Sunday, November 2, 2014


“I understand how you feel.”

You hear this sometimes. Maybe you’re venting a problem to somebody and they say those magic words to you. Sometimes they follow it with “but you’re being an idiot” and the magic of empathy dies faster than your little cousin on his first excursion into Dark Souls.

But it is good to know that somebody understands how we feel. It validates it and tells us “the way you feel makes sense to somebody who isn’t you.” It tells you that other people might have gone through the same thing. You aren’t an idiot for feeling this way, you aren’t wrong or screwed up. Maybe that feeling gets diluted depending on the person who tells you this.

Or maybe it’s amplified! Maybe you actually read or hear something from a hero you admire. That they also went through a similar situation and struggled with the same emotions. Maybe they become your hero as a result. Maybe it spurs on your success, because you believe a situation can be conquered and overcome.

Then again, maybe it can backfire. Maybe you wonder, “everybody else goes through this, why can’t I deal with it?” and you feel crappy.

Empathy and emotional resonance are strong things.

In fact people really hate it if you tell them you understand how they feel when you don’t (or when they think you don’t) because it feels patronizing. You haven’t gone through what they have, you don’t understand what it’s like, how could you possibly understand? It feels like they are cheapening your experience.

So all that wonderfully helpful advice that you give them gets ignored, because it clearly doesn’t apply here--or they think it doesn't. Likewise, if you don’t understand what they're going through, your wonderfully helpful advice might be (or feel) impossible to use.

This is also one reason that we might look at somebody’s mistake and call it stupid; we can’t understand how the person was supposed to get from point A to point B, and reached point Q instead. Usually we will understand the mistake if we ourselves have made it, but not always. Because we are wiser and better now, and maybe we’ve internalized a new thought process and forgotten the older one.

And that’s where the crux of it lies. Sometimes we can’t understand, even if we’ve seen other people make the error; we simply do not understand the thought process that led to the mistake, conclusion, or behavior. “I don’t get why everybody is/does [dumb thing].” You can’t see the (il)logical chain that led to the behavior, so you can’t empathize. Though maybe you can empathize afterwards when you see how bad they feel and tell them, “I would feel bad if I did something stupid too.”

It is good to be friends.

Let’s Solve A Puzzle

Two items together cost $1.10. One of the items costs $1.00 more than the other item. How much do the two items cost individually?

The answer is a little farther down.

It’s kind of a blessing and a curse, but I see many situations as puzzles, as having solutions, as being solvable. It’s a useful way to think because it can help you avoid lots of common errors. The field of rational thinking--that’s a field? you might ask--is the art and science of behaving in a way that maximizes goals. If you state a goal, then act in ways that aren’t optimal towards receiving those goals, you are considered to be acting irrationally under that definition. Irrational behaviors can be understandable and common, but when you break them down you see them for what they are: detrimental to your goals. In the rationalist worldview there’s some room for setting different goals based on your own personal values and emotions, though your values may change depending on how rational you attempt to become.

In short, trying to see situations as puzzles or situations that can be maximized is a rationalist worldview. It’s one I like and try to apply as often as I can.

On the other hand, this viewpoint means you overthink things, or at least get accused of overthinking. It can mean you get bogged down with every situation because you don’t want to act in a way that is wrong. Then you see everybody sail through the same scenario and think “ugh, why am I struggling with this?” and the answer is, “I’m struggling with it because my brain wants to struggle with it.” Because, it turns out, that trying to maximize every scenario has costs associated with it that are equal to (or greater than) the costs of simply accepting non-optimal results in those scenarios.

This isn’t a problem with the rational view, but rather one’s application of it. Because you might be getting distracted with a short-term goal that runs counter to a long-term goal and generates you little value. But you don’t notice because, go figure, you feel emotionally attached to applying rationality in a situation, and it’s understandable not to want a bad outcome.

There’s a pattern there.

To the puzzle above, did you answer “one item costs a dollar, the other costs ten cents”? It is the answer many people get and is also the wrong answer, and if you look at it for a moment, you realize why. One dollar is not one dollar more than ten cents. But it feels good to say that answer, because you see the $1.00, you see the $.10, you know there’s some addition involved, you get some number feelings in your head, and you answer. But kind-of-mathy-number-feelings are not really how you’re supposed to solve most math problems.

The best way to avoid an error in this problem is to ignore your gut, ignore what looks good and feels good, and just math it out. Straight logic. If you wanted to use algebra, you could do it like this:

X + Y = 1.10 -- added together, they equal 1.10
Y = X + 1.00 -- one item is a dollar more than the other
X + X + 100 = X + Y -- substitute Y to remove it from the equation
2X + 1.00 = 1.10 -- substitute some more
2X = .10 -- subtract 1.00 from both sides
X = .05 -- divide by two
Y = 1.05 -- add 1.00 to X to get Y

So the real answer is “one item is five cents, the other is a dollar and five cents.” Hooray for algebra.

I might have biased you by telling you that there was a sneaky trick, or common error at the start of the problem. Or you might have made the mistake before. That might have alerted you and made you want to use logic. I don’t know what this bias is scientifically called, but I just think of it as the “puzzle bias.” If you know a puzzle is meant to be solved, then you may have more drive or determination to solve that puzzle because you believe it can be solved. Likewise, if I tell you there is a trap or common mistake in a problem, you may be more likely to double check your answer, just in case. It is why I also encourage people to assume a solution.

Okay, tangent over. The point is that the mistake is very understandable. A lot of people make it! If you don’t stop what you’re doing and engage some math circuitry in your brain (and many people don’t really do that in their day-to-day life) they will go with something that looks kind of good and roll with it. They’ll respond intuitively and emotionally to the problem (respond emotionally to a math problem? Going with an answer that “feels good” without thinking hard certainly qualifies). This might work in a lot of cases, but sometimes the obvious answer is the wrong one. The understandable answer that seems right at first glance is wrong.

Sometimes you need a bit of puzzle bias and you need to assume that there is a trick or trap in the situation because that can keep you alert. It can help you avoid understandable mistakes and succeed more, which is good because success is fun. Or, on the flipside, it can make you paranoid and second guess yourself, causing new mistakes. That is also fun.

So I Just Read All That For What Exactly?

There are a few things to take away from that.

First is that you can have a completely understandable response to a situation. It will make you feel in a way that is perfectly understandable, and you will then respond in a way which is perfectly understandable, causing a perfectly understandable mistake. And everybody will tell you that they understand, and it will make you feel better, and it will make you feel supported.

You will still have made a mistake. One you shouldn’t necessarily feel like an idiot for making, but one which might still need correcting. Hey, these things happen.

Another point is that if you want to figure out why mistakes and behaviors happen, you need to figure out the thoughts and emotions behind them. Not understanding does not render the situation incomprehensible. Especially when you aren’t talking about math problems, where a behavior might not even seem like a mistake to the person engaging in it. So sometimes you have to stop and really listen to another person to figure out “hey, why are they acting in this manner that I currently cannot fathom?” Because it’s very possible that, without your background and substituting their background instead, you would be acting similarly.

Yet another point is that it pays, every now and then, to ask yourself “have I been here before?” The above puzzle is very easy to solve when you’ve seen it before even if you don’t remember the details. You remember there is a trap, and you remember that the obvious answer was not the right one… so you think a little harder and a correct solution comes to mind instead.

It’s less impressive to get that puzzle right (we mostly value the solution to a puzzle or riddle based on getting it right the first time we see it, since pattern recognition is cheating), but if you’re talking about real life situations, it’s important you learn the “solutions.” That is in quotes because real life scenarios do not always have clear-cut solutions like little math puzzles.

Understandable mistakes are insidious, because they make sense at the time. Your thought process will continue to tell you this is a good idea because the emotion is understandable and the logic is understandable so the action seems smart, right up until it turns out to be wrong again. And again, and again.

But if you do take away one thing, take away that question: “have I been here before?” It’s a handy tool, and sometimes it starts the train of thought that helps you remember how you responded then, and what happened when you did.

Thanks for reading.


  1. Whoa, there's a post here. Surprise of the day.

  2. Understanding is often, though not always, related to learning concepts, and sometimes also the theory or theories associated with those concepts. However, a person may have a good ability to predict the behaviour of an object, animal or system - and therefore may, in some sense, understand it - without necessarily being familiar with the concepts or theories associated with that object, animal or system in their culture.

  3. Completely not understandable becomes understandable in a short while! It happens through long-lasting and successful learning!

  4. Thanks a million for such an indispensable and essential share! Indeed, I completely agree with you, and puzzle solving becomes not difficult at all.

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