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The Best Trick for Wising Up Faster

Turn snarky rhetorical questions into genuine questions.

Key points

  • When cornered with problems, humans are great problem solvers, but we often have easy escape routes to avoid thinkng.
  • Asking rhetorical questions ("Why the heck would idiots do that???!!") is a popular escape route that keeps us from understanding psychology.
  • Such questions are grounded in nothing more than a false belief that we are two species: decent folks like us and idiots like them.
  • Turning our rhetorical questions into real inquiry gives us insight into even the worst people.

We humans are smarter than we may seem. When cornered with a problem, a tight curve on the winding roads of life, we can usually angle our way to a solution. The problem isn’t our smarts; it’s that we can always take easy detours off the winding roads into rest area comfort zones where we don’t have to think.

Some of our most popular rest areas take the form of rhetorical questions like, “Why the hell would idiots do that? “How can dumbasses be so dumb?” or “What kind of fool would fall for that crap?”

We’re not really asking why, and if we are, the answer is in the question. Why would idiots do that? Because they’re idiots!

That’s always been the most popular psychological theory. There are two kinds of people, actually two different species. There are good, smart, decent people like us and idiots, dumbasses, and fools like them. Idiots do idiotic things, and mean people suck.

With these circular rhetorical questions, we pose as objective geniuses without thinking at all. We decide what's good and bad. When people disagree with us it proves they're biased cranks, not objective like ourselves.

Or we pose these rhetorical questions as though we’re simply mystified. We’ll never know why they do what they do because we’re members of the superior species. “I’ll never understand dumbasses.”

There’s a simple way to get wiser if you want, and it’s not what you think it is. It’s not to be nice, humble, and appreciative of everyone. It’s not to stop judging, either.

No, there really are dumbasses in this world, and you won’t appreciate them no matter how many sweet memes you see about loving everyone.

It’s this. Turn your rhetorical questions into real ones. Instead of “why the hell do they do that???!! Ask a curious, “no really, why do they do that?” Turn your sneer into curiosity—anthropology, even. Try to understand why people do what they do instead just of pretending they’re a lesser breed.

They aren’t. Everything in their repertoire is in yours, too, so put yourself in their shoes and remember when they were yours. Remember when you did something like they’re doing, not necessarily to the same degree or in the same context. Putting yourself in their shoes is how I define empathy. Remembering when they were yours is how I define compassion.

And they’re not to be confused with sympathy and charity. No need to accommodate dumbasses. Still, try to understand what makes them tick like time bombs.

At the extreme, you’d be able to empathize with Hitler, voicing his opinion without snark or mockery. You’d voice it so well he’d say, “Wow! You really get me!”

But no charity. You’d still be able to slit their throat if you had to. You won’t, but the extreme illustrates the difference. Empathy and compassion that don’t automatically make you sympathetic, charitable, or accommodating.

Employing this simple trick, you wise up, learning more about human nature, including yours. You understand people better and, therefore, how to deal with them more effectively. And you learn more about where to draw realistic lines between dumbasses and non-dumbasses

See, there are two kinds of people. Those of us who do and don’t think there are two kinds of people.

I’m both. That is, I think humans are humans. Still, I think there are decent humans and absolute dumbass humans. For 20 years now, I’ve been working on a fundamental riddle: What is a butthead since it can’t just be anyone I butt heads with?

Many people say, “What the hell’s up with those buttheads?” but with no genuine curiosity about the answer. They’ll say, “I’ll never understand them,” as though they’re talking about some totally mysterious species.

Drop the outrage, sneer, angst, mystification, and rhetorical questions. It’s the best trick I’ve found for waking up on life's winding roads.

More from Jeremy E. Sherman Ph.D., MPP
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