All-Or-Nothing Judgments About Ourselves and Others Are a Bad Idea

Everybody knows that Joseph Stalin was infamous as “the Butcher” who directed the slaughter of 25 million people during his reign, but who knows that he would regularly and lovingly spend hour after hour with his daughter, Svetlana, listening to German art songs on the Victrola?

Everybody knows that George Washington was the heroic “Father of Our Country” who led the United States to independence from British rule, but who knows that he willfully violated the Constitution in 1791 by signing off on the founding of the First Bank of the United States—making the regular work of the government into an enterprise from which private bankers could make a profit?

Such facts are inconvenient for us, as they make it hard to bundle our ideas about people into tidy little packages.  We are suckers for over-generalizing.  Most of us do it every day—again and again.  We hate that “other” political party for violating the Constitution, yet not everything they do is evil and not everything they do is against the Constitution.  Yet it’s easier to oversimplify the matter, vilifying them altogether.  Meanwhile, though our own preferred political party also does evil things and violates the Constitution, it’s much easier for us to dispense with those inconvenient facts and excuse them altogether with some mental trick such as, “Well, at least it’s for a good cause.”

We do this to individuals, too.  We hate that other driver because he cut us off, yet we have no idea that we would love him if we saw the great act of generosity that he bestowed upon his neighbor yesterday.  Meanwhile, we have decided that the guy who saved a kid’s life by pulling him from a burning building is a hero, even though he also swindled an old lady out of her life savings.

We make the same sort of error when sizing ourselves up as well.  We will say, “I’m a lazy person” because the laundry is piling up, yet we ignore the fact that we have worked tirelessly the past two weeks on a special project.  And we will think to ourselves, “I’m really knowledgeable” after we have mastered one subject, even though we are utterly ignorant on another topic that we love to go on and on about in spite of our ignorance!

All this behavior comes from our failure to mature cognitively.  We are born as “cognitive misers”, those who resist “spending” any effort on our thinking that we don’t feel forced to expend.  This is our default setting, just like a ventriloquist’s dummy’s default setting is to lay motionless on the table until he is “brought to life” by the hand of the ventriloquist.  The dummy is wholly dependent upon the ventriloquist for his animation.  We, on the other hand, are wholly dependent upon our own Reflective Mind to animate us to action.  If we don’t do it, it’s not going to get done.  If we don’t make the distinction between Stalin’s murders and his Victrola evenings with his daughter, our default mental settings are going to see to it, pretty much, that we come to view him as either a loving father or a heartless butcher.  But the truth is harder than that.

Either view of Stalin would be inadequate to size up the entire man, for he was both.  And so it goes with you and your laundry and your civic project:  you are both lazy and highly motivated, depending on the subject matter and the circumstances.  If you’re like most—and you are—you’re disciplined about some things and undisciplined about others—right about some things and wrong about others—good at some things and bad at others.  Even so, many of us never figure this out about ourselves:

“If you’re like most people, then like most people, you don’t know you’re like most people.”
~Dan Gilbert, Stumbling on Happiness

We don’t want to go to the trouble of developing and maintaining and rational and evidence-based view of ourselves.  No, we want some easier way to get a handle on our identities.  It’s too much fuss to keep a list—a personal report card on what we are like in various ways.  So we resort to overgeneralizations.  And this is a bad idea.

With this kind of thinking, it only takes one failure in one area for us to categorize ourselves as “a failure”.  And it only takes one success in one area for us to categorize ourselves as “a success”.  Either categorization, however, would be inaccurate.  If we take the “failure” road, it will likely lead us not to try other things at which we could well succeed.  And if we take the “success” road, it will likely lead us to fail in other areas because we overestimate our abilities and do not try hard enough.  Both are bad business.

One easy way to see ourselves in action with this sort of cognitive error is in how we use labels for ourselves, other people, and human institutions.  For example, we may take a fancy to the idea that the US ought to run in obedience to its Constitution, so we label ourselves as a “constitutionalist”.  And that’s that.  We’ll keep that label for years and years, never giving much further thought to the matter—and never noticing that not once did we ever set aside the 45 minutes that it takes to actually read that document!  We never stopped to test the label in order to determine whether one who calls himself a constitutionalist ought to read the document first.  For us, the whole affair is just that mindless.

This same sort of thing happens with religion and education, too, and with many other areas of life.  We like to bunch ourselves into official parties or denominations or camps or cliques because it’s easier that way.  Never mind, however, that we disagree with our group on some issues, we’re still proud to be a Demublican or a member down at First Basbyterian.  It’s quite a messy business.  And all because we are lazy minded.

So the next time you find yourself sizing up a person or a group, stop and ask yourself whether all that person’s or group’s behavior is characteristic of the label you are about to give them.

Now, I don’t mean to suggest that a robber shouldn’t be tossed into jail because he might also be a good dancer, or that a child molester should be let go because he’s such a diligent manager of his bowling team.  No, bad deeds deserve punishment because they are bad deeds.  They should be punished because they have been enacted, and not because they have not.  But good deeds do not erase our bad deeds.  Good ideas don’t erase our bad ideas.  Good answers don’t erase our bad answers.

This realization can really help us to manage things realistically when we “blow it”.  We can realize that “I just told a lie” without condemning ourselves as “a total child of the devil, steeped in sin and deserving of eons in the Lake of Fire“.  Rather, we can say to ourselves, “I need to cut that out immediately and see to it that this does not become a habit.”  And if we’re not overgeneralizing, we maintain a hope for the future—hope that we can change and grow.  And that hope helps us have the courage to make things right again—such as confessing our lie and patching the relationship we just injured by it.

We tend to want our enemies to be all evil; it’s easier for us that way.  But if we are honest, we need to let them be good where they are good, even if their evil is so evil as to deserve criminal prosecution.  And why?  Because this is the honest and rational way to think about what people are like.  Not everything about any person is good, and not everything about any person is bad.  No one knows everything, and no one knows nothing.  No one is without his faults and no one is without his virtues.

So when a convicted felon has done his time in prison, why do we tend to assume that he is devoid of good and will forever pose a threat to society?  Surely you yourself are no longer doing some bad things that you once did.  If you can change, therefore, why can’t the felon?  And why do you still mistrust the guy who was a jerk to you in high school?  Perhaps he’s no longer a jerk, and perhaps he feels sorry for his former bad behavior.  Perhaps you should find out before you continue in your traditional view.

These principles should be applied to yourself on a personal level, too.  Are you the sort who has told yourself that you are “no good at math” or at science?  For many, such a self-scoring declaration becomes a life-long sentence.  We fall victim to our own decrees—to the “soft tyranny of low expectations”.  The fact of the matter, however, is that many of us become good at various things that we never envisioned ourselves becoming good at.  So why not with math or science—or whatever it is that you decided long ago was above your head?

Yes, yes, I know that what I’m suggesting is simply inconvenient.  I know it raises lots of dust to consider topics that were put away so long ago.  I know that it even robs us of our hatred and prejudice to give fair consideration to those we have mistrusted or resented.   The fact of the mater, however, is that people can change.  Even you can change.  Even your neighbor can change.

If you choose to believe it is not so, then you choose to have a skewed belief about the reality of the world in which we live.  And many do.

The idea that people can change, however, is a tricky one, for it opens up a whole new universe to us—the possibility of a better life, a better relationship, a better family, a better church or party or company, a better society.  And some people have simply got their minds made up that such will be impossible for them.  They are the sort who will be much happier being unhappy, if you know what I mean.

Too bad for them.  Meanwhile, reality bids the rest of us to go higher.



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