Love Believes the Best of Others
When you see _ _ NNER, what’s the first word your brain makes? BANNER? TANNER? Heaven forbid, FUNNER?
In his book Talking with Strangers, Malcolm Gladwell writes about a study in which participants were given a list of words with letters missing. They were asked to fill in the blanks to make whatever words first came to mind. Gladwell, trying the exercise himself, wrote: GLUM, HATER, SCARE, ATTACK, and others. After participants finished, they were asked what they thought their lists revealed about them: if someone writes “SINNER,” are they a different kind of person than if they’d written “BANNER”? Respondents didn’t feel their words said anything about them. Then they were given another person’s list and asked what they thought it revealed about them. Immediately, everyone had ideas: she’s vain, he’s competitive, she’s on her period, he’s unfocused. Study conductor, Emily Pronin, calls this the illusion of asymmetric insight. That’s academic speak for: I think I know you better than you know me.
If a person affirms one truth, we assume they’re negating another…
The study highlights our ability to understand nuances in ourselves and our unwillingness to allow other people to be complex, too. If someone says they think the police should have more training, we hear, “All cops are evil and racist.” If someone is concerned about the pandemic’s effect on the economy, we conclude they must not care about the elderly. If a person affirms one truth, we assume they’re negating another, which isn’t always the case. This kind of inaccurate simplifying leads us to see the worst in people, and it’s what starts wars on Twitter.
If anything is unprecedented nowadays, it’s not just COVID. It’s our unwillingness to see the good and truth in people and realize there are more than two sides to an issue. Paul exhorted us, though, that love “does not rejoice in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth” (1 Corinthians 13:6). God calls us to believe the best of others, especially the people we disagree with, and that starts by humbly accepting that we might not know them as well as we think we do, and remembering that people—whether the stranger online or your uncle—are as complex as we are. When we do, we start to listen instead of shout, we try to understand instead of simplify, and, ultimately, we walk towards the kingdom of God.