Don’t Speak With Authority About Your Nature and Behavior

We are often the last to know who and how we are.

Posted Mar 13, 2018

“I’m not biased.”
“I’m not into game playing.”
“I’m not a liar.”
“I have integrity.”
“Don’t tell me how I feel!”
“Trust me…”
“Believe me…”

Self-complimenting claims like these backfire when delivered to anyone paying attention. They’re meant to put a question about our nature and behavior to rest. They deserve the opposite response. They show a disrespect for the challenge of self-knowledge.

I call it Talkiswalkism, the false assumption that you are the final authority on your nature, that what you say about your behavior must be true because you said it. It’s the opposite of integrity and it’s a form of game playing that raises big red flags for me.

How do we come to the assumption that we’re not into game-playing or lying? By not liking when others gameplay or lie with us. That’s not evidence that we don’t game-play or lie. We’re all quite naturally better at dishing it out than taking it in. We like benefits more than costs. To say we’re not into game-playing because we don’t like being played is like concluding that we don’t dish it out because we hate taking it in.

And being emphatic about it doesn’t help our case. You really hate game playing? A lot? That doesn’t mean you don’t play them. I call this move Exempt by contempt, assuming you must be exempt from a trait because you have great contempt for it in others.

If you’re not the authority on how you are, who is? Outside observers? Nope, no one is the authority. We can only guess at our motivations based on our behaviors. There’s no objective access to motivations for anyone, not for observers or for ourselves.

That’s a problem recognized in psychology decades ago. It led to an extreme movement in the field: Behaviorism, the assumption that since motivations cannot be determined objectively and therefore scientifically, they are best ignored.

We can’t ignore them. If we don’t understand motives, we can’t guess well how best to influence and interact with each other.  Still, the behaviorists were right about this: We can’t determine objectives objectively. The best we can do is make guesses about them.

Everyone is entitled to their opinion about what drives people, including what drives ourselves. But we don’t get to claim final authority on anyone’s motivations. We’re often the last to know our motives. It’s obvious. It’s easy for any of us to come up with examples of people not knowing what drives them. If others are in the dark about their own motives, what’s to keep us from being in the dark about ours? Our self-complimenting self-certainty? That doesn’t stop others from being in the dark about theirs. None of us get an exemption just because we feel self-certain. We can’t be unbiased about ourselves. We may know our emotions more viscerally than others do, and therefore feel like authorities on them, but we also care more than others about how we present ourselves.

So when called upon to explore our motives, we’ll go spelunking around our minds, but gingerly:

“Do I have this negative trait? I’ll take a quick careful look, find some positive motivation and run back out of the cave that is me to report it. I don’t have the negative trait. I looked everywhere convenient and couldn’t find it. And don’t you dare doubt me.”

Our motives are the stuff of controversy. They matter a lot and we often disagree about who is motivated by what. Controversy easily escalates into competing claims of authority, opponents vying to get the last word on what’s true. To avoid this, it’s best whenever talking about motives to caveat your opinions as opinions. Don’t say “I’m not defensive,” say “I don’t think I’m being defensive.”

You can also credibly declare what you aim to be without claiming to know how you’re doing at it. Still, it’s useful to try to keep track of the difference between your aims and achievements. What you are and what you aim to be are two separate issues. We often slide unwittingly between the two:

“Are you racist?”
“I hope not.”

The question is about your nature. The answer is about your hopes. Two different things.

And when someone claims with final authority to know their nature or behavior, you can de-escalate any claim of authority by treating it as their opinion, belief or guess.

“I’m not being melodramatic.”
“I hear you. You believe that you’re not being melodramatic.”

You don’t get to override their opinion with yours as though you’re the final authority but you do get to remind people that we’re all just guessing what motivates any of us.