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Dangerous Assumptions

Dangerous Assumptions

Most hatred stems from our assumption of guilt regarding people's thoughts and motivation.


Benjamin Scheibehenne from the University of Basel and his colleagues, Jutta Mata from Stanford University & Peter Todd from Indiana University, suggest that even though people will claim to be pretty good at predicting the likes and dislikes of others we are often anything but good. Surprisingly, they present evidence showing that the longer we know someone, far from our predictions getting better, they may actually get worse.

In one set of studies, those subjects who were asked to predict the preferences of people they had known for a relatively short time were accurate 42% of the time. Surprisingly those who predicted the preferences of someone that they had known for a much longer time were accurate just 36% of the time. Perhaps the most telling result of all was how little awareness people had over how well they actually knew people. In pre-study tests, both groups estimated that their prediction accuracy would be at least 60%.

Excerpted from: Older? Yes! But Wiser? Maybe Not! - July 5, 2011

Although many may be surprised by the results of this study, my anecdotal experience as a marriage and relationship coach firmly backs them up. The biggest problem most couples have is not what they don't know about each other, but rather what they think they do know. I'm amazed by how often my clients - some of whom have been in their relationships for decades - are convinced that they know all sorts of things about their spouse, when in fact they don't seem to have a clue. And although their cluelessness is obvious to me (and their spouse), it's usually not at all so for them. In fact, as the results of the abovementioned study indicate, the degree to which they are sure of what they know is often a pretty good indicator as to just how off-base they actually are.

We tend to forget that our experience is a product of our unique and personal perception of life.

The study attempts to identify reasons why longer-term relationships might engender less knowledge and awareness - such as a decreased motivation to learn, a higher likelihood to assume knowledge, or a greater tendency amongst the "more committed" to feel the need to tell little white lies. These explanations are valid but fail to nail the essential point, which is that we tend to forget that our experience is a product of our unique and personal perception of life. As a result, we generally equate greater experience with greater knowledge, but the truth is that no matter how convinced we are about the way something looks to us, we must never assume that it looks that way to the next person. If we truly understood this, we would feel a powerful combination of humility about our own perspective, and curiosity about how the world actually looks through the eyes of others.

Related Article: Her Name Was Patience

I'm struck by the kinds of things that people assume about each other. I've come across husbands who are convinced that their wives don't care about their own children, and wives who believe that their husbands are only interested in working them to the bone. I've even had people tell me with complete wide-eyed sincerity that their friends actually derive great pleasure from being difficult and uncooperative. It's almost as if they believe that people wake up in the morning, look in the mirror, and say to themselves, "I think I'm going to ruin somebody's life today!" And they are often so enamored by their personal take on reality that even when their spouse or friend denies having those thoughts and motivations, they refuse to believe them.

The basic assumption of innocence that underpins America's legal system often fails to extend itself to our personal relationships. Many of us are likely to fare better at the hands of an anonymous jury of our peers than at the hands of those who supposedly know us and care about us most.

According to our sages, the fast of Tisha B'Av is meant to wake us up to the fact that the painful lack of holiness in our world, and the more than 2,000 years of suffering that our people have experienced as a result, have all been caused by baseless hatred (sinat chinam in Hebrew). There is no better time than now to reflect upon the truth that most hatred stems not from people's actions, but from our assumption of guilt regarding their thoughts and motivation. No doubt, there are people out there who are making poor choices and behaving improperly on an objective scale, but we must never forget that it's our tendency to attribute hostile intent, and not the deeds themselves, that causes the anger, resentment, and ultimately the hatred that we feel within ourselves for our fellow human beings.

So next time we feel the urge to judge someone we know - be it a relative, co-worker or a friend - let's stop and take a moment to get in touch with how frustrating it feels to be misunderstood and pigeonholed by someone else. With a modicum of humility, we just might let go of our assumptions and consider the possibility that the people in our lives are really no different than us. They're trying to do the very best that they can, regardless of how things may appear to us.

August 6, 2011

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Visitor Comments: 7

(5) Anonymous, August 9, 2011 11:51 AM

Well done!

A great reminder to us all! AW

(4) Anonymous, August 8, 2011 4:06 AM

my boss

I struggle so with how I view my boss. I think about him far to often and suffer emotionally. I do not think well of him. I am afraid of him as he threatens my security. I am relatively near retirement age, however there is still almost 3 years to go. I try to take it one day at a time but it doesn't work. As far as my fellow Jews, whether Lubavitch, Orthodox, Conservative or Reform, my heart is full of love and acceptance. I desperately want to let this issue go or at least lessen the degree to which it hurts me. Any suggestions are welcome. During this period of time, I believe I would be a better human being and Jew if I could only find a way to deal with this. Thank you.

Vittoria, August 8, 2011 5:13 PM

Dear friend, I want you to know that I fully understand you and I will pray for you. I am in your same position with the difference that I am not close to retirement. What I found very helpfull is to say as many times as you feel good Chesed El chol hayom. these words can really change your day. I love you

Nechama, August 9, 2011 4:42 PM

Foolproof Method

To anonymous about your boss: This method is fooproof, I've done it myself. Three times a day, say to yourself: "I like my boss so much. He is such a fine person. He really wants me to be happy." Say it especially before you go to sleep and in the morning. You will be shocked at how his attitude will change. All the best, Nechama

(3) Tammy, August 7, 2011 9:06 PM

Dangerous Assumptions

To know a person as well as you are describing takes much time and effort and a real desire to do so. I can't tell you how many times through the years this has happened to me. Two things G-d has been trying to teach me are, give people the benefit of the doubt, and things are not always as they appear to be. I think the problem with knowing people less after knowing them for quite some time stems from becoming to comfortable with them and even lazy.

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