The Asymmetric Nature of Inflicting Pain

Tuesday, April 26, 2016 - 21:58

"How could they do this to me?"

While I may not know you personally, I'm willing to bet that you've asked this question more than once in your lifetime. Worse yet, some of these experiences occurred with people you knew, loved, and trusted. This makes these situations all the more painful because there is an expectation that they wouldn't (or shouldn't) knowingly caused us harm. And in the midst of all the pain, we are left to wonder why it happened.

Yes, there is a chance that these acts are intentional. However, in my experience, these situations are the exception and not the rule. More often than not the other person is completely oblivious or unaware that they did anything wrong. The most common example occurs while driving along a busy highway. Yes, there will always be some jerk that cuts everyone else off because they are in a big fat hurry and could care less if they disrupt others. However, if you're in rush-hour traffic and trying to switch lanes, it is inevitable that you're going to cut someone off at some point. It's simply a matter of when not if.

Now when you are the one to cut off another person, you clearly know what your intention was in the act. Maybe it was intentional because you were in a big fat hurry. Or maybe you made a mistake, or you were distracted, or it was simply the only way to make your exit. No matter what the situation, you can often rationalize the outcome and downplay the impact on other people.

However, when it comes to others cutting us off, there is no end to the stories we can project onto their intentions. Maybe they were careless. Maybe they are a jerk. Maybe they were texting. Maybe they are just a bad driver. And since they are not available to defend themselves, we can amplify the intensity of the story and our emotional reaction to it until we're both angry and upset.

Road rage is but one example of the asymmetric nature of how we tend to downplay (or we're oblivious) to the pain that we cause others while simultaneously projecting and amplify negative intentions onto others doing the same thing to us.

For those interested in exploring the topic further, Google the phrase "fundamental attribution error". You'll find a wealth of other definitions, examples, and studies that review this phenomenon in more detail. However, you don't need to get a degree in human psychology to get the overall gist. In short, we are often blind to the pain we inflict on others, and yet we have a wild imagination regarding the pain they are causing us.

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About Rick Manelius

Quick Stats: Chief Product Officer of DRUD Tech. Author of Winning the Lottery Within. Graduated from MIT in '03 (BS) and '09 (PhD). Life hacker and peak performance enthusiast. This blog is my experiment in creative writing, self-expression, and sharing what I've learned along my journey. For more information, read my full bio here or contact me.