Misrepresenting what Is

Being misrepresented is an uncomfortable experience but not uncommon. If you pay close attention you can see how you are constantly being misrepresented in everyday life. Little situations like someone making you a coffee and you letting them know it’s lukewarm only to have them reply, “so you’re saying I’m shit at making coffee? You’re rude!”. Or you arrive to work late two days in a row and your boss says, “You’re obviously not setting your alarm early enough” even though you get up at the same time everyday but just happened to get stuck in traffic due to crashes on the motorway this week. Punishing you for not getting up early enough is more reasonable because you caused your own lateness. These situations occur when someone has taken something said or done and represented it in an unfavourable way so that their actions following are more justified. Your boss can’t reasonably give you a warning for being stuck in traffic due to things outside of your control but he can if you decided not to get up early enough to make it to work on time. Most people don’t intentionally misrepresent others but it happens due to bad reasoning and attempted mind-reading and when we put their premises into logical form it becomes clear.

For example:

1a) Correct representation of what happened, illogical.

  1. If an employee is late because they don’t set their alarm early enough I will give them a warning.
  2. Employee is late due to car crashes on the motorway.
  3. Therefore I will give them a warning.

1b) Misrepresentation of what happened, logical.

  1. If an employee is late because they don’t set their alarm early enough I will give them a warning.
  2. Employee is late due to not setting their alarm early enough.
  3. Therefor I will give them a warning.

2a) Correct representation of what was said, illogical.

  1. If someone says I am shit at making coffee I will call them rude.
  2. Someone said the coffee I made is lukewarm.
  3. Therefor I called them rude.

2b) Misrepresentation of what was said, logical.

  1. If someone says I am shit at making coffee I will call them rude.
  2. Someone said I am shit at making coffee.
  3. Therefor I called them rude.

In these examples we can see how misrepresenting someone’s views and applying additional or different meaning to what happened makes the reactions more reasonable. It also turns an illogical reason into a logical one. In philosophy one would say turning an invalid argument into a valid argument.

The problem comes from assuming the cause of events or guessing what people are thinking. We apply more autonomy to things when they don’t do what we want and this means that when people do things we don’t like or were not expecting, we think they have more responsibility for their actions than when things are going well. This plays a role in why we overreact and misrepresent people when they say or do things we don’t like. We often are not thinking of people as conscious agents until they affect us negatively and then we think they acted with full conscious integrity so we can treat them as such.

Despite what we think; we are horrible at reading people’s minds. Sometimes we guess what someone is thinking, which reinforces the idea that we can. We are good at guessing opinions of groups e.g. colleagues, but when it comes to individuals we do no better than random chance. When strangers are asked if they feel positively, negatively or neutrally about us we guess what they said right only 22% of the time, worse than guessing right in a coin toss. For people we love we guess right 35% of the time while being 85% certain that we’re right. Knowing someone longer does not increase our ability to know what they are thinking above a guess. This should be sobering. We apply meaning to the things people we care about say while not only being wrong but being confident in our wrongness. How is this conducive to positive relationships? Especially considering that if given the opportunity to know what anyone in the world is thinking we don’t choose the rich and famous; we choose the people closest to us.

Since we will act in accordance with our best guess, which is incorrect more than half of the time, then guessing what people are thinking is a form of misrepresenting them. And if we can’t know what people are thinking, even those close to us, then how reasonable is it to act on these guesses when we could just ask them to explain themselves?

Video version: http://bit.ly/misrepresenting-what-is-yt



1. Nicholas Epley, 2014. Mindwise: Why We Misunderstand What Others Think, Believe, Feel, and Want.
2. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/256447010_Ch_4_Measuring_mind_reading


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