The Human Beast

Why we do what we do

Proverbs That Contradict Each Other

Why folk wisdom contradicts itself

There is a proverb to suit every occasion. That may be why proverbial wisdom contradicts itself so much. If a beautiful young woman is swept off her feet by a balding nerd, we say that opposites attract. When a couple meets in church, we say that birds of a feather flock together. Here are some contradictory pairs of popular sayings that are of interest to psychologists.

1. Opposites attract. Birds of a feather flock together.
Opposites attract is mostly a myth: couples match up for age, physical attractiveness, height, religion, income, ethnic group, political views and so on.

2. The early bird gets the worm. Haste makes waste.
So hurry up and wait!

3. All good things come to him who waits. A stitch in time saves nine.
Ditto.

4. Attack is the best form of defense. He who lives by the sword dies by the sword.
So be a hawk and also a dove.

5. Clothes make the man. You cannot judge a book by its cover.
So be superficial—or not.

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6. Familiarity breeds contempt. Home is where the heart is.
So we hate—and love—familiar experiences.

7. Great minds think alike. Fools seldom differ.
Agreeing with others is a sign of intelligence—or stupidity.

8. Laugh and the world laughs with you; weep and you weep alone. Misery loves company. So gloomy people seek companionship but get rejected?

9. Money is the root of all evil. Money makes the world go around. So money is very bad and also very constructive.

10. Too many cooks spoil the broth. Many hands make light work.
So other people mess up the project—or help it along.

11. Early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise. Eat drink and be merry for tomorrow we die. So invest in the future—or not.

12. Love makes the world go around. When poverty comes in the door, love flies out the window. So love is good and powerful—or completely unreliable.

13. Absence makes the heart grow fonder. Out of sight, out of mind.
So your absent lover will pine—or play the field.

Most of these contradictory proverbs relate to life's uncertainties, whether in love, in business, in politics, or in health. Most of the time we cannot predict what the future will bring. In the world of proverbial wisdom, all options are covered. Whatever happens, there is a proverb to say "I told you so!"

 

Nigel Barber, Ph.D., is an evolutionary psychologist as well as the author of Why Parents Matter and The Science of Romance, among other books.

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