(Content note: This is a story about one of the times that I’ve applied my understanding of rationality to reduce the severity of an affect-laden situation. This may remind you of Bayesian Judo, because it involves the mental availability and use of basic rationality techniques to perform feats that, although simple to perform in hindsight, leave an impression of surprising effectiveness on those who don’t know what is generating the ability to perform the feats. However, I always felt dissatisfied with Bayesian Judo because it seemed dishonest and ultimately unproductive. Rationalists should exude not only auras of formidability, but of compassion. Read assured that the participants in this story leave mutually satisfied. I haven’t read much about cognitive behavioral therapy or nonviolent communication, but this will probably look like that. Consider moving on to something else if what I’ve described doesn’t seem like the sort of thing that would interest you.)
My friend lost his comb, and it was awful. He was in a frenzy for half an hour, searching the entire house, slamming drawers and doors as he went along. He made two phone calls to see if other people took his comb without asking. Every once in a while I would hear a curse or a drawn-out grunt of frustration. I kind-of couldn’t believe it.
It makes more sense if you know him. He has a very big thing about people taking his possessions without asking, and the thing is insensitive to monetary value.
I just hid for a while, but eventually he knocked on my door and said that he ‘needed to rant because that was the headspace he was in right now’. So he ranted about some non-comb stuff, and then eventually we got to the point where we mutually acknowledged that he was basically talking at me right now, and not with me, and that he was seriously pissed about that comb. So we started talking for real.
I said, “I can hardly imagine losing any one of my possessions and being as angry as you are right now. I mean, in particular, I never comb or brush my hair, so I can’t imagine it in the most concrete possible sense, but even then, I can’t imagine anything that I could lose that would make me react that way, except maybe my cellphone or my computer. The only way I can imagine reacting that way is if it was a consistent thing, and someone was consistently overstepping my boundaries by taking my things without asking, however cheap they were. I can’t relate to this comb thing.”
He said, “It’s not about the comb, it’s that I hate it when people take my stuff without asking. It really pisses me off. It would be different if I had just lost it, I wouldn’t care. It’s just like, “Why?” Why would you ever assume anything? Either you’re right, and it’s fine. Or you’re wrong and you seriously messed up. Why would you ever not just ask?”
“Yeah, why?” I said. He didn’t say anything.
I asked again, “Why?”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean if you were to really ask the question, non-rhetorically, “Why do people take things without asking?”, what would the answer be?”
“Because they’re just fundamentally inconsiderate. Maybe they were raised wrong or something.”
I kind of smiled because I’ve tried to get him to notice black boxes in the past. He gets what I’m talking about when I bring it up, so I asked,
“Do you really think that that’s what’s going on in their heads? ‘I’m going to be inconsiderate now.‘? Do you really think there’s a little ‘evilness’ node in their brains and that its value is jacked way up?”
“No, they probably don’t even notice. They’re not thinking they’re gonna screw me over, they just never think about me at all. They’re gathering things they need, and then they think ‘Oh, I need a comb, better take it.’ But it’s my comb. That might be even worse than them being evil. I wouldn’t have used the word ‘inconsiderate’ if I was talking about them being deliberate, I would have used a different word.”
I replied, “Okay, that’s an important distinction to make, because I thought of ‘inconsiderateness’ as purposeful. But I’m still confused, because when I imagine having my things taken because someone is evil, as opposed to having my things taken because someone made a mistake, I imagine being a lot more upset that my things were taken by evil than by chance. It’s weird to me because you’re experiencing the opposite. Why?”
He said, “It’s not about why they took it, it’s about the comb. Do you have any idea how much of an inconvenience that is? And if they had just thought about it, it wouldn’t have happened. It just really pisses me off that people like that exist in the world. I specifically don’t take other people’s things. If someone takes your arm, through accident or evil, and they say “I took your arm because I’m a sadistic bastard who wanted to take your arm”, or they just take your arm by being reckless and causing a car accident, then it doesn’t matter. You’d still be like, “Yeah, and I don’t have an arm right now. What do I do with that?”″
I looked kind of amused, and said, “But I feel like the arm thing is a bad analogy, because it doesn’t really fit the situation with the comb. Imagine if you could also misplace an arm, as you would any other object. That’s...hard to imagine concretely. So, I’m still confused because you said before that you wouldn’t have been as mad if you had just lost the comb. But now you’re saying that you’re mostly mad because of the inconvenience of not having the comb. So I don’t really get it.”
He thought for a minute and said, “Okay, yeah, that doesn’t really make sense. I guess...maybe I was trying to look for reasons to get more pissed off about the whole thing and brought up the inconvenience of not having a comb? That was kind of stupid, I guess.”
I said, “I really am curious. Please tell me, how much did the comb cost?”
“I got it for free with my shears!” He started laughing half-way through the sentence.
I laughed, and then I got serious again after a beat, and I continued, “And that’s my main point. That something that costs so little and that wouldn’t have riled you up if it wasn’t so likely that it had been taken rather than misplaced, stresses both of us out on a Friday night, a time during which we’ve historically enjoyed ourselves. When the world randomly strikes at us and it’s over before we can do anything, I feel like the only thing left to control is our reaction. It’s not that people should never feel or express anger, or even that they shouldn’t yell or slam things every once in a while, but that to keep it up for a long time or on a regular basis just seems like a cost with no benefit. And I don’t want to sit in here suffering because I know one of my friends is suffering, unable to forget that all of this began with a missing comb, something that I would literally be willing to pay to replace. But that wouldn’t have worked. And once again, this is not the same as someone stealing something extremely valuable or consistently violating your personal boundaries.”
He sighed. And then he said somberly,
“I just wish...that I lived in a world where my cup runneth over with comb.” And we both laughed. And the tension was gone.