The younger, high school and undergrad version of me was not the best person. My sense of humor was too dark and I didn’t much care about the experience of other people. When I went to grad school, I was so excited. I would finally be around other economists and I would be able to drop all of the niceties, empty social signals, and fuzziness that I thought non-economists employed. And I was oh so very wrong.
It turned out that economists are also human beings and that no amount of self-congratulatory Spock-praising would stop that from being the case. Indeed, with some candid feedback, I became convinced that I was in desperate need of the kind of prosocial norms that could help me to better produce social capital. In other words, I needed to figure out how to get along. Below is some advice that I’ve found pivotal. Maybe you can share it with another person who might be well-served by reading it too.
Below are six norms that are good to employ in order to improve social cohesion, agreeableness, and, frankly, better mental health. And these aren’t just for economists. I suspect that there are plenty of people (maybe young men) who can benefit from what took me too long to learn. So here we go!
1) Assume Ignorance Before Malice (Bryan Caplan)
When driving, people don’t pay attention. Even when they do, they don’t always recognize all of the details. If you see someone drive in an unsafe or apparently unsafe manner, then don’t assume that they are a bad person. Odds are pretty good that they aren’t fully aware. When you see someone driving too carefully or not carefully enough, then you don’t need to act like there is no problem. Just acknowledge it and say “Golly, they must not know the dimensions of their vehicle” or “I sure hope they get to where they’re going safely!”. Odds are you’ll never see them again or know what the reason was. So, it’s better to habituate your mind to charity rather than malice.
2) Attribute the Best Reasoning to Opinions (Scott Sumner)
Some people hold some silly opinions. Luckily, we don’t have time to hear everyone’s reasoning because their reasoning is often even sillier. It’s a good exercise to take a person’s conclusion, and ask yourself “What version of understanding the world makes that conclusion reasonable?” It’s not sensible to waste your time on challenging the worst arguments. Instead, find the best argument and make that your challenger. If there is time, asking some exploratory questions alone will encourage another person to employ that good logic without your convincing.
3) It is better to be thought a fool than to open your mouth and erase all doubt.
The struggle is real with this one. Recognize when your limitations. You usually don’t have anything to prove to anyone. When there is a topic about which you’re ignorant, be the sponge and learn all of the things. And, when you think that you know all the things, then see you’d like to avoid foot-in-mouth disease. It may be that there is an important unstated premise that makes you all kinds of wrong. Let’s avoid that embarrassment.
4) Speak Softly if you Want to be Heard
This one is from my great Aunt Joanne. She was a nun and a juvenile counselor. Some of the children and adolescents who she met would become animated and loud. If someone yells at you and you must engage, then the absolute best way to assert your comparative advantage is to speak very softly, though firmly. Someone who’s persuasive method includes screaming will be forced to quiet and settle down somewhat if they have to lean-in just to hear you speak. They’ll often realize that they’ve let their composure become ridiculous. I’ve used this one with both children and adults to great effect.
5) Most People Don’t Know Most Things
We’re all on our own journeys of specialization. With every new fact, pattern, or algorithm that you learn, you forego learning the alternative. Knowledge might not be rival between people, but it is rival within ourselves. Recognizing that everyone has made different progress on a variety of different paths of experience helps to make the world a more welcoming and brighter place. It humbles you to the unknown human capital gifts that a person brings to the table. We should create an atmosphere that welcomes that diversity so that we can access the valuable contents of more noggins.
6) Smile a Big Dumb Smile
While you may have what you like to think of as a knowing smirk, you may want to consider and unknowing beam. You have the power to disarm others. Thank someone when they needn’t have visited and tell them that you’re excited to see them. All the while, show them your excitement by wearing a great big, open-mouthed, goofy smile. It’s the kind of smile that says “Let’s share this space as common and dignified humans“. It is absolutely amazing how much people open up and are willing to give you their time when you demonstrate that you’re willing to remove all pretense of suspicion, defense, and pessimism.
There you have them. Given the hyper-rational self conception of my previous self, you may be able to see how I had to learn the above items the hard way. But I guarantee, if you adopt these habits of mind and behavior into your life, then you will soon be known as kind, gracious, and maybe even charismatic…. Or, at least, more so than you were previously. An economist can hope.
Wow, someone should turn this into a poster and hang it up in every “gifted” high school classroom and the student lounges of every “elite” university program…