The Perceptions of Others

Let’s take a few scenarios:

  1. I want a particular woman to love me.
  2. I expect recognition for my hard work.
  3. Someone sticks his foot out and trips me. I get enraged at the thought that it may have been intentional, but cool down when I think it may be an accident.


In all these cases, I’m expecting a specific mental state from these people.

For #1, I expect her state to correspond to love when I am in her mind. It’s not enough for her to act loving towards me, I want to know the brain/body-chemistry state known as love is within her and it’s triggered by me. I can’t see this state, would never know it’s not there, yet my happiness is dependent upon it.

For #2, I want people to have a mental state corresponding to knowledge about what I did, and preferably for there to be a parallel state of admiration.

For #3, I do not want a mental state corresponding to intention to trip me.  The physical facts of my trip are identical in either case, but whether I’d fume or let it go depends on my belief about the mental state.

A lot of life falls in this pattern; I often interact with others and expect certain perceptions (inferred from reactions). Very often, these expectations affect my happiness and they are surprisingly ubiquitous.  Sometimes, the people can be strangers or not even present!

With this in mind, a few thoughts present themselves.

First, all the people above must be conscious.  For instance, if I knew everyone except me was an android that acted human, but had no consciousness, I doubt I’d care about any of the above cases. I wouldn’t care about a machine loving me, praising me, or trying to trip me. My uncaring would be so complete that I probably would abandon all social niceties, like hygiene. Really, who cares what a machine “thinks”?

Second, the examples assume freedom of will. #3 is the most obvious case; to be angry at him intentionally tripping me requires that I believe he can possess intention, that he can freely CHOOSE.  What’s more, it’s this chooser that defines the person, and it’s this thing that I would blame. Not the physical body (but I’d attach my anger to it), not the mind, but this thing that stands outside both and pulls the strings. A similar argument applies to the other examples. Would I care about praise from conscious automatons? Being loved is a tough one  If she just falls in love with me without choosing to do so, then it’s not intentional, yet I wouldn’t mind.  In fact, I’d like it if she fell in love with me despite herself as I’d think I was irresistible.

Third, there’s a chicken and egg problem. I have a self image I care about, so how do I conceptualize it? If I do so by thinking about myself in the third person, then aren’t I putting myself in the position of another person? Wouldn’t this mean I’d need others to actualize my self image? Wouldn’t that mean I have to care what they think? So do I care what others think because of how I think of my self image, or do I think of my self image in the third person because I care what others think?  How much of me only exists in a social context?

Fourth, that I’m depending on these reactions and assumptions is made possible by my over-thinking.  The bare facts of situations are just that —  what people do, what I see, etc… However, I read more into them and make my happiness dependent on what I read.  If I just take things as they appear and leave them at that, I could be much happier.  Of course when I need to, I can infer and assume, but it would be a tool to be used when needed and put aside when not.  Maybe this is one reason why people who overthink problems are often so miserable?

Belief is a tricky thing. I can believe in the above, yet still fall into patterns more consistent with a different set of beliefs, as the belief would need to sink in to an “instinctual” level and not remain merely as a set of proposition I intellectually agree with. Which is odd, as I seem to have no problem with the opposite direction; witness how often I get angry at my computer 🙂

3 thoughts on “The Perceptions of Others

  1. It’s funny when I was a kid and I argued with my parents I had this trick to keep my cool at all times: I would imagine them as “protons and electrons,” which is similar to assuming they were just androids with no real intentions behind them. And it did work. It is really the belief in the intentional agent behind other people’s actions that causes an emotional reaction.

    1. Cool, a personal experience with this! So on a deeper level, why does it matter to us? Is it that morality only makes sense with agency, and at heart this is a moral issue? Are we really doing this much cognition on something that seems so instinctual (getting angry with someone)?

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