Dissonance

I love hearing about other people’s experiences. I love the everyday minutiae, and I love the big formative events. I love culture, down to the individual level. Many times, I dive in – if someone starts telling me about things I’ve never experienced myself, I’m very drawn to try those things out. It’s very easy to convince me to try a new book, restaurant, musician, etc. Just suggest it and I’m practically there.

Sometimes, however, I’ll learn about experiences that I don’t have any interest in trying first hand. I don’t want to smoke meth. I don’t want to kill a person. Things like that. That means, though, that when I hear someone has done something like that and is willing to talk about it, I’m all ears.

I will hopefully never learn about the experience of meth smoking, person killing, or similar unpleasant things directly. And the people who have done them are probably not as likely to cross my path naturally as someone who hasn’t, simply because of the common consequences of those things. So they represent “rare information” to me. I can read about meth addiction and the criminal justice system from the safety of my office, but that isn’t the same at all.

I also, however, don’t want to seek out murderers and meth heads and strike up conversations with them. But that’s because I have a preconceived notion of what a “murderer” or a “meth head” looks like. I have no idea if those stereotypes are true.

Quick aside: I’ve interacted with – in fact worked with – at least one person I know to be a murderer. They served jail time for it. They paid their debt to society and rehabilitated. Then they were my awesome co-worker. But apart from knowledge that the event occurred, it was never really appropriate to discuss it, so I didn’t learn much. Except, perhaps, to challenge my assumptions.

Quick aside #2: I’m not some morbid person obsessed with locating killers to talk to. That’s just an example.

My point is, humans have a strong tendency to pre-judge and form opinions on what people must naturally be like based on certain criteria, and then if we miss that window to pre-judge we can be really weirded out by it.

Let’s say you’ve formed the opinion that everyone from HokeyTown is a brain-dead jerk, stupid and mean no matter what. Low-brow, no culture, etc. All things you dislike. Then you meat some wonderful person named Sam, and Sam is the love of your life. Erudite, sophisticated, kind and nurturing. You fall in love together and have plans to get married, and Sam says they’d love to have the ceremony in HokeyTown, because it’s their home town.

Blam, ton of bricks. You’ve got to reconcile these two ideas. “Everyone from HokeyTown is an idiot jerk” and “The most wonderful person I’ve ever met is from HokeyTown” don’t jive; the ideas can’t coexist.

The best case scenario is that you say, “Wow, I guess I was wrong about my very strong opinions on the residents of HokeyTown – and in fact, maybe my deeply-held priors could all use a little review.” The worst case scenario is that you conclude that Sam has somehow tricked you, hiding their true nature as a malicious moron in a deliberate attempt to deceive you, and in fact this itself serves as further evidence for your bias.

Most people land somewhere in the middle, unfortunately. They keep their opinions on HokeyTown in general, but come up with some excuse or exemption for Sam that makes them “no true HokeyTownie.” Of course, that won’t solve the problem for long – Sam probably doesn’t share your dismal view of the residents of their home town, and if you insist on holding fast to your bigotry then the relationship is unlikely to persist.

Which, unfortunately, is what often happens. The story of star-crossed lovers who cast aside their societal prejudices in order to be with someone they’ve evaluated on their merits to be wonderful is a great tale, but it plays out less frequently in real life than I would like.

So in my head, I have this sort of mental encyclopedia entry on “meth” that says “Everyone who has ever done meth now looks like this, and no one who looks like this has ever done meth.” So if I meet a bunch of professional-looking folks at a networking event or something, my natural assumption is that none of them have smoked meth before. That’s probably true, statistically, and the assumption by itself isn’t the problem.

The problem come up in the unlikely scenario that one of the professionals A.) has in fact smoked meth in the past and B.) I find this information out somehow. Maybe they tried it once in their teens, thirty years ago, and learned to avoid it ever afterwards?

Because I have this pathological desire to learn everything about people, I’m likely to be the tactless guy that says, “Wow, you’ve done meth?! That must have been crazy! Tell me all about it!” That’s not the standard reaction, though.

The standard reaction is your brain starts sounding alarms, because if given the choice between revising an entire mental model of how you perceive the world versus throwing this one person under the proverbial bus, your brain will probably try to convince you that this person isn’t worth talking to – no matter what “disguise” they’re wearing now, they’re obviously a deranged, drug-addicted meth head. Forget about the fact that they were just telling you about their 30-year career investing in charities that help crippled children, that’s just a cover for the dangerous scum they really are… right?

The lesson here is complex. It’s not “never judge anyone, ever.” Past behavior remains the best indicator of future behavior. Contrary to folksy truisms, the cover of a book tells you a lot about the contents. The lesson also isn’t “people can always dip their toes in the pool of bad behavior or immorality and come back from it.” Sometimes they can’t – or at least they don’t.

I think my lessons here are: don’t hardline, and try to get first-hand data when you can. Don’t hardline, meaning don’t let your mental encyclopedia define things in terms of “never” or “always.” Leave a little room for exceptions. Leave room to be wrong. People are complex, and rarely entirely good or bad. Leaving yourself room to be wrong about them also leaves them the room to improve. There’s no surer way to make sure someone never gets better than to build a society that tells them they never can.

Get first-hand data when you can, because everyone is biased. You’re biased, and the person you’re getting even first-hand data from is biased, too. So it’s best, whenever you can, to not play whisper-down-the-lane and introduce a bunch of extra biases as well. Don’t let too many editors get their hands on your mental encyclopedia, and screen them well.

I’ve never murdered anyone and I’ve never done meth. But I’ve done plenty that would fall into other people’s unpleasant mental categories. And sadly, I’ve personally experienced the rapid change in opinion when someone learns of one of those things that happened twenty years ago. It makes me less likely to write someone off for the red in their own ledger, and maybe that’s enough for it to have been worth it.

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