is true.

Occam’s Razor is a principle of simplicity (“parsimony” is the fancy word philosophers use) whose roots lie squarely in aesthetic. We think that the world ought to be simple because it would be much prettier if it were.

And why not? We are ultimately subjective beings who get to believe whatever we like, as long as our interpretation of the evidence available jives with our beliefs. Apparently, one of the things that human beings love to believe is that the simplest explanation is the true one. Since we can always interpret the available evidence to jive with this belief, there is no reason not believe it, right?

(You know that a problem is coming. You can tell by my language that I’m about to say “BUT…”)

BUT how do we interpret Occam’s Razor? What counts as the “simplest explanation?” Consider your workplace. If it is anything like my workplaces tend to be, you have dozens of co-workers whose actions may or may not make your life more difficult. Think of someone who is constantly screwing things up for you: doing things he’s not supposed to do even though he’s been told otherwise, misunderstanding everything anyone tells him, and simply violating common sense. In short, just think of someone you work with who fits all the qualifications of the term “stupid.” Alright, we’ll call this person Don (because I don’t think I work with a Don—and if I do, sorry man, I didn’t know about you). Just about everyone has a Don and I’m not exception.

So my question is this: Is your judgment that Don is stupid the simplest explanation? It’s okay, you can say “Yes.”


Hanlon’s Razor

I recently discovered a special case of Occam’s Razor, and one just as spuriously attributed, too. (Is there a Hanlon?) It goes like this:

Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.

– not Hanlon

While you may not think that Don is an asshole, maybe you think Harry is. Consider an alternative: perhaps Harry is just too stupid to be kind. My experience tells me that genuine malice is a rare phenomenon. I don’t know many people who in their heart of hearts act to intentionally hurt people without provocation. What my experience tells me is that most people who hurt other people either don’t realize they’re doing it or do it because hurting someone else is preferable to the alternative.

Everyone You Work With Is Smart

Most people I know think that calling GWB stupid rather than malicious is pretty damn generous.

In fact, Hanlon’s Razor appears to be pretty damn popular. From “Stupid People Suck” t-shirts to “Critical Thinking: The Other National Deficit” bumper stickers, the explanation is very popular. I’ve seen political right-wingers rave about the stupidity of political left-wingers, who then rave about the stupidity of political right-wingers. I’ve even seen two people I work with accuse each other of illiteracy because of misplaced groceries (I work at a grocery store, btw).

And that’s just it. Yes, it is true that I can’t think of a single genuinely malicious person that I know personally. But the number of genuinely stupid people I know is only marginally larger. That number is probably smaller than ten. And most of them wouldn’t be able to hold a job where I work because they can’t operate autonomously. Culturally speaking, we tend to assume other people are are stupid without any justification whatsoever. I, for example, have to fight an unconscious assumption that people who do not speak English are less intelligent thereby. Where did this ludicrous stereotype come from? I read an article just yesterday that informed us that prehistoric human beings were indeed intelligent. Why on Earth would we have ever thought otherwise?


Ignorant, Stupid, What’s the Difference?

Sometimes I’d like to think that people mean “unaware” when they say “stupid,” but I know better.

When we assert someone else’s stupidity, we are declaring a limitation to their capacity. Consider Alexandre Dumas’ attitude about the malicious and the stupid: “I prefer rogues to imbeciles, because rogues sometimes rest,” or common clichés such as “there is no cure for stupidity.” The common connotations of this word are clear: if you are stupid, you are stuck with it.

And insofar as we are placing an absolute limit on other people by claiming their stupidity, we are no better off assuming stupidity rather than malice.

Tennessee just passed an amendment to the state constitution that explicitly asserts that abortion is not protected under it. Lawmakers are now free to pass legislation that further limits the practice of abortion in Tennessee. As you can imagine, pro-lifers and pro-choicers are now at each other’s throats. The accusations that these opposing camps repeatedly lambaste each other with almost always reduce to one of two explanations: “You are immoral,” or “You are stupid.” Regardless of whether one explanation is more rationally feasible than another, the net effect is the same: Hanlon’s Razor or not, we tend to assume that other people cannot grow and learn.


We’re Dehumanizing Each Other

Everyone You Work With Is Smart

I don’t know who this guy is, but somehow he seems more real in color.

But we do grow and we do learn. When you look at someone else and see either a stupid person or a malicious person, you are looking at the person in black and white. Are you stupid? Are you malicious? I didn’t think so. When you assume these things about another person, you dehumanize them. You strip them of their ability to grow, to learn, to discover why you see things the way you do, to see why you are neither malicious nor stupid. You can even watch this psychic effect reverse itself when you look at old photos that have been colorized. Suddenly all those silly old people look real.

I can’t make you learn to look at other people as complete human beings with a fully developed sense of reason and a sound sense of morality.

But I can tell you that we are all ignorant, every one of us. And if we weren’t ignorant, we wouldn’t be able to learn and grow. There would be no room for it. I could plead with you to stop using “stupid” as an insult. I could even plead with you to stop using “evil” as an insult. And although I think it would be good practice to do so, “ignorant” is the far more likely candidate in any circumstance, so if you decide to remove value judgment from a word, please let it be “ignorant”.


The Simplest Explanation

So if you prefer the simpler explanation (and you do, whether you know it or not), then simple ignorance or lack of awareness is a far more likely candidate than either malice or stupidity.

And our buddy Don? Let me tell you about my Don. He has different values from me. He doesn’t take work especially seriously because he cares more about his family. He likes the comfort of repetition, of doing what he knows and not having a care in the world when he comes to work because there will be no surprises. He cares about other people far more than he cares about doing the specific job he was assigned. When he discovers others making mistakes, he complains about their stupidity, but he makes the exact same mistakes. He has his own sense of values and he adheres to them strongly, but he doesn’t understand how someone can have a different set of values.

If Don only chose to genuinely imagine how and why someone would approach life differently, he would suddenly seem so much more intelligent to me and everyone around him. But he doesn’t. I think he could. I think anyone who has a limited perspective is capable of broadening that perspective. In short, what is at stake here is awareness or mindfulness. Mindfulness demands a willingness to give others the benefit of the doubt. I call this “charitable interpretation.” If you assume that everyone you know is smart and means well, then you will be far more equipped to discover that they really are.

A more complete formulation of Hanlon’s Razor is in order:

Never assume malice when stupidity will suffice;
never assume stupidity when ignorance will suffice;
never assume ignorance when forgivable error will suffice;
never assume error when information you hadn’t adequately accounted for will suffice.


rwallace (a commenter on LessWrong.com, probably quoting someone else but I haven’t figured out who)


The Facebook Study

I could end this article here, but I’m not going to because you’re not convinced yet. That and there is a study that lends much more power to the concept of implementing the charitable interpretation. But bear with me, because the psychologists who performed this study had no intention for it to be used the way I’m using it.

This might be old news to you, but I just found out that in January 2012, a couple of psychologists from Cornell teamed up with Facebook to conduct an experiment designed to test emotional contagion. The researchers used a random sampling of about 700,000 users and hid content from their News Feeds for a week to see how they responded.

If you haven’t heard about this yet, then you might want to take a minute to express your anger that Facebook intentionally manipulated you. Just remember that it wouldn’t be the first time.

You good? Alright, let’s continue.

In order to measure emotional contagion (social spread of an emotion), the researchers identified positive and negative emotional content in users’ News Feeds and hid some positive emotional content from some and some negative emotional content from others (note that it was some content that was hidden and not all. Hiding all of anything would have made you suspicious). Then they measured the emotional content that the subjects of the study posted once their Feeds were altered. The study doesn’t really say how “positive emotional content” and “negative emotional content” are identified, but it appears that the researchers were using Facebook’s existing algorithm, so we’ll trust that it’s reasonably accurate. It also appears that they did not attempt to measure a “degree” of emotional expression, but merely identified posts as emotionally positive, emotionally negative or emotionally neutral.

Observe yon graph. A confusing one, isn’t it?

So what were the results?

On the left side of the graph, you see the data produced when negative emotional content is hidden from your feed. In response to this change you post more positive content and less negative content. Similarly, on the right side of the graph, you can see that hiding positive emotional content causes you to post more negative emotional content and less positive.

If your perception has become subtle enough, you’ll have noticed this pattern in your own life, so none of this should surprise you. It didn’t surprise me, anyway. But there is a surprise in here. Look at the bar graph on the top right of the image (the one with four bar graphs on it). That shows you the reduction in positive emotional language that you post when positive emotional language is hidden from you. The data indicate a significantly larger change from the control than any of the other three results.

So what does this mean? It means that your negative emotions are less responsive to the emotions of others than your positive emotions. Moreover, it also means that if you want to influence others positively it is more important to remember to express positive emotions than it is to remember not to express negative ones. (Tweet this.)


Your Attitudes Directly Impact Others

So we now know that the most profound effect of emotional contagion is that the less you express positively, the less others express positively. Absence of positive emotional expression is a gravity well of apathy.

What does this have to do with the idiots you work with?

When you dehumanize another person by projecting malice or stupidity upon her, you are removing the positive emotional layers that you would normally associate with a fully functional human being. You stop seeing her as a uniquely beautiful individual who has a perspective entirely foreign to yours. You stop recognizing the significance of her hopes and dreams, troubles and fears. When you dehumanize another person, you are stepping into the gravity well of apathy.

But you aren’t just dehumanizing her.

Think of your Don. He’s an idiot, right? And you can’t stand idiots. But even if Don is an idiot, he’s much more than that. He’s got a mother with major health problems, and even though it can’t be much longer before she meets her maker, he loves her and he does his very best for her. He smiles. And he listens if you’ve got something on your mind—he doesn’t listen well, but he tries. That’s my Don, but yours is a human being too. Maybe he’s always angry or his mind is never on his work. But why is he angry? Who does he care about? Who cares about him? And where are the wounds that has made him so guarded? Maybe you don’t care about the answers to these questions. And that’s my point: You’re not malicious and you’re not evil. There are just things you’re not aware of. But, as I said earlier, we’re all a little ignorant.

However, in the gravity well of apathy, the things you fail to appreciate about other people become true. The more you fail to see Don’s ability to think critically, or to sympathize with others, or even to be courteous, the more likely it becomes that Don will in fact fail to do these things. Why? Because your unconscious mind communicates what your conscious mind tries to hide. You are always communicating everything you think, believe, feel, and want, whether you know it or not. And others are always picking up on that signal, whether they know it or not. While you might be able to hide your uncharitable thoughts and feelings about others from their conscious awareness, you cannot stop it from affecting them unconsciously.

So if you learn to see strengths and virtues in others, you will become an active participant in bringing those virtues out to the surface. When you begin to see that each human being is a jewel, you will discover that your uplifting words are the chisel in hand with which you may knock loose the rock and grime that hide the jewel.


Your Inner World Is Also Subject to Emotional Contagion

Now apply this to your inner world, your inner monologue (which is not a monologue but a group meeting, BTW). The less you open yourself to positive inner expression about anything, whether it’s yourself, others, or your burning love for Tom Selleck’s moustache, the less inclined you will be to actually experience positive emotions. So watch out for the gravity well of apathy. Congratulating yourself for an accomplishment isn’t silly. Taking time to admire yourself isn’t vain. Being gentle with yourself when you fail isn’t pandering. These things matter and the Facebook study shows you how they do.

Lets extend this to a general principle, call it the Principle of Emotional Impressionability: The absence that you interpret in the world induces the same absence within you.

In the gravity well of apathy, the absence you interpret in others becomes the absence within you. So when you interpret that others are incapable of normal human growth by accepting that they are either malicious or stupid, you are encouraging your own incapacity for normal human growth. When you say “You are this. You will never be any more than this,” you are also accepting “I am this. I will never be any more than this.” If you want to feel the emotions, the sensations, the sheer joy of growing, of shedding the old you and embracing the new you, then you have to learn how to recognize this in others. Because if you don’t, you’ll be far more likely to sink into the gravity well of apathy.

So remember: Everyone you work with means well. Everyone you work with is smart. Everyone you work with has expertise that you probably don’t even know about. If you don’t already believe this, I strongly recommend that you learn how to.

Photo by Peter Tittenberger