Sometimes themes crop up in life. I don’t know how it happens, but if anything were to convince me of a larger power it would be the fact that many times I will see the same idea or question reappear throughout a variety of areas in my life in a short span of time (this can of course be explained by the fact that I might be thinking a lot about the theme during that time). Recently I’ve been running across the idea of trying to understand a mind that doesn’t work like your own, and the assumption that all minds work the way yours does.
Last night I was talking to my boyfriend about our reactions to movies, and he said that he doesn’t come out of a movie with a reaction: it takes him time to process. I was flummoxed by this. “Don’t you walk out of a movie and think ‘I enjoyed that?’” I asked him. He said he didn’t, or at least not very often. This was almost impossible to process for me. I didn’t know how one could do that. And it hit me that I’d been assuming all my life that everyone reacted like I did to movies or plays or other artistic works: immediately. It hadn’t even occurred to me that perhaps the way people processed a reaction could be different from mine because I couldn’t fathom how that would be possible. Why would I have guessed that someone else would process differently from me until I was faced with it?
This morning I had coffee with my dad and we talked about a wide range of things, but one of them was our mutual confusion over people who are religious and why they think the way they do. I expressed confusion that someone could believe in such a way that is so detrimental to their well-being, particularly without any questioning whatsoever. As someone who naturally asks “why” to nearly everything, it seemed utterly foreign to me to just accept what someone says. I cannot conceive of what it would be like to hear someone claim something and just say “ok”.
All of us do this. It’s thoroughly natural to generalize from our own experience to the experiences of others. Unfortunately it’s also extremely faulty logic and doesn’t hold up against observable reality. It’s also a fairly self-centered way of thinking and a good way to create some difficulties when communicating with others.
But probably the most important element of this tendency is that most of us do it without realizing it. Unless there’s someone else there telling us that they process differently than we do, there’s no way for us to know that we’re incorrect in our assumptions. An example from the history of philosophy: philosophy of mind has spent a great deal of time wondering about whether we can form images in our mind or not. For a long time philosophers would argue back and forth, with one passionately saying that of course there were images in the mind, and another saying that it was impossible. Only recently by looking back through the history of the debate have we realized that each philosopher was essentially generalizing their experience: one who could bring up images in his mind argued that they must exist for everyone, one who couldn’t argued they were impossible for anyone. People published entire books based on the premise that everyone’s minds must work like theirs and they didn’t even notice.
This is all to say that it’s extremely easy to make this assumption without realizing it. Unfortunately, the assumption can also be damaging. It’s the sort of thing that underlies the assumption that listening or learning looks the same for all children. It’s what can lead us to assume that someone is criticizing us or mocking us when they’re expressing things differently. It’s what can lead us to label someone “stupid”. It’s what leads to things like victim blaming, classism, and attempts to write opinions into law.
It may seem like an esoteric or arbitrary element of human nature to focus on, but it can do wonders for your empathy to pay attention to not just what others think, but also how.