Sunday, August 15, 2004

Misinterpreting Negative Obeservations

As with everything on this blog but in particular here: this should be seen as a rough draft. At this stage, I'm not writing this to try to convince anyone, I'm writing it as a starting point for understanding and building my argument

Consider the following

P1: Teddy is unfair to others
P2: That's the way he is, do you expect him to act differently?

Imagine that P1 was just saying this because they wanted to express their disaproval of Teddy, and they wanted to make this disaproval clear to P2. P1 might want to get P2's help in doing something about Teddy's behaviour. In this situation, P2's response to P1 was inappropriate.

P1's statement was an observation that was critical of something (Teddy's behaviour), yet P2 took it as a statement of disbelief and/or a statement that the past should have been different. I think P2's response is illustrative of a common way of thinking. I think kind of thinking people don't necessarily explicitly interpret the statements in the mistaken way, but implicitly interpret them this way, through the way they think about them and respond to them.

In some situations it may be the case that P1's statement really was an expression of disbelief, and/or it was an after-the-fact expression that the past should have been different, such that P2's response would have been fine. But the point I'm trying to make here is that in the situations where neither of these things are the case, it is very common for people to interpret statements as if they were. I'm saying that there's some bias there in the way many people think that makes them interpret statements in this way, even if they really don't have any grounds for doing so.

I want to explain why I believe it is quite valid to make disapproving observations. While it is pretty much just whinging if you're constantly making disapproving observations for no good reason, it's fine to just express your opinion on the topic -- no different to saying you liked or disliked a film, or saying that the weather has been hot lately.

There may be a point to making the disaproving observation. You may just bring up things you notice, and you may be the kind of person that tries to do what they can about things they notice. You may just bring up the thing to see what the other person has to say about the topic -- whether they think Teddy is also unfair to others or not. This could help firm up your opinion -- or you might just find out that you've just caught Teddy at a bad time and that usually he's quite reasonable.

For complex problems, you first need to understand them. And identifying the various issues is an important part of understanding the overal problem. You won't be able to consider what can be done -- or whether anything can be done -- about the overal problem until you understand it. Or more simply, you may simply be stating the issues first before talking about how you want to address them. So disaproving observations are certainly valid things to make.

While these flawed interpretations may seem fairly obvious easy to spot, in practice they can be difficult to pick up and hard to know how to deal with them. You can even end up thinking there was something unreasonable about what you said. I think the first part of the reason for this is that responses based on such interpretations are true, and since truth implies validity, can easily be taken as an effective response.

Here's why the response is true. It says "That's the way he is, do you expect him to act differently?" and it is true because: yes, that is the way Teddy is, and true, I should not have expected him to be different to how he is. The thing is, of course, that a response doesn't just have to be true, it has to also be making a relevant point about the thing it is responding to. Unfortunately, people in general seem satisfied with truth by itself; you ave to be conscious that it has to be an appropriate truth. The second part of why it can be difficult to deal with such responses is that you have to be able to think of why it is not an appropriate type of response -- which is harder to do in the heat of the moment -- and you have to be able to explain this to, or illustrate this for, the other person.

I think this issue is more important than it seems. Here's a very quick sketch of why; I will have to come back to this later on. Such modes of interpretation create an environment where it is difficult to be critical of things unless you've got a solution you want to present. It leads to simplistic views on what's wrong with things, and to simplistic views on how problems can be fixed. Real, complex problems require a deep understanding in order to chart out reasonable ways of addressing them, and a deep understanding of things require you to go for long periods of time knowing a problem exists but not knowing what is causing it or how it can be addressed. In effect, such an environment acts as a barrier to gaining an adequate understanding of problems.

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