Monday, August 25, 2008

How "Generic" Are You? — Or, To What Degree Do You Epitomize All Humanity?

An interesting article reposted at the Psychology Today blogs.

How "Generic" Are You?—Or, To What Degree Do You Epitomize All Humanity?

Multiple PerspectivesWe constantly get the message that everybody is different, and that we're all unique. Yet almost all of us are guilty of attributing thoughts and feelings to others based solely on how we'd react ourselves in their particular situation. This fallacy--as unrecognized as it is prevalent--apparently derives from the common assumption that our individual biology and biography are somehow universal.

Unconsciously, we seem to infer that despite all our differences we still represent, or exemplify, all of humanity; and that we can appreciate another's actions simply by reflecting on our own. Our basic priorities, standards, motives, and biases must, we assume, be the same as others. Minimizing, or ignoring, the enormous number of variables that can influence a person's behavior, we entertain the belief that we can adequately understand such behavior simply by likening it to our own. Or--to put it somewhat differently--we project our personal reality onto others as though, finally, everyone can be understood in terms of their essential similarity to us.

No doubt there are many affinities among us that more or less dictate how--in most instances, at least--we'll respond. For example, almost all of us can be expected to experience gratification or pleasure when we're complimented--and, on the contrary, to feel disappointed, angry or hurt when we're criticized. But even here we need to consider that many people who have poor self-esteem experience embarrassment, awkwardness, or even freshly awakened shame, when they receive acknowledgment or recognition. For deep down they regard themselves as not good enough; or even as frauds--not deserving any praise whatsoever. Additionally--as regards reacting to criticism--people who are unusually confident or self-accepting are able to handle negative evaluation with far less distress than most of us. Capable of self-validating, and experiencing themselves as fundamentally competent even when they've made a mistake, their "feathers" simply don't get ruffled as a result of unfavorable judgment.

Generally speaking, it's much more difficult to characterize faithfully someone else's thoughts and emotions than most of us might suppose. As a species, we're sufficiently complicated and diverse that even if a particular individual is a lot like us we can still err in assessing that person's feelings or behavioral motivations. And, of course, it's far trickier to correctly interpret the thoughts, feelings, needs or desires of others whose nature--or nurture--differs markedly from our own.

Read the whole article.

Here is an excellent quote from later in the article:

This post can offer no easy solutions to the human dilemma of accurately understanding another who might operate on an entirely different set of assumptions, beliefs, rules, and values. Empathy--the mostly learned ability to identify with the feelings and perceptions of another--is an emotional-intellectual capacity that most children can demonstrate only in its most embryonic form. If our own empathy is to become more "educated," if we are to broaden and refine it over time, we need to learn more about others. We need to appreciate how their early environment, and particular temperament and sensibility, determine their particular orientation toward reality.

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