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  • Writer's pictureMark McMinn

Why I'm Right and You're an Expletive (in 3 easy steps)

Some have likened writing a book to giving birth, but I fear this metaphor trivializes what it's like to actually have a baby. Writing a book is almost certainly easier. Still, the writing process can be arduous, long, complicated, and painful at times. I'm feeling all this as I work on a new book project on how to quiet our troubled souls in a tumultuous time.

The deeper I dive into the research, the more I realize how profoundly self-interest is embedded in the human condition. We misrepresent and oversimplify others and their ideas in order to shrink them down to a manageable size. It's not just that other people do this to me; I do it to them also. We make others smaller than they are--and smaller than we are--so we can continue feeling relatively good about our own values, commitments, and choices. If this sounds like narcissism, well yes, it turns out we all carry around an inner narcissist. And these days, our inner narcissists are well-fed and mad as that hornet's nest I stepped on last year (if that sounds like a line from Ted Lasso, it's not).

Have you noticed how angry everyone is? How rude we have become? This Covid virus may not be the only pandemic facing today's world, as there seems to be a psychological disease traveling in its shadow. Honestly seeing our narcissistic tendencies and learning to settle into places of quiet may be as close as we can get to a psychological vaccination.

An old research treasure from decades ago is called the Fundamental Attribution Error, a concept so widely cited since its introduction in 1977 by Stanford psychologist, Lee Ross, that I will devote only two sentences to it here. We attribute other people's troubles to character traits without paying much attention to the situations they are facing. If you cut me off on the freeway, it's because you are a selfish jerk and not because you are rushing your partner to the hospital for a medical emergency.

The Fundamental Attribution Error is explained everywhere--on blogs and social media, in textbooks and trade books, in cartoons and memes, on podcasts and newscasts. But we don't get it quite right. Shortly before his death in May, 2021, Professor Ross admitted that he no longer sees the Fundamental Attribution Error as he once did, and then he articulated what he called the "Truly Fundamental Attribution Error," which he also dubbed Naive Realism. This occurs in three steps.

Step 1: I Know the Truth

First, we convince ourselves that our narrative of the world is correct. Dr. Ross offers a fascinating example of how both conservative and liberal Christians believe Jesus would be just like them, except maybe a little more extreme.

One reason we're so angry these days is because we're convinced we're right and the other people who disagree with us are wrong. If this sounds unfamiliar, spend a little more time on Facebook. (Though Facebook use is positively correlated with narcissism, so don't spend too much more time there).

Step 2: You Would Agree if You Knew What I Know

The second part of naive realism comes from assuming that others would agree if they only knew what we know. Our inner narcissist assumes if we explain things clearly then surely everyone will agree that our renditions of truth and recommendations for change are correct.

Step 3: If You Still Don't Agree, Then You're a [fill in expletive of choice]

When discovering some people still don't agree with us even after explaining what we know, we tend to get angry and resort to calling them names, seeking revenge, or labeling them in vile ways.

How can we quiet our troubled souls? One book I am reading as I do this research is titled, Transcending Self-Interest: Psychological Explorations of the Quiet Ego. Fascinating science intersects with important religious concepts in this book. It's so much easier to be loud than to be quiet, especially in a time of such clamor.

If you have ideas about this topic, I would love to hear from you. Send me a private email and I'll look forward to hearing and learning from you.


Mandy Rodgers-Gates
Mandy Rodgers-Gates
Oct 31, 2021

I assume you've read it, but for some of the reasons you indicate here, I start off my theology class for high school seniors (mix of churched & unchurched backgrounds, mix of beliefs) with Alan Jacobs' book "How to Think." I find it accessible for them and it helps them start to interrogate their own views and how they got them and - most importantly - how they respond to others with different views. Thanks for doing this blog and putting your thoughts out in the world!

Mark McMinn
Mark McMinn
Oct 31, 2021
Replying to

Thanks, Mandy. I haven't read Alan's book, but I'll put it on my list! I used to play basketball with Alan in the early mornings when we both taught at Wheaton College. He has a great 3-point shot!

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