mental models of others

There are few friends that i have who consistently challenge my philosophies on life and force me to delve into why i believe what i do. Of course, spending a day with one of those friends always makes me blissfully ecstatic, even if utterly exhausted. Today, i went to the beach and our discussion ended up focusing on the impact of friends on our mental models of strangers.

There are two parts to this problem:

1) What impact our friends have on our views of others;
2) How we act accordingly.

When we communicate our thoughts about outsider to our friends, we often use very coarse descriptions, highlighting what we see as the salient characteristics of that person, for better or worse. For example, i might say that Bob is really annoying, without contextualizing that statement to explain that he’s only really annoying when he’s around Carl because they are exes and are quite antagonistic. Big brush strokes.

The question is how my friend chooses to encorporate my thoughts. Ideally, we act as though we are strong enough to make up our own opinion on others, but this is probably not what people actually do. More likely, my friend’s view will be colored by what i say (which is not necessarily the whole of how i feel). In interacting with Bob, my friend will see Bob as annoying, even with Carl nowhere to be found. I will have colored my friend’s perspective.

A lot of this has to do with our tendency to create tribes. By voicing our opinions on outsiders to our friends, we encourage them to like the people we like and dispise our enemies. This animalistic tendency allows us to create a safe container for those we love. Of course, by being the one who articulates the tribe’s members, our opinions are validated giving us power within the system.

Given this framework, we started talking about how we operate inside and outside of this. My friend recognizes that opinions from others cloud his view and thus doesn’t want to hear them nor wants to share his own. Yet, in doing so, he ends up following others tribes. I, on the other hand, refuse to take anyone’s account that seriously and thus have no problem making up my own mind, yet i rarely keep my opinions to myself, mostly because i like to hear disagreement. Neither “solution” is ideal and we’ve both seen the reprocussions of our own paths. What’s more interesting is how frustrated he gets when someone shares coarse descriptions and how frustrated i get when others take my opinions with too much weight.

Thus, it begs the question.. how do you communicate your opinions in a way that doesn’t improperly affect the situation?

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4 thoughts on “mental models of others

  1. davee

    maybe the only way to communicate what a person is really like to a friend is to invite them both to dinner and let them figure each other out first hand. it seems like all speech is inherently reductive compared to that. we all have to learn how to deal with that reduction. choosing not to conduct in speech intercourse i guess is a way to deal with it – choosing instead to only develop opinions first hand – but that seems extreme or at least really inconvenient.

    maybe add ‘my summary of person x is” before every summarizing statement about a person, to remind people who forget that we get information through a straw that they’re only getting the straw-view? i usually forget to do this, unless I have a transcendent moment and realize that the picture i’m painting is more colorful than intended. ah well.

  2. Sue

    The person asking for the opinion might be looking for the straw-view, and a straw view colored by ones personal experiences and shared prejudices at that. This may actually be the only utility of that communication.

    Shared impressions are disempowering for the individuals within the community, but within large offline communities, there does not seem to be a way around this.

    I’d thought that online, technology would allow the individual to better influence and perhaps override improper communications regarding self, but its not the case. The technology seems to be helping improper impressions spread faster, but does not automatically allow the data subject to correct/delete.

    Also distressing is the new phenomenon of online communities allowing memberships only to “known animals” (on recommendations of existing users).

  3. Irina

    There is a theory out there as to what essentially happens to children when they develop Autism (hold on, it will become relevant soon). The theory says that these children essentially lack something called “a theory of mind”. A theory that most of us do develop – essentially the idea that I understand that people around me have a mind that is different from mine and contains information that is different from the one I have. If you do not have a theory of mind you can not lie, you will simply think everyone around you knows what you know and thinks exactly as you do (a rather shallow idea eh?).

    Another interesting property of human brains is our incredible ability to focus, filter and integrate information around us. A lot of that happens without our knowledge (that’s how you can drive, eat a burger AND listen to music at the same time, largely successfully). The thing with things we hear, opinions of our friends, relatives, people we barely know is that all of what we hear is information. And when we integrate that information, it all comes along with a little tag – how much to trust one thing or another. We don’t do it consciously but it might be one of those survival techniques (if your mom yells “run left, dinosaur!” you might be more inclined to just run left without checking than if someone that you consider an enemy were to do that – in that case you might run the opposite direction or atleast double check the information).

    So… you have a theory of mind and that allows you to distance yourself from opinions of others by considering that they might have their own reasons for these opinions. However, your personal relationships with these people will make your brain integrate information differentially, thus affecting your perception of things discussed. How much that happens varies, we do have this thing called “cognitive over-ride”… but that’s for another post…

    sigh… rambling cause I am procrastinating… where is that procrastination post you had 🙂

  4. zephoria

    Davee/Sue/Irina – thank you so much for the posts and different perspectives. I’m definitely enjoying chewing on them.

    I do think that sharing these thoughts is a trick of communication… How do i properly communicate what i want to communicate in a way that it is heard how i want it to be heard. Sadly, most of us pay little attention to how the other person is hearing what we are saying and how to adjust our presentations accordingly. Or we do so and the other person hears what we are saying properly but it doesn’t have the same impact because the other person reacts to honest information differently. It’s a challenging game of negotiating context.

    Of course, most of what i’m thinking about is offline. Online, it’s even more tricky because it’s hard to gage the other’s reactions.

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