How would your friends describe you?
Is it a bad sign that I have no interest in knowing what they’d say about me? My reluctance has nothing to do with hearing about my flaws. In fact, constructive feedback is tremendously helpful.
My plea for ignorance is because I don’t want to discover how inadequately they understand me.
I imagine even my closest friends would render a sorely inadequate description of who I am. “Yes, yes, you’re absolutely right about that,” I’d respond. “But there is so much more to me than what you’ve just described!”
Have you ever felt this way?
To various degrees, I think we all have experienced a disconnect like this. But I suspect it has little to do with the quality of our friends or how much they care about us.
The strangest element is that while I feel like my friends don’t understand me, I am confident in my perception of them. But, of course, my understanding of my friends is equally inadequate as their understanding of me!
How can this be so?
In Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman writes about cognitive biases that impair our judgment. For example, we make judgements with the implicit assumption that we know all the information about the subject. He calls this “What we see is all there is.”
“The confidence that individuals have in their beliefs depends mostly on the quality of the story they can tell about what they see, even if they see little. We often fail to allow for the possibility that evidence that should be critical to our judgment is missing — what we see is all there is.”
If you were to peruse the Renaissance gallery within an art museum, you’d likely come across a panel painting like the one below.
Once you read the description of the painting, you’d learn that the panel used to be one part of a larger altarpiece.
So what does this have to do with what we’ve explored thus far?
In our lives, we often fail to read the description of the panel painting, so to speak. We automatically induce that what we see is all there is. However, in reality, we are only seeing a fragment of a far bigger picture.
Think about how many “data points” you know about yourself and contrast that with the data you have on a friend. For instance, it is jarring to realize how little we understand about each other’s inner lives. Yet, because what we see is all there is, we don’t consider that our knowledge of others is incomplete.
This knowledge incongruity helps explain some of our less-than-great behaviors. For example, we often judge others by their actions and ourselves by our intentions. This makes sense. When you decide to do something, you have much more context than your friend has. You know all about your complicated past and conflicting desires. Furthermore, you know all the different considerations you had when deciding to do X instead of Y. In comparison, your friend only sees your final decision and — if you discussed with him in advance of the decision — perhaps a small fraction of your total consideration. Your friend hardly has any information about the intentions and resolutions you keep to yourself. Why should he?
Another explainable behavior relates to how we sometimes take a victim mentality approach towards life. When we do that, we forget that everyone in the world faces challenges. Why do we have a hard time remembering this? Because what we see is all there is. People generally try to uphold an external appearance of composure. It’s the Stanford duck syndrome. The issue is when we view our suffering as unique, we begin feeling isolated and lose empathy and compassion towards others.
When I’m frustrated with something or someone, I try to remind myself that I’m seeing an incomplete picture. There’s a line attributed to Plato: “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a harder battle.” I find it helpful. It teaches me to not take myself so seriously and to remain cheerful even in the face of adversity.