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Misreading Others' Minds: Asymmetric Insight
claiming to know others' true motives
David McRaney uses the expression “asymmetric insight’ to describe when someone else claims to know your true motives better than you do. For example, a progressive will claim that when a conservative allocates color-blind social policy, the conservative’s true motive is to perpetuate racial oppression. When a progressive advocates steps to fight climate change, the conservative will claim that the progressive’s true motive is to control others’ behavior.
The problem that asymmetric insight seems to solve is one that arises often. You are certain that X is wrong, and yet other people believe X. Why? It could be that believing X satisfies some emotional need. Or it could be that believing X serves some selfish purpose. Those are asymmetric insights that are comforting for you but probably wrong, or at least not the whole story.
When someone else believes X, the explanation that should come to mind is that the other person finds X to be rational and plausible. You should resist the temptation to dismiss that possibility.
For example, suppose you favor gun control, and you encounter someone who opposes it. Some Second Amendment supporters believes that if you disarm the citizenry, then they become dependent on government for protection, and this prepares people to accept tyranny. If you do not engage with that argument, and instead dismiss them as “gun nuts” or “NRA dupes,” you are guilty of asymmetric insight.
Or suppose you favor free markets, and you encounter someone who favors socialism. You may want to dismiss the socialist as motivated by envy or a desire for power. But consider the socialist’s belief that under free markets the powerful exploit the weak. This is certainly plausible. It is in fact true to some extent. Truer to me is the old joke that “Under capitalism, man exploits man. Under Communism, it’s the other way around.” Indeed, free markets are more positive-sum than any past experiments with Communism. But the positive-sum nature of markets is a subtle point.
Or consider that the socialist might believe that Scandinavian countries practice a democratic version of socialism, and they are better off for it. Again, this is plausible. The counter-argument that Scandinavia’s desirable social and economic qualities come in spite of rather than because of socialist policies is subtle and contestable.
Recall from Social Learning Strategies that people decide what to believe by deciding who to believe. If you happen to be surrounded by prestigious believers in X, then you are likely to believe X. Before you change your mind, something must happen that leads you to distrust the believers in X.
Listen to someone describe how they changed their minds about something, such as their religion or their political ideology. Often, the person will report that a leader that they had trusted all of a sudden said or did something that damaged the leader’s credibility. Meanwhile, the person was exploring an alternative point of view and coming to respect those who espoused that point of view.
You may think that you have a decisive argument proving that gun control is a good idea or that socialism is bad. But if your argument were really decisive, the other point of view would not have survived.
Changing minds is a process that involves other people coming to trust your side more than the other side. You don’t get that process going by dismissing them with asymmetric insights.
Bryan Caplan suggested holding oneself to a standard that he termed the Ideological Turing Test. In order to fairly debate an opposing point of view, you must be able to articulate that point of view in a way that is indistinguishable from how one of the holders of that view would articulate it. A defender of free speech would not say “I am in favor of free speech because of the way that it diminishes black people.” Therefore, if you debate against free speech by accusing free speech defenders of being racist, you are clearly not passing Caplan’s Ideological Turing Test. Asymmetric insight is nearly the opposite of trying to pass the Ideological Turing Test.
Sociologist Randall Collins argues that humans are driven to seek positive social interactions. It seems likely that you get a dose of positive energy when you encounter someone who respects your political views, and you lose energy when you encounter someone who scorns for your political views.
Here is an asymmetric insight about asymmetric insight: Asymmetric insight is a defense mechanism that helps you avoid feeling scorned by people who disagree with you. It also can provide you with positive experiences: the people in your political tribe probably will express respect for you when you articulate asymmetric insights that diminish members of the opposing tribe.
The bottom line is that asymmetric insights will not help you deal constructively with different points of view. They will not make you smart. Sharing them with your tribe can make you seem smart to them, if that is your goal. If that is your goal, you should realize that it won’t help you get my respect.
This essay is part of a series on human interdependence.