Hidden Variables of Human Behavior

Four sensible assumptions to avoid letting others get us down.

Photo by Adrian Schwarz on Unsplash

A car is tailgating us, trying to get by so they can speed. We can assume they’re being jerks for no reason, or we can assume they have a good reason for what they do. Maybe they’ve got a sick child in the backseat who needs medical attention as soon as possible? We might kill a kid by holding that car back, and might be saving a life by letting them pass. We just don’t know!

Our feelings won’t change their behavior, of course. They’ll still ride our ass until we let them pass, but our assumptions affect our happiness, so we may as well assume whatever will let us feel best. Assuming the worst makes us angry, assuming the best makes it easy to let it go and get on with our day. By taking a charitable attitude towards others we can avoid a lot of pointless suffering.

To summarize:

  1. Everyone has a reason for what they do.
  2. If we knew that reason, we would be more understanding and sympathetic.
  3. If we don’t know the reason, we may as well assume the best.
  4. It’s unlikely their reasons have much — if anything — to do with us, so there is no need to take their actions personally.

This isn’t just pie-in-the-sky ‘positive thinking’, it’s merely recognizing all we cannot know about why people behave the way they behave. We just don’t have the information more of the time. The information we do have is based in our theory of mind. We may as well be charitable, since this makes it easy to deal with people without being troubled by their behavior.

  1. It’s reasonable to assume people are like us. We know that we have reasons for what we do: our actions are a result of a complex mix of our upbringing, our history, our attitudes and values, and the details of that specific day and even moment. They are, however, sensible, at least to us. We could give an explanation for most of what we do. It makes sense, then, to assume that other people are similarly purposeful in what they do.
  2. If we assume they are generally sensible and basically good, as we probably would like to think about ourselves, then we can assume that if we did know why they behaved as they did that we would understand and be sympathetic. Even if their reasons were petty or mean in that instance, we would still understand more, which would make them easier to cope with. We’ve all been petty and mean, also, so who are we to judge? Just feeling like there is sense and meaning in the world makes it easier to tolerate. Chaos and unreason are a bigger threat than sensible hostility.
  3. Since we generally don’t know why people do as they do we’re free to assume whatever we like. There’s nothing untruthful about it. We might assume correctly, but it’s not really about being accurate so much as it is about giving ourselves a reason to think well of others and therefore treat them well. This makes us feel better, and giving them the benefit of the doubt prevents us from needlessly hurting others. Everyone benefits. This holds for actions big and small: That rude cashier might have just lost a parent, and that angry man who cut in line at the bank might be desperate to solve a financial problem threatening his family, and that women who ignored us at the bar might be simply trying to stay safe and avoid drawing attention which has hurt her in the past, etc. It all helps us feel better and act with kindness.
  4. We also know that most of what we do is driven by our own personal concerns. We bother strangers because of some inner turmoil or distraction, not because we’re trying to attack them personally. How could we possibly go after someone personally when we have no idea who they are as people? The same goes for others who might bother us. They’re rarely thinking about us when they act. Even people who know us are mostly off in their own lives and coping with their own business.

This all liberates us from any need to interpret the actions of others as cruel attacks on our person. If we can imagine a charitable reason for what they do, then we can feel warmth and sympathy towards them instead of pique. This lets us mentally let the situation go without fuss or pain. It further lightens our emotional load to see how impersonal the world is.

This is easier said that done, of course. Part of me still feels like the cold weather we’re getting today is the earth attacking me personally, even though that’s a completely irrational feeling. We aren’t perfectly or naturally rational; we have to constantly counsel ourselves and consciously correct irrational attitudes if we want to grow past them.

It’s a practice. We have to be attentive to our attitudes and beliefs so we more often react with instant compassion instead of less enjoyable feelings. There isn’t always time to reverse a negative response. Sometimes our character is measured in an instant. Best to see to ourselves with diligence so we do what is right in that moment.