Nautilus

Why We Can’t Get Over Ourselves

“You will become way less concerned with what other people think of you when you realize how seldom they do.”

—David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest


You and I are members of one of the most social species on the planet. No human being succeeds in life alone. Getting along and getting ahead requires coordinating with others, either in cooperation as friends, spouses, teammates, and coworkers, or in competition as adversaries, opponents, or rivals. Arguably our brain’s greatest skill is its ability to think about the minds of others to understand them better. Our daily lives are guided by inferences about what others think, believe, feel, and want. This is your sixth sense at work.

 But over the past two decades in my research as a psychologist, my experiments and research from many other scientists demonstrate the ways in which our sixth sense works well, but not nearly as well as we might think. The truth is that you are likely to understand much less about the minds of your family members, friends, neighbors, coworkers, competitors, and fellow citizens than you would guess.

One of the biggest barriers to understanding others is excessive egocentrism. You can’t see into the mind of others because you can’t get over yourself. You can’t overcome your own experiences, beliefs, attitudes, emotions, knowledge, and visual perspective to recognize that others may view the world differently. Copernicus may have removed the Earth from the center of the universe, but every person on this planet is still at the center of his or her own universe.

One consequence of being at the center of your own universe is that it’s easy to overestimate your importance in it, both for better and for worse. Consider a classic psychology experiment that asked married couples to report how much each of them was personally responsible for a variety of household activities. These included relatively desirable tasks, like cleaning the house, making breakfast, and resolving conflicts, but also undesirable actions, like messing up the house, irritating their spouse, and causing arguments. Husbands and wives were separated from each other and then asked to indicate, out of the total amount for each activity, what percentage they were personally responsible for. The researchers then simply added the spouses’ estimates together for each item. Logically, this sum cannot exceed 100 percent. If I claim that I make breakfast 80 percent of the time and my wife claims that she makes breakfast 60 percent of the time, then our kids are apparently eating breakfast 140 percent of the time. Not possible, even for the fattest families. But psychologically, if I can think of the times I made breakfast more easily than the times my wife made breakfast, then by extrapolation, there will be a lot of reportedly overstuffed families out there.

This is exactly what the results showed. The couples’ estimates, when added together

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