Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

Untested extrapolation and human nature

with 2 comments

In the Firefly universe, Shan Yu is claimed to have said:

Live with a man 40 years. Share his house, his meals. Speak on every subject. Then tie him up, and hold him over the volcano’s edge. And on that day, you will finally meet the man.

The ramblings of fictional dictators are rarely a great source of wisdom, but this one points to one of the most important life lessons we can ever learn:

The true nature of someone or something is often only revealed in the right circumstances—and what the careless observer believes is the truth, is often incomplete, occasionally entirely wrong. Before we have seen this someone or something in a situation sufficiently similar, we can often only speculate about the true nature (or aspect of overall nature).

This has a very wide applicability, including scientific phenomena,* doors,** businesses,*** …—and, most notably, humans.

*Countless examples exist on many different levels. A high-level example is the contrast between classical physics and quantum mechanics or the theory of relativity.

**Is that solid looking house-door really an obstacle to a burglar?

***The final impulse to get this particular text done was a reader email concerning Clevvermail, which serves as a great example of how businesses only show their true level of (in-)competence, customer (un-)friendliness, whatnot, when something goes wrong or an unusual situation occurs. See excursion below.

Consider a small selection of the many conceivable examples involving humans:

  1. Shan Yu’s example: While I do not agree that we would meet “the man”,* chances are that we would indeed learn something new about the victim—possibly even something that radically changes our view. Take someone that you truly believe that you know** and imagine him (or her) in that situation—can you now truly predict how he will react? Will there be tears? Threats? Promises? Negotiation? Cold fear or hysterical panic? …

    *Rather, it would show us yet another aspect of the man.

    **A spouse, sibling, close friend, … I will mostly use “friend” below, but the examples easily generalize.

    Turn the table: Can you predict how you* would react in this situation?

    *A similar table-turning is implied in other examples; however, mostly not spelled out, in order to avoid redundancies. (Obviously, the chances that we will have a good idea about ourselves is far greater than for others—often because we already have been tested/tempted/whatnot in a similar manner.)

    I would not dare to make the prediction even for myself.

  2. Vice versa, can you predict the circumstances* in which you or your friend would hold someone else over a volcano? Actually drop him?

    *Chances are that they exist, no matter how despicable the act might seem. “Do it—or we kill your family!” would likely do the trick in most cases. Now find the borders. (Or haggle.)

  3. Is that friend a true friend, someone who can be counted on for help, or just someone you enjoy spending time with? Would he risk his life to save you from a volcano?
  4. Given the choice, would a certain friend prefer to help you or to obey the law? How would he generally prioritize conflicting obligations, loyalties, whatnot?
  5. Is that confident sounding colleague actually more competent than the rest or just more confident? Is the better-dressed colleague actually more competent or just better-dressed? Is the higher-up actually more competent or just higher up?

    In my experience, these situations are roughly a 50–50, and judgment should be based on the actual performance.

  6. Would your children ever lie* to you, cheat on a test, do drugs, …?

    *Arguably a bad example—if they are old enough to communicate, they almost certainly do…

A particularly interesting issue is the difference between what we want to do (would do in theory, consider the right thing to do, would do if we had the ability, …) and what we actually do. Will someone who rejects theft be able to stick to his principles when faced with a risk-free opportunity to steal ten million dollars? When stealing a loaf of bread makes the difference between eating for the first time in two days and not eating? Who can tell, when someone has not yet been tested… The difference is often even a physiological issue, e.g. in that another repetition of an exercise becomes so painful that even a strong will falters—or that a truly iron will is eventually foiled by a physical inability to complete a repetition. Then again, lack of trying can also leave us underestimating our abilities. For instance, I have several times gone for a walk, felt so lacking in energy after just a few minutes that I considered going back (“must be a cold waiting to erupt”)—and ended up walking for two hours, feeling more energetic at the end than at the beginning. Intellectual activities are the same: Sometimes sleepiness, a headache, or similar prevents me from keeping myself focused for even five minutes on something that I really want to do—and sometimes I can go into a near trance-like state where I spend hours, with only minimal interruptions, doing something that I would normally look for excuses to avoid.

Excursion on Clevvermail:
If we change a single thing in my experiences with Clevvermail, chances are that I would never have written the linked-to text—assume that my credit card had not been arbitrarily rejected (due to some technical, non-credit, issue):

This takes care of the first item (see the linked-to text) outright. It also takes care of most of the fourth item, because it directly or indirectly removes most of my interactions with customer service. It turns the last item from a major issue into a mere inconvenience, with no unwarranted suspensions, and no reason for me to terminate my account effective immediately due to a gross breach of contract. I might or might not have terminated it even so, but if I had, it would have been in a more regular manner, with no opportunity for Clevvermail to later harass me with an unjustified claim. (Be it because a deliberate fraud now lacked even a pseudo-justification or, assuming mere incompetence, because the restrictions concerning online account-termination no longer applied, and the account would have been terminated online.) Indeed, I might even have come off with an impression no worse than “has a poor UI” and “abuses my email address for spam”—both of which are bad, but not necessarily signs of anything unusual. (Some degree of email abuse is fairly common, even among businesses normally considered reputable. This does not make it acceptable, but at least less remarkable and with lesser implications.)

In reality, however, my card was rejected—and Clevvermail proceeded to reveal much more about it self to me than to the average customer. (Or so I hope—for their sake…)

Excursion on (fake?) friendliness and “service experience”:
An interesting special case is formed by the very many who are unable to see the difference between friendly, often fake friendly, service and good service. Smiles, greetings, a few jokes shared, whatnot, are all positive—but they are merely a bonus. The main point must be that the customer gets what he paid for, without any shortage, hidden costs, own unplanned efforts, …

Unfortunately, many incompetent or, worse, dishonest people bank on uncritical customers confusing a smile with good service or hope that a mere smile will be enough to not have to make up for an error and the associated costs/efforts imposed on the customer. Notably, the less competent (or more dishonest) someone is, the greater the past opportunity to practice fake friendliness…

To boot, there can be many border-line cases where someone is friendly just as a bonus, without manipulative motivations, and the uncritical customer is to blame for focusing on the wrong criterion. For instance, old ladies seem to judge how “good” a physician is more by friendliness than by demonstrated competence. This does not automatically make the physician incompetent; however, his reputation is still misleading.

As an aside, the fact that I am not blinded by friendliness has repeatedly led me to view people, including several past colleagues, in a radically different manner than the majority did—be it because I have judged them by their incompetence, not friendliness, or because I have had a greater ability to see through their surface than most others.

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Written by michaeleriksson

September 25, 2018 at 2:04 pm

2 Responses

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  1. […] are justifiable, and the opportunity to consider ourselves in different situations (also see another recent text.) Unlike many other instances of evil being done in the name of good (or “the greater good”, as […]

  2. […] very weird incident has the benefit of illustrating a central point from an older text—a good impression is often based on luck with events and correspondingly […]


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