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Three Errors

5 min

Last time, we discussed the Three Demons of disorder, disaster, and frustration.

This week, we discuss Three Errors.

The three errors are the root cause of a great deal of pain and suffering, particularly in our personal relationships.

The are ubiquitous - everywhere, all the time. The three errors so color our judgement and our experience of one another that it is hard to imagine what the world would look like without them. They distort our discourse. They fracture entire nations.

If you have ever lain awake in bed unable to do anything other than seethe anger towards someone you actually love, the three errors were why.

The First Error:

We think we know what others intend, but don't.

Motivation means everything to us. This is why slapping a child by accident is regrettable but no big deal, while slapping a child on purpose could put you in jail.

As a result, we watch for signs that we believe tell us about the meaning behind other people's actions.

See how she's rubbing her thigh? She's probably nervous.

See how he keeps looking over here? He likes me.

See how she yanked the garbage bag out? She's angry at me.

Most of the time, we're reacting not to what people do, but what we believe they mean.

The problem is that we have no idea what they mean.

Almost universally, we overestimate our ability to discern the intentions of others...and we do so by a wide margin.

We are terrible at detecting lies. We are terrible at detecting motive. The inner workings of other people are hidden from us, so we project onto them our own inner world instead.

This is nearly always a mismatch, which means that we operate largely in a fictional world of our own making.

The second error:

We think others know what we intend, but they don't.

Just as we overestimate our ability to discern the intent of others, so do we overestimate their ability to know what we intend.

Of course she knows I love her - can't she tell by how I'm looking at her?

I'm so mad - I'm going to show her by not bringing her coffee this morning.

He knows this is a terrible idea, right? I mean, just read the room!

We've already established that we're no good at figuring out what others mean by their actions. This dynamic becomes even more damaging in regards to ourselves, however.

This is because emotionally resonant experiences are perceived as threatening. We're social creatures: we fear being shunned, or mocked, or disregarded. As such, when our feelings run strong, so does our stress response. This is why walking up to that person you have a crush on feels like walking across a battlefield: strong emtions carry the threat of negative social consequences.

This fear of strong emotions filters through to our behavior. The stronger the feeling, the more we tend to feel like everyone in the room can read what's in our head. We assue that the signs are everywhere, that the people around us can read our emotions like a giant flashing neon sign (the First Error).

Because of this, we tend to muffle our outward displays of intent when our emotions are strongest. This means that in the most critical moments - the times when feelings run strongest, tensions are high, and miscommunication would be most damaging - we actualy decrease the amount of information we are sending out into the world, increasing the likelihood that others will misinterpret what we do.

So, not only can we not correctly discern other's intent, and not only can they not interpret ours...

...We get worse at it as emotions grow stronger.

The Third Error:

We attribute the actions of others to character; we attribute our own to context.

This is also known as "fundamental attribution error."

When we do something we're not proud of - whether it's cutting someone off in traffic, or not picking up after our dog - we tend to attribute it to external circumstances.

I know it's wrong to cut someone off, but I didn't see him - I was focused on the car ahead of me!

I know it's wrong not to pick up after my dog, but I was out of poop bags, and this is the first time!

I know it's wrong to scream at my kids, but I was exhausted and stressed out.

There's nothing inherently wrong with this - after all, much of the time we ARE responding to external circumstances.

We don't tend to extend this same consideration to the actions of others, however.

When we see others act, we attribute their actions to a clear and deliberate intent - in other words, to an extension of who that person is, their character.

That guy cut me off - what an inconsiderate asshole.

Look at that - she didn't even clean up after her dog. She clearly doesn't care about our neighborhood at all.

Jesus, look at that person screaming at those kids - a real control freak.

This erorr, consistently applied, leaves us stranded in a world where we are never truly at fault, whereas other people always are. Their actions betray deep purpose, whereas ours are merely common-sense reactions to an unjust world.

The Three Errors work in tandem.

We think we know what others intend, but don't.

We think others know what we intend, but they don't.

We attribute the actions of others to character; we attribute our own to context.

Keep in mind: all of us commit these errors. Every single one of us.

This means that we have little to no conception of the motivations of the people around us. Instead, we spend our days interacting with a series of projections - imagined characters with pretend motivations. We construct this simulacrum of a world in accordanc with our own fears, own our prejudices, our own traumas and preconceived notions.

And then, we act accordingly - creating more grief, tension, anger, and suffering than you can possibly imagine.

There is a way out, however.

We'll talk about that next week.




As summary of some advice from Tyler Cowen, one of the more interesting polymaths out there today. I jive with a lot of this, and people who have been through The Art of Mastery will recognize quite a bit!

My summary of Tyler Cowen’s approach to leading an intellectually fulfilling life
Looking back over the past months, there is one commonality running through most of my non-mindfulness-focused newsletters and that is that I have a lot of quotes from Tyler Cowen. For the past few years I’ve listened to somewhere on the order of 100 hours of him talking both as interviewer via his…

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