In the eyes of others, we are what we do
How do you know what people think? What they are really like? Despite advances in neuroscience, we still cannot determine with any precision or accuracy what complex processes happen in people’s minds. Until further notice, all we can do is listen to what they say, or we read what they write – but most of all we look at what they do. By and large that seems more reliable: actions speak louder than words.
These observations can be indirect: what we look at can be the result of something a person did some time ago. Whether we want to (and very often we do!) or not, we all send out signals as a result of choices we have made in the recent or distant past. The clothes we wear, the car we drive, the newspaper we read, the area where we live, the supermarket where we shop – they all say something about us to other people.
But we attach even more meaning to what people do (or fail to do), here and now. We draw conclusions from all manner of things, in particular when others don’t act in accordance with our own preferences and expectations. We cannot stop ourselves judging a colleague who leaves his tray on the table in the canteen instead of putting it in the trolley, or a driver in a German car who cuts us up. If members of our family leave doors open and lights on, we extrapolate from the behaviour an attitude: they don’t care about keeping the house warm or saving energy, just like the colleague doesn’t care about the kitchen staff or the BMW driver about the safety of other road users.
We are flawed
How come? One explanation is that, just like conventional economists with their homo economicus, we consider our fellow humans as utterly rational, self-interested and utility-maximizing. We assume that others make their choices deliberately, weighing up the pros and cons with full awareness of all the material facts. Often our perception is distorted further by a big dollop of egocentricity – it’s all about us. When others do something that is detrimental to us, they are well aware.
And yet, others are no less flawed than we ourselves are. Rarely do we really know the full extent of the deliberate choices we make, and when they go against someone else’s interest we are often simply not aware. If you decide to mow your lawn on a Saturday afternoon, do you check with the neighbours that there is nobody who desperately needs some sleep because they have up all night with a sick child? Or do you choose to cut the grass with a pair of scissors and be sure not to disturb anyone.
And by far not all our decisions are reasoned in that way. We act on impulse, or guided by belief or heuristics. Perhaps your spouse believes organic produce is superior and you believe it is overpriced nonsense (or maybe the other way round). Does your (or your spouse’s) choice at the supermarket take into account the preference of the other, or is it largely a matter of following your respective preferred healthy/overpriced heuristic?
And there is more. We are full of good intentions, but we’re often a bit unreliable when it comes to acting them out. When we promised we’d fill the dishwasher/put our dirty laundry away/(fill in your own), we had every intention to actually do so, but as we were on the way to do so, we spotted from the corner of our eye a really interesting programme on TV, got distracted and of course completely forgot our earlier promise. That value-action gap plays tricks with all of us all the time.
Why are we so irritated or dismayed when people who act against our interest? That boils down largely to a perception of what is important. When we send a colleague an email and they do not reply, that must be because they have something more important to do, even if it is very important to us.
Because we focus so much on what is important to us – not just materially, but also in respect of our beliefs and convictions – we notice starkly when the actions of others fail to recognize this. As a result we fall prey of what is called the fundamental attribution error. We ascribe the actions of others to their internal characteristics, to deliberate decisions that reflect their explicit preferences, their personality even, and do not take into account the possibility that other, external, factors may be behind it. (In contrast, we recognize all too well when it is situational factors that determine our own actions!)
So maybe we should be a bit less quick to judge others. But if our actions project our personality, perhaps we should consider the trade-offs we make more carefully: are we really the person our choices tell others we are?
It’s a late autumn weekend, and the garden needs tidying up but the weekend papers are waiting, or you think you deserve a rest after a hard week, it’s tempting to think that the shrubs will survive perfectly well without being pruned this year, and that the leaves will decompose all by themselves. But then again, our significant other really likes to have the garden shipshape before winter. What is more important to you?
Your turn to cook tonight. On the menu there’s carrots and courgettes, which you could just quickly slice and microwave. Or you could spend fifteen minutes shredding them and fry them in the wok. You’re not a particular fan of that combination of vegetables anyway, and you’ll never get those fifteen minutes back, so why bother? Then again, one of your children really likes wok-fried vegetables with soy sauce. What is more important to you?
We do have a choice. When someone fails to switch off the bathroom light, leaves their breakfast stuff on the table when leaving for work or school we can get angry that they don’t care – or we could switch off the light or clear the table ourselves and bear in mind that maybe they were distracted or in a hurry. That doesn’t have to make us a doormat. And we can choose to what extent we consider the wellbeing of others in the trade-offs we make, and show through little sacrifices that they are important to us.
It is in what we do, or fail to do, that others see what kind of person we are. Our choices, our trade-offs, truly are the window to our soul.