How Good Intentions Make Us Dumb and Mean

MIND READERS DICTIONARY : Mind Readers Dictionary show

Summary: That's the fourth time she's done it and this time you're not going to let it pass. Carefully, diplomatically you tell her that she has got to stop insulting you in front of your friends. It's getting weird. If she has complaints and criticisms, you want her to talk with you about them frankly and privately, rather than attacking you indirectly and publicly. She listens and then pleasantly, earnestly, as if trying to reassure you, says, “It is not my intent to insult and attack you.  I would never want to do that.” There. Satisfied? I didn’t think so.  Or try these: Your child has a C- minus average, but when you confront him, he most earnestly whines, “But I really want to get good grades!” Your husband won’t share the housework but when you ask him to help more he says, “I mean to help.  I would never want you to feel our relationship was unfair.” It’s as if to say, “My intentions are good.  Don’t they count for everything?”  It’s as if to say “I’m a good listener, I’m being agreeable, and I’m on the same page with you. So shut-up because you’re wrong about me. You’re intuitions are unfounded.” And it’s a natural response we’re all capable of giving, indeed, given how minds work, a response we’re naturally inclined toward giving. We humans are the world’s first fully bi-mundial species. We live in two worlds, the real and the imagined.  The real is what confronts us physically through our senses--both physical feedback (the brick wall you bump into), and feedback from other people (the C-). Imagination is a new-fangled ability made possible by our capacity for language, our ability to construct mental word-pictures. Imagination makes us humans preternaturally ambitious, visionary, innovative, entrepreneurial, proactive, delusional, woo-woo, clueless, dangerous, and out of touch. It’s what made Steve Jobs so visionary, and that pompous jerk you know such a total pain in the butt. Our bi-mundiality is a big, risky evolutionary experiment, and its outcome is very much up in the air.  It’s the source of both what could ruin us (climate chaos, economic folly) and save us (new energy technologies, better economic modeling). When we bi-mundials are confronted by discouraging real-world evidence, our first inclination is to retreat into our imaginations.  When someone says, “You’re doing harm,” it’s as if we close our eyes to get a second opinion from ourselves about ourselves. And the likeliest second opinion amounts to: “Yeah, sorry, I just checked with myself.  I asked myself point blank whether I want to do harm, and nope, you’re wrong.  I aspire to be a good person. My intentions are positive. I looked right at myself and that’s not me. I even checked with myself twice. And I agree with me.” We naturally or deliberately overlook the complex tensions between our often-conflicting desires.  Your partner genuinely wants to have been nice to you, but that doesn’t always trump her desire to one-up you. You child wants to have gotten good grades, but that doesn’t always trump his desire to watch a lot of TV.  Your husband wants to have helped, but that doesn’t always trump his desire to hang out on the Internet. One common manifestation of our bi-mundiality is what I call “speaking in the aspirational tense.” We say what we hope will become true as though it’s already true. For example, an hour ago I threw out my pack of cigarettes, and now I proudly declare, “I quit smoking!” I really mean that I aspire to quit smoking but I say it as though I’m stating established fact.   I say, “I hate cigarettes” as though that’s my only feeling about them. I ignore my other feelings about them, hoping they’ll go away. The aspirational tense plays out as wishes touted as realities. It’s als