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  • Writer's pictureMark McMinn

Why are People So Mean? Challenge #3: No, I am NOT Omniscient

I was mean this week.

I'm blogging about how not to be mean, but even with this on my mind I fell short. After spending hours crafting an email, I hit the send button at 11:56 pm, when no one's brain is working quite right. The next morning I showed it to a friend, knowing I needed some accountability, and I could see it in his eyes. Yes, I spoke the truth as I understand it in that email, but not in love. I sent a follow-up email the next day trying to introduce more kindness, but it's not the same as being kind in the first place. Sigh...

As you may recall, I'm pondering David Brooks's article in The Atlantic titled, "How America Got Mean," offering some psychological perspectives on the matter. I'm taking this on as a personal endeavor, challenging myself to honestly confront my failures and strive for kindness, and inviting others who are interested to join me in the adventure. This post is my third of ten challenges; the first two are here and here.

The story behind this third challenge begins in 1977 when Stanford psychologist Lee Ross introduced the term fundamental attribution error. After 46 years of publicity, the fundamental attribution error is, more or less, old news.

Fundamental Attribution Error: We attribute our own problems to circumstances (e.g., the sun was in my eyes) and others' problems to character deficits (e.g., he's a terrible centerfielder!).

What few people know is that Dr. Ross changed his views. After doing conflict resolution work in Northern Ireland and the Middle East and conducting many more laboratory studies Ross published a paper shortly before his 2021 death suggesting that the real fundamental attribution error is what he dubbed naïve realism.

Naive Realism: (1) I know the truth. (2) If you know what I know, you will agree with me. (3) If you still don't agree, then you're a fool.

In part, we're mean because we think others who disagree with us are fools.

The work Ross published shortly before his death will form the basis of my next three challenges.

Our natural instinct is to believe we know the truth. My college roommate had a humorous poster on the wall: "There are two ways to see every issue--my way and the wrong way." It was both fun and funny to have that poster in our room, but little did we know how accurate this is in human psychology.

You may have had the experience of reading news from two different reporters on the same day, noticing how differently the story is perceived based on the presuppositions of the news outlet employing the reporters. In all likelihood, both reporters believe they know the truth and are reporting it fairly.

Like those reporters, we're confident we know the truth, even when others see things differently. This is the foyer of naive realism, leading us to all sorts of trouble and conflict and meanness.

Challenge #3 is to recognize we may not know the truth. I could be wrong, even with a belief I hold strongly. Maybe especially with a belief I hold strongly.

Earlier today I sat with eight people as their psychotherapist, talking about weighty matters. What is most important for a healthy life? How do we move toward greater wholeness in our relationships? What eases anxiety? How do religious values impact mental health? What do we do with painful thoughts and feelings from years ago? These dear souls pay me money to be wise, to help them discern truth, to journey with them in ways that are helpful. It has me wondering how often I get it wrong.

It's easy for me to believe you don't know the truth, and much more difficult to imagine I don't know the truth. This deserves to be challenged.

That mean email I wrote, it was to someone whose hubris offends me. But if I'm honest, I'm overly confident in my views of truth also. Here's my challenge to myself next time I'm writing a difficult email:

Remember, Mark, you know some of the truth, but there is much you don't know.

We're just getting started on naive realism. I hope you read Challenges #4 and #5 to help complete the picture. I'll be writing more blog posts soon. And fewer emails.

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