June 7, 2020

The subjective nature of reality

Sent by Jonathan Stark on June 7th, 2020

Legendary comedian George Carlin had a great bit that went something like this:

“Have you ever noticed that anybody driving slower than you is an idiot, and anyone going faster than you is a maniac?”

It’s funny because pretty much everyone on the road is thinking the same thing - i.e., “Why am I the only sane person here?”

Or to put it another way:

“I’m right and everyone else is wrong.”

Irrational purchases

Once at a holiday get-together, I mentioned that Paul Newman’s Paul Newman Rolex sold at auction for $17,000,000 USD. One of my brothers was so offended by this news that he smashed his glass down on the kitchen counter and bellowed “That’s an outrage! Do you know how many people that money could have helped?!”

I understood where he was coming from, but at the same time... we were standing in his expensive house drinking expensive bourbon wearing expensive clothes.

The reality is that virtually all purchases seem outrageous (or at least irrational) to somebody. I don’t buy the absolute cheapest furniture or shoes or vegetables, and you probably don’t either. It’s easy to imagine someone who normally spends, say, $12 on sneakers being outraged by the wastefulness of you or me dropping $120 on a pair of Nikes.

You might say, “Sure, but the $12 sneakers are not worth the price because they are ugly,” but the people who buy the $1200 sneakers would say the same thing!

It’s like Carlin’s idiot/maniac driving example: the people who spend less than you on something are “cheap”, and the people who spend more are “suckers”. Which is to say, value is totally subjective. Value is not “what something is worth” objectively. Value is what something is worth to a particular buyer.

If you see someone make an extravagant purchase and think, “I would never spend that much!”, it’s not that your concept of a “fair price” is right and theirs is wrong... it’s that you don’t understand their situation.

Observable behaviors

This phenomenon is not limited to purchasing behavior. It extends to all observable behaviors. You probably see people doing stuff all the time that you think is “wrong”, to some degree.

Anything from minor stuff like spending $15 on a cup of coffee or an ugly sweater, to self-destructive stuff like smoking cigarettes or cutting themselves, to reprehensible stuff like physically harming someone or systematically oppressing fellow humans.

When you observe a behavior that you don’t understand or don’t agree with (e.g., you think it’s “silly” or “stupid” or “extravagant” or “outlandish” or “heinous” or “sociopathic”), it’s useful to keep in mind that the person engaging in the behavior thinks that they are doing the right thing.

I don’t mean “right” in the moral sense of right vs wrong (although that may be the case), but “right” in the sense that they are thinking “this action is in my best interest”.

Making change

Whether you’re trying to help a client recognize that they would benefit from investing more in your services, or you’re spearheading a political movement to convince a global conglomerate to stop trashing the environment, ramping up your moral indignation and forcefully insisting that their current behavior is “objectively wrong” and therefore they should change it, is probably not an effective tactic.

Why? Because in their mind they are “subjectively right” - i.e., given their understanding of the situation, they believe that they are taking the appropriate actions.

If you really feel the need to change someone’s behavior, a more effective tactic might be to first understand their perspective (even if doing so is distasteful), and then offering an alternative that is more inline with what they are trying to accomplish (and of course, more acceptable to you).

Obviously, this won’t work in all cases. Sometimes there is no acceptable alternative for both parties. Sometimes people have goals or a worldview or a mission that you fundamentally reject.

But recognizing that everyone is operating in their own subjective reality - believing that they are the one who is doing the right thing - creates the possibility of connection.

And connection is the first step toward making lasting change.