A Human Bias Toward Standards of Perfection

In a fascinating TED Talk, Laurie Santos shows that monkeys make the same kinds of economic errors as humans do. Another way to say this: Humans make some of the same kinds of economic errors as monkeys do.

Early in the video, Santos asked a question that caught my attention: "How is a species that's as smart as we are capable of such bad and consistent errors?"

What I find most interesting about Santos’s question is a presupposition: The question tacitly posits “as smart as we are” as the standard of judgment. Why do I say “tacitly,” when she clearly states the standard in her question? Though the standard is explicit, what’s tacit is taking that standard as a given.

To demonstrate, I’ll ask a different question: “For a species that consistently makes such bad errors, how is it that we are as smart as we are?” My question posits a different baseline for evaluating our behavior: Our consistent errors.

In my tweets on this subject, I called Santos’s question a “foreground/background error.” That was a mistake. Rather, Santos makes a foreground/background choice. Her question and mine differ in the choice of background and foreground. Her question places human smartness in the background and consistent errors in the foreground. My question reverses the foreground and background.

We humans often ask such questions, which make an implicit choice of what to place in the foreground and what in the background.

For example, people ask, “Why do we sleep?” The question (tacitly) takes awakeness as background. I think it’s probably more reasonable and fruitful to ask, “Why are we ever wake?” The vast majority of living things are never awake. We and other animals do sometimes wake. How does that happen? I think it’s miraculous.

Another example, which I hear a lot: “Why do we miscommunicate so much?” Flip the foreground and background: “How is it that we are ever able to communicate at all?” Communication is a freaking miracle, and our oft-uttered question takes it for granted.

Matt Heusser tweeted another example from a forum on communication between managers and doers: “Why is there so much friction between managers and doers?” Matt flipped the question: “With so much conflict inherent in our systems, isn’t it a miracle that we ever get anything done?”

We could state our observations relatively neutrally, with equal emphasis: We're as smart as we are; we consistently make bad errors. But typically we don't do that. We place one observation in the background, and apply it as a standard against which to judge the other observation.

What fascinates me is that our questions typically place the more “perfect” standard in the background, even though the evidence suggests that humans don’t live up to the standard. What's more, we typically ask such questions directly in response to noticing that we don't live up to the standard. We take as given a standard that we know we don’t meet. We humans seem to have a bias toward judging ourselves against standards of perfection.

This is not an idle topic for me. It's at the heart of my coaching. My clients often lament that they fall short of some standard they have set for themselves. As we explore the standard, we often find that the standard is very difficult to meet, and sometimes beyond human capability. And yet clients make great effort to continue to hold onto their standards, even after agreeing that the standards are unreasonable.

How come we so often choose as background a standard that we clearly do not meet? What would happen if we more often made a different choice, to take our typical experience as the standard, and ask how we are sometimes able to be better than that?

What if how actually we observe ourselves to be were okay, even as we yearn to be “better”?

Of course, my entire post implicitly posits its own standard of perfection: A standard of not judging ourselves against standards that we demonstrably fail to live up to.

Maybe I can soften my own error this way: When we notice that we are holding ourselves and each other to some standard of perfection, we have an opportunity to make the standard explicit, ask whether and how it serves us, and explore other standards that may serve us better.

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