Why Spotting Other People’s Flaws Makes Us Forget Ours

Why Spotting Other People’s Flaws Makes Us Forget Ours

Posted Nov 28, 2011

When I get angry with someone for doing something I don't like, all of my memories of having done something similar vaporize instantly. 

Why is that?  I don't think it's just me.  It seems a pretty universal default behavior:

"Don't interrupt me," she hissed, for a time forgetting that she had ever interrupted anyone in her life.

"It's not all about you," he sneered, all of his memories of having ever been egotistical suddenly vaporized.

"They're acting like greedy pigs," they shouted, losing for the moment all access to memories of times when they too had indulged at other people's expense.

Noticing the hypocrisy in such declarations is not enough. There's no greater hypocrisy than meta-hypocrisy – hypocrisy about one's own hypocrisy:

"You're such a hypocrite," she snapped, all record of her own hypocrisy evaporated from her memory by the heat of her contempt.

Angered, we draw a sharp contrast between ourselves and those who anger us:

"That jerk has crossed the line, doing things I have never even considered doing."

We draw the contrast by exaggerating how bad the person we're angry at is, but also by exaggerating how good we are in comparison.  We instantly forget the times when we've acted like the person who angered us.

This us-against-them contrasting is not an entirely bad trait. Imagine for example the people of Libya saying "Sure Gaddafi has systematically raped and pillaged our people and country, but I'm one to talk. After all, when I was twelve, I stole a candy bar from the supermarket." 

And drawing lines is an absolute necessity.  The most exquisitely elegant work in all of logic is a 147 page little book by George Spencer Brown called Laws of Form in which he constructs all of logic and set theory from nothing but the equivalent of a large parking lot and barricades. You imagine a big wide-open field and then start setting up barricades. Where to draw lines is, after all what sets and logic are all about. Take deduction, the gold standard of logic:

All men are mortal

Socrates is a man

Therefore Socrates is mortal

You've got to draw a line to delineate men, mortals and this guy called Socrates.

Anger and delineation are chicken and egg to each other.  Whether anger makes us draw a hard line or a hard line crossed makes us angry, the two moves go hand and hand. 

It would be so simple and nice if we could say that such line drawing between good and evil were simply evil, but that's not the case and anyone who tells you otherwise is being a hypocrite:

"I don't draw lines. Drawing lines is bad.  I draw a line that distinguishes the good people like me who don't draw lines from the bad people who draw lines."

That's my problem with people who talk about tolerance as a virtue.  Yes it's a virtue and it's a vice too.  The bind we're in about tolerance is best captured in the paradoxical and hypocritical admonition that one should be intolerant of intolerance. Intolerance is likewise both virtue and a vice. The trick is to figure out when to be tolerant and when to be tolerant, where to draw and where to blur the line. 

I understand why people would want to talk about tolerance as a pure virtue though. They're trying, albeit ham-handedly to compensate for our natural tendency when angry at someone else's faults to have instant amnesia about our equivalent faults. 

Given our default tendency to forget our flaws when angry and given how little subtlety we seem to bring to personal growth, it may seem simpler to just tell everyone that line-drawing is always bad even though it isn't, and that tolerance is always a virtue, even though it isn't. You don't have to worry that anyone will fully comply with ham-handed preachiness anyway, given our natural tendencies. 

Still, I'm looking for a more precise efficient way to temper my tempers and get some balance for my default tendency toward instant line-drawing when angry. 

The simplest method I've found I'll call Me-erring. I'll call it that in honor of mirroring, another truly leveraged psychological recipe for deescalating conflict, whereby you paraphrase, un-edited your opponent's argument just to make sure you heard it right.

When I'm pissed at someone's behavior, my rule is that before I start ranting, I have to identify a specific time I did something similar. 

It may not be safe or appropriate to disclose my error aloud--the angry Libyan does not have to confess to Gaddafi that he stole a candy bar-but still, at least my opponent deserves for me to have reflected on a specific undiluted example of me erring, me doing something similar to what he's doing.  And in plenty of situations it is safe and useful to disclose, even if I then still decide to draw a line. Indeed, me-erring might actually make my anger more credible and persuasive to the person I'm angry at.

Me-erring is useful at the interpersonal level but also the political.  Republicans are credibility-challenged these days.  Still, they have some valid points. To take one example, any of us who have raised somewhat impulsive children know that it is possible to create too soft a safety net. With some people, when you give an inch, they'll take a mile.  In tough times like these, not just a cyclic economic downturn but the relentless increase in globalization and automation, we can expect less income for Americans and we should engage in some serious belt tightening.

But if the Republicans really wanted to persuade us of the need to recalibrate over toward less government safety-net, they'd do a little more me-erring.  Seventy-one percent of the current US debt was accumulated during Republican presidential terms.  Two thirds of all debt-ceiling increases were signed into law by Republican presidents.  Their rage at "Tax and spend Democrats" knows no bounds nor any me-erroring conscientiousness.

That's where I draw the line. It's their sanctimoniousness that pisses me off.