Why You're Right About Everything
We interpret the world according to our senses, experiences, and expectations.
Posted May 10, 2022 | Reviewed by Michelle Quirk
- You’ll be better at navigating difficult conversations and relationships if you remember that your experiences are subjective, not objective.
- Your past and expectations create your subjective experiences.
- Be curious about other people’s perspectives, especially if they’re different than yours.
You read that title right. You’re right about everything! You’re right about which restaurant has the best pizza. You’re right about who is the hottest celebrity. And you’re right about who is going to win the playoffs. I’ll take it one step further. You’re right about who should be president. You’re right about how we should handle COVID. And you’re right about climate change.
You’re right about those things the same way you’re right about the answer to this question: Do you see an image of a younger woman or an older woman?
Everyone Else Is Right About Everything, Too
If you see a younger woman, you’re right. If you see an older woman, you’re right. That image is a type of optical illusion called a Boring figure, named after the psychologist Edward Boring. This specific picture was created by William Ely Hill and titled "My Wife and Mother in Law." It’s true that you’re right about everything, but so is everyone else. You interpret the world according to what your senses tell you. What you see is based on what you’ve seen and what you expect to see. The same is true for your other senses, too, like taste.
If I make you a papaya salad with Thai chiles, would you think it’s spicy? It depends on how comfortable you are with spice. If you grew up on mayo sandwiches and mac & cheese, you’ll probably say it’s spicy. If you grew up on tamales and hot salsa, probably not. That means the dish I cooked for you is both spicy and not spicy, depending on your unique culinary history.
Another example: If I told you that I pay $1,200 in rent for a small, two-bedroom apartment, do you think it’s cheap or expensive? It depends where you live. If you’re from a small town in the Midwest you probably think I should stop wasting my money. If you’re from a West Coast metropolis, you probably think I should keep a deal like this as long as I can. So my apartment is simultaneously too expensive and extremely affordable, depending on where you’re from.
Most people think about right and wrong as a dichotomy, either I’m right or I’m wrong, or you’re right or you’re wrong. But that’s not the only way problems work. Instead of just two possibilities, problems can be divided into four categories.
Ignoring the space where both people are right is especially dangerous in disorders like depression and anxiety. Someone who is depressed can look in the mirror and see a worthless person. Yet their friends and family see a person who is caring, admirable, and means the world to them. It’s not that the depressed person is wrong and other people are right or vice versa. They’re both right. The depressed person believes they are worthless because they’re measuring their worth by their own standards. If you don’t have enough money to pay rent and you feel like a failure, from your perspective, you are a failure because you place a lot of importance on what your income means to your identity. However, your friends and family might define you by your ambitions, your personality, and your happiness, and they couldn't care less what neighborhood you live in if you have to move.
Problems That Impact at Least Two People Can’t Be Defined by One Person
Even if you tell me that you have late-stage cancer, you’re having an affair, or you’re running an illegal scam, the severity of those problems can range from tiny to terrifying, depending on my history. It’s impossible that all three of those scenarios are equally awful to everyone. If I’ve had a sibling and a grandparent die from cancer, I might not be overwhelmed when you tell me about your diagnosis. On the other hand, if all of my past relationships ended in affairs, yours might hurt me the most, even if it was short-lived. And I might not care what illegal activities you do, as long as I can’t go to jail for it. That’s just me, though; I see the older woman, but someone else sees the opposite.
You shouldn’t go around thinking that everyone sees the Boring figure the way you see it, and you shouldn’t walk around thinking no one sees it the way you do. What’s obvious to you isn’t obvious to someone else. Without curiosity about other people’s perspectives, you’ll find yourself in pointless and endless arguments about who is right. When someone believes the exact opposite of what you believe, don’t argue with them; ask questions. What are they seeing? What are they paying the most attention to? What’s their history telling them?
Explore how your experiences are different from someone else's until you both feel right about everything.