Psychology of Misunderstanding

We fall prey to two assumptions. People see us objectively as we are, see us as we see ourselves
When we say, “He knows what I meant” or “I made myself clear,” chances are, we didn’t and he didn’t. Our faces are not nearly as expressive as we think they are; mild boredom can look an awful lot like mild interest or mild concern.
When we say, “He knows what I meant” or “I made myself clear,” chances are, we didn’t and he didn’t. Our faces are not nearly as expressive as we think they are; mild boredom can look an awful lot like mild interest or mild concern. Pixabay [Creative Commons]

Communication is the essence of human life. It is a tool for developing healthy interpersonal relations. But it is a highly intricate skill which many of us lack and as a result we become easy targets of misunderstanding. It is common to hear people say “ I didn’t meant that, you misinterpreted it”.

There are many factors which explain how and why we misunderstand others and are misunderstood. We have an over estimated belief that we are like an open book and others know how we feel and think.

Statements like “I made my intentions clear,” or “He knows what I meant,” reflect what Psychologists call the transparency illusion, and we are all its victims.

Jacquie Vorauer and Stephanie-Danielle Claude, researchers at the University of Manitoba highlight that we don’t communicate nearly as much information as we think we do. When we say, “He knows what I meant” or “I made myself clear,” chances are, we didn’t and he didn’t. Our faces are not nearly as expressive as we think they are; mild boredom can look an awful lot like mild interest or mild concern.

We fall prey to two assumptions that other people see us objectively as we are and that other people see us as we see ourselves. In reality, our perceivers don’t even agree with each other on what they see in us. This transparency illusion leads to miscommunication and misunderstanding. It is because of this illusion that we blame others for misunderstanding us.

It warns us about our ambiguities in expression and teach us to present ourselves in a better way so that others get us right. There are two main reasons why we’re so hard to understand: First, no one is actually an open book. And second, our actions are always subject to interpretation. However it is imperative to consider that our interpretations are coloured by assumptions and biases.

One of the most influential assumption that guide perception is what psychologists call confirmation bias that is when other people look at us, they see what they expect to see.. If people have reason to believe that we are smart, they will find intelligence in our behaviour.

If they have reason to believe we are dishonest, they will interpret a lack of eye contact or awkward body language as a mark of dishonesty.

Confirmation bias is, however, shaped by many factors like stereotypes about the groups we belong, our apparent similarity to other people the perceivers know, their own past experience with us.

If we have been gregarious, pessimistic, or hot-headed in the past, they will interpret our behaviour accordingly. If we say something that could be considered offensive or humorous, and people know us to be a jokester, then they are more likely to see it in the light of humour.

Our past experience with others helps them to make the right call. The problem, however, is that our early impressions of a person can hold far too much weight and can lead us astray when they paint an inaccurate picture. Psychologists refer to this as the primacy effect—that is our early impression influences how we interpret and remember later information.

The primacy effect is almost entirely responsible for the fact that sometimes, we can do no wrong in someone else’s eyes, while at other times, we seem to be screwed no matter what we do. Likewise sometimes we make mistake of judging people by their facial features.

For instance, baby-faced people—those who have large eyes and small chins on a rounded face—are perceived to be more innocent and consequently more trustworthy than mature-faced people.

The other assumption or bias that influence our perception is Halo effect that is our over estimated belief that someone possesses other positive qualities as well just because we see a single, powerful positive quality in that person. For instance if a person is handsome or charming, people assume him to be smart and trustworthy, too. And in a kind of reverse-halo (a pitchfork effect), if a person is shy or charmless, people will assume him to be dull and unskilled as well.

We are also victims of the other toxic assumption called False consensus (People believe what i believe) is our over estimated belief that our attitudes are universal, normal and agreed upon by others. For example, people who are quick to lose their tempers, who cheat on their spouses, or who take drugs overestimate the frequency with which others give in to these temptations, too.

They say Everybody does it, I’m not so different. But when it comes to goodness, it’s a very different story—because we tend to believe that we have better values and are generally more honest, kind, and capable than others are. Psychologists call this assumption false uniqueness.

Other bias that is the cause of misunderstandings is Attribution Effect/ Correspondence bias that is we simply do not consider the situational forces that affect and sometimes completely control someone’s behaviour. We do not take context into account. There are all kinds of things each of us has to do each day because we have very little choice.

Parents have to leave work when a child gets sick, regardless of how committed they are to their jobs. Millions of people who have lost their jobs remain unemployed months or even years, despite doing everything in their power to seek employment.

And yet, working parents, particularly working mothers, are routinely perceived as less committed to their careers. For instance if I missed someone’s call it was because I was busy, if others miss my call it was intentional.

Take Away

We should express our emotions, words and feelings in a crystal clear manner as others can’t peep in our mind. It is of no use to blame others for perceiving us wrong. Instead, we should introspect and try to look for ways to making it easier for others to get us right. We should look for consistency across perceivers. In other words, if everybody—our friends, our family, our colleagues—are making the same “mistake” about us, then it’s probably not a mistake at all.

It’s time to question the assumptions we’ve been making about ourselves and reconciling others’ version about us with our own. For example if everyone complaints that we are short tempered or sarcastic instead of denying that or fighting, we should accept that and look for the ways to overcome it.

We should not become cognitive misers who don’t think and reflect before judging others. We should process things in a deeper and impartial ways and look for situations and reasons about why people behave the way they do. We should take their situations into consideration. Everyone is fighting a battle we know nothing about.

We should introspect and make conscious efforts to stop falling prey to biases and faulty assumptions while judging others. By doing this we can improve our interpersonal relations and enhance well being.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are the personal opinions of the author.

The facts, analysis, assumptions and perspective appearing in the article do not reflect the views of GK

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