Written by Dark Blue.
People are generally at a loss figuring out why others can’t see their point of view, which leads to confusion and rage. This is particular true regarding some rather divisive topics we’ve had about racism and the 2016 election. I feel like we have lost touch with one of our basic human abilities, namely the “Theory of Mind (ToM)”.
Theory of mind (ToM) is the ability to attribute mental states—beliefs, intents, desires, pretending, knowledge, etc.—to oneself and others and to understand that others have beliefs, desires, intentions, and perspectives that are different from one’s own.
ToM is typically associated with people on the autism spectrum, who have difficulty using this ability without treatment. For social purposes, this allows to establish empathy despite the fact that you cannot have identical experiences with another person. To understand where someone is coming from and where predicting where they want to go next and why, ToM is absolutely fundamental to solving problems.
I believe that the severe underuse of this has led to many unnecessary arguments and outrage and have distracted us from actually resolving the problem. Understanding ToM provides one with the very foundation of being able to agree to disagree and having constructive debates with somebody whose worldview is different from yours.
Before we delve further, it’s also important to make a distinction on how and when agreeing to disagree is a logical outcome. If I ask two different people what one plus one is, the correct answer is two. There is no agreeing to disagree because this scenario only warrants one correct answer.
To understand when it’s only logical to agree to disagree in order to lead to an outcome where we all agree, let’s try this thought experiment:
Let’s say we looked at a box from different sides and did not check out the other sides. From my side, I see a picture of a man beating another man. From your side, you see clowns and flowers. Afterwards, somebody asks us what we felt about the box. It is only logical that we are going to have different answers. Perhaps I would say “gruesome and violent” and you would say “childish and colorful.”
Now let’s add another variable, say neither of us know that we saw different sides of the box that showed different images. How would we feel about each other? Under these circumstances, it would be completely reasonable for you to think that I am insane. After all, I described an innocent picture of a clown with flowers as “gruesome and violent.” In addition, I would believe that your idea of a man beating another man as “childish and colorful” makes you a complete lunatic.
Now for the actual problem: we are both tied by our ankles to the wall (think “Saw 1”), and the only way the person who got us there will let us out is when we write a paper that accurately describes what people will think of the box when they see it. There is only one paper to write on and we have to agree on the answer. Now I know in real life, nobody is going to get shacked to the wall for such an absurd reason, but for the purposes of understanding ToM, let’s pretend this is real. Think about what could possibly go wrong. We could yell at each other and call each other names. We would continue to talk about how the other person is insane. One of us may be tempted to stab the other person with a pen?
This is analogous to what we’ve seen too often in real life. Only in real life, we stick to news networks and websites that only support our point of view instead of dismissing theirs.
But what could possibly allow us to realize that the minimal acceptable answer is: “People who see it from one side will think it’s gruesome and violent, but those who see it from another side will think it’s childish and colorful”?
Well first, we would have to realize that perhaps we only saw one side of the box ourselves and that there are different sides of the box. This would mean acknowledging that our own experiences have limitations. We would have to ask what the other person saw instead of just their opinion. In addition, we would have to wonder about the sides of the box that neither of us saw. There is no other reasonable way to find the solution for these kind of scenarios.
Reality requires that we do all of these things to get to actually solving problems when talking to people who have much different experiences from ours, except the differences between people in real life are more than just seeing two sides of the same box; it is growing up in completely different neighborhoods, with different people, different sets of beliefs, while seeing people treat things such as money and people in different ways. As our society becomes diverse, so will the type of opinions that we hear about.
Each set of views has its own potential to be wrong and to lead to disastrous consequences when unchecked and each decision has a great cost, whether it is in money or lives. This is why Theory of Mind isn’t just an abstract concept, but a skill we all need to be in touch with again to have a real opinion and create real solutions in the world that we live in.
About Author: Dark Blue writes to promote a world where people talk to each other instead of over each other, where people understand each other for who they are, rather than see the other as mere caricatures and where discussions lead to solutions instead of wasting time on the irrelevant.
Dark Blue can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org