I just became a new father and a friend of mine recommended I read the book "Brain Rules for Baby" by developmental molecular biologist John Medina. Parenting tips I expected. Underlying psychological phenomenon that is the basis of universal human conflict? Not so much. Medina writes:
People view their own behaviors as originating from situations beyond their control, but they view other people's behaviors as originating from inherent personality traits. Say a guy arrives late for a date. He is likely to ascribe his tardiness to external factors (being caught in traffic). She is likely to ascribe his tardiness to being a careless person (not taking traffic into account). One invokes a situational constraint to explain being late. The other invokes an insult.
Alone in our skulls, we have privileged access... providing detailed knowledge of our psychological interiors, motivations, and intentions. Formally called introspection, we know what we intend to mean or to communicate on a minute-to-minute basis. The problem is, nobody else does. Other people can't read our minds. The only information others have about our interior states and our motives is what our words say and how our faces and bodies appear. This is formally called extrospection.
We are amazingly blind to the limits of extrospective information. We know when our actions fail to match our inner thoughts and feelings, but we often forget that this knowledge is not available to others. This disparity can leave us bewildered or surprised at how we come across to other people. As poet Robert Burns wrote, "Oh that God the gift would give us / to see ourselves as others see us."
Most conflicts do arise out of this kind of asymmetry, but that's why being aware of this phenomenon is super valuable. There are probably all sorts of introspective-extrospective asymmetries in all of our lives right now that we aren't considering. And that lack of awareness is the default state.
Which reminds me of David Foster Wallace's "This is Water" graduation speech (PDF here) where he says:
Look, if I choose to think this way, fine, lots of us do — except that
thinking this way tends to be so easy and automatic it doesn't have to be a
choice. Thinking this way is my natural default-setting. It's the automatic,
unconscious way that I experience the boring, frustrating, crowded parts of
adult life when I'm operating on the automatic, unconscious belief that I
am the center of the world and that my immediate needs and feelings are
what should determine the world's priorities.
We experience life in such a way that one particular perspective, our own, is all-encompassing. Mel Brooks put it best: "Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die."
What if we didn't live that way? Could such a world even exist? We can try.