Asymmetry

There was a fascinating article by Ian Leslie in the Guardian last weekend, about how we tend to judge others very quickly, based on superficial signals, while considering ourselves to be more complex. This asymmetry brought together several strands of thought in my brain over the week.

Leslie’s article describes how many people judged Amanda Knox guilty simply from her brief media appearances. There’s nothing new in judging people too hastily or we wouldn’t have developed the saying “You can’t judge a book by its cover”. But while we might judge Knox based on a smile or a few photos, we’d hate to think anyone could determine our inner life purely from our outward appearance. And it’s this contrast between how we think of others and how we expect them to think of us that’s interesting.

Here’s an excerpt from the article:

What does it stem from, this over-confidence in facile intuitions about what other people are thinking? It probably has something to do with our innate difficulty in recognising that other people are as fully rounded and complex as we are. Emily Pronin, a psychologist at Princeton University, points out that there is a fundamental asymmetry about the way two human beings relate to one another in person. When you meet someone, there are at least two things more prominent in your mind than in theirs — your thoughts, and their face. As a result we tend to judge others on what we see, and ourselves by what we feel. Pronin calls this “the illusion of asymmetric insight”.

The model we seem to work with is something like this: I am infinitely subtle, complex and never quite what I seem; you are predictable and straightforward, an open book.

(Pronin et al’s paper is available as a PDF here although I haven’t read it and it contains equations.)

This notion of asymmetry, of seeing others differently to how we see ourselves, can be seen everywhere, from day-to-day interactions to the views of politicians’ and the making of laws.

At the day-to-day level, we often have less patience with others than we’d expect for ourselves in a similar situation. This week the Young Foundation released a report, ‘Charm Offensive: Cultivating Civility in 21st Century Britain’ which is a good read. Among the ideas it covers are the importance of empathy and “perspective taking”:

Humans are hardwired for empathetic behaviour. In most cases the cultivation of empathy will happen naturally, through positive family relationships and social interactions. But in the same way that we learn norms of grammar and pronunciation, empathy is not a fact of nature. It needs to be taught and reinforced throughout our lives, particularly at key developmental stages or at times of intense change and stress. Empathy is one of the skills most severely truncated in children who experience abuse or neglect, as shown by child psychologists such as Sue Gerhardt and others.

A lack of empathy seems closely related to the asymmetry of interactions. A few days ago I saw a car stuck in the wrong lane, signalling to move into adjacent, stationary traffic. A van behind the car honked many times until it was able to get past. The car, now in the correct lane, honked back once. The van slammed to a halt, reversed, pulled up by the car and, I assume, a healthy discussion of correct driving behaviour ensued.

I don’t want to get all Daily Mail columnist over “declining standards” but I had asymmetry on my mind and this seemed a great example. I expect the van driver has found himself in the wrong lane before but, presumably, he saw that as unavoidable, as an unfortunate and rare mistake, or as someone else’s fault. But, for him, right then, the car driver in front of him was just stupid and wrong. The van driver’s error would be “infinitely subtle, complex,” while the car driver’s was “straightforward, an open book”.

The Young Foundation report focuses largely on very small acts, and how they affect one’s impression of an area or society to a large degree. Much of this is simple politeness. When I see someone at a supermarket checkout talking on their mobile and ignoring the cashier I think it’s unforgivably rude, and could never imagine doing that. Never. But if I was in the queue and my phone rang and it was my wife or a parent… I would, at very least, wonder whether to answer; it might be important! But when I see someone else do the same, they’re being selfish and there’s nothing more to it. My world is complex; their’s is simple.

I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to extend this idea of asymmetry up the societal scale to those who govern us and who, we might hope, set standards.

One example is the reactions of politicians on the US right to the current Occupy Wall Street protests. There are several examples of Republican politicians who supported the Tea Party’s 2009 protests condemning the Occupy protestors as “anti-American,” or waging “class warfare”. In justifying one kind of popular protest versus another, politicians like Eric Cantor end up tip-toeing through semantic differences:

“The Tea Party were individuals that were attempting to address their grievances, seeking redress of their grievances, from the government they elected,” he said. “It’s different, from what I see, of the protesters on Wall Street and elsewhere, that are pitting themselves against others outside of government in America. That’s the difference.”

“And do you not see the government as representing the people?” asked Politico’s David Rogers.

“Sure,” said Cantor, “it’s of the people. But we’re in elected positions and trying to solve problems. I don’t believe that our role is to inflame a division between different parts and sectors of —”

We have subtle, complex demands and are exercising our rights; you are simplistic and causing trouble.

In the UK, the Occupy London protests are demonstrating similar shifting standards among politicians. The Foreign Secretary William Hague “told the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show that protests would not be the answer. … ‘I’m afraid these protests on the streets are not going to solve the problem.’” On the other hand, protests across the Middle East were widely praised by UK politicians, including Hague. I am not saying, of course, that the nature of the two kinds of protest, or what they’re against, are equal. But the asymmetry is there: peaceful protest against the government in which one serves is never warranted, while protests against the rule of those we can disown are worthwhile, popular and the only choice of those involved.

Similarly, we see western governments condemning clampdowns on Internet freedoms in other, more repressive, countries while raising similar ideas at home once they themselves feel threatened. Or the speed with which politicians will condemn torture by politically distant regimes while continuing to allow similar activities on their own behalf. We have subtle and complex security needs, and torture is the only way to keep our people safe; you are simple and repressive, and your brutal actions must be stopped.

Such institutional asymmetry inevitably makes its way into law, and I was reminded of a paragraph I quoted in May from a review by Stephen Sedley in the London Review of Books:

One wonders why, in an era when property rights were all but sacred, trespass — except in search of game — was never criminalised by either the legislature or the judiciary. The answer, I strongly suspect, is hunting. It was — for that matter it still is — one thing for the hunt to hand out compensation to a smallholder who has just had his kitchen garden trashed by a horde of domesticated quadrupeds in pursuit of a feral one. It is another to let the smallholder or the police put the master of foxhounds in the dock and have him fined, eventually giving him more form than the local flasher. Even when Parliament in the 20th century finally lost patience with squatters and made trespass a crime, it did so only where the trespasser had defied a request to leave. So long as it thundered on, the hunt was still safe.

I may now be blurring one concept of asymmetry — a personal reaction to other people — too far into another — how one class treats another — but these strands have all been clustering in my head over the past week and so seem worth tying together.

Maybe they are all connected. And if we want anything to change, for things to become more just at the top of society, we have to start lower down, with ourselves, and how we judge others. Everyone else is, in various ways, as subtle and complex as you and I.

16 Oct 2011 at Twitter

  • 10:23am: The factor that will make unmanned spy drones socially and politically acceptable for police use in urban areas: quieter than helicopters.
  • 11:29am: I’ve got behind on rating music. 1500 songs behind. If I don’t sleep and do nothing else I should be caught up by next weekend.
  • 02:17pm: This is what I mean: “I like the idea of quiet surveillance drones though - it gives me a cosy glow.” At least Big Brother’s quiet.
  • 04:39pm: @katylindemann @simonth Good lord man, slow down! The missus will be getting ideas!
  • 05:05pm: A ramble by me about asymmetry of insight: http://t.co/yf4sU2MD Starts to seem like a bit of a sermon by the end.
  • 05:30pm: @ianbetteridge Yes. Reading opinion tweets from any point of view about Occupy Whatever is depressing.
  • 05:33pm: @ianbetteridge Half the time I think it’s just trying to be witty, point-scoring. Compiled together as a stream makes everyone look dumb.
  • 06:08pm: @bobbiejohnson Empathising’s harder than not, but worth it. I don’t think it’s better online either… judging people by their tweets, etc.
  • 06:19pm: @paul_clarke Pleasure!

16 Oct 2011 in Links