I firmly believe people have far more similarities than they have differences. This goes for different races, cultures, genders and age groups. All are far more similar than they are different, but people fail to see that because they are programmed to downplay the similarities while emphasizing differences far more, creating an illusion of a greater rift than actually exists.
Sigmund Freud termed this, “the narcissism of small differences.” As Freud wrote, “It is precisely the minor differences in people who are otherwise alike that form the basis of feelings of hostility between them.” In my loss aversion post I gave reasons why we tend to focus on the bad so much more than the good, and the narcissism of small differences is yet another example of this phenomenon, the “bad” in this case being our differences.
There are several profound, fundamental ways we’re all alike and millions of superficial ways we are all different, and people waste much too much time trying to master the latter without understanding the former first. Focusing exclusively on the latter is the realm of pathology and short-term tactics and becomes complicated, while focusing more on the former is the key to grand strategy and leads to simplicity. It’s far easier and productive to master the few profound ways in which we’re similar than it is too master the thousands of superficial ways in which we’re not.
People who operate in the primary theater of operations think foremost about profound similarities and proceed from there, while people who operate in the secondary theater of operations think only about superficial differences, an ultimately exhausting and high-maintenance approach. (I’ll get more into the theaters of operations in a later post)
Here is a simple phrase that you should keep in mind whenever analyzing human nature that makes everything so much clearer: Same strategies, different priorities. I can’t state the important of that principle enough.
For example, say Matt and Lisa are in a bad relationship. Lisa feels Matt isn’t attentive enough. He doesn’t seem to want to spend every waking minute with her, doesn’t show enough affection, doesn’t act romantic and doesn’t show the level of empathy and attention to small emotional details that she’d like. In general, she wants more emotional connection.
Lisa feels she pulls her weight in the relationship because she puts a ton of effort in the emotional connection department. In her mind, she’s done her part. Since her effort in the emotional connection department isn’t being returned, she’s lost interest in trying to get what she wants and in having sex with him.
Matt on the other hand is sick of rarely having sex and having to beg for it the few times that he does get it. It’s gotten so bad that he’s become resentful and is increasingly becoming emotionally distant and reclusive. He’s not doing it consciously to punish her, but rather he’s just tired of setting himself up for disappointment.
Superficially, they’re very different. She’s more into emotional connection, he’s more into physical connection. They have different priorities. That’s not to say emotional connection doesn’t matter to Matt or sex doesn’t matter to Lisa; they matter a lot to both of them, but they just aren’t their #1 priorities.
When you compare how they both treat their #1 priorities though, you see fundamental similarities. She wants her #1 priority fulfilled, he wants his #1 priority fulfilled. She’s sick of asking for her #1 priority to be fulfilled, he’s sick of asking for his #1 priority to be fulfilled. She’s withdrawing as a result. He’s withdrawing as a result. She’s expecting her #1 priority to be his #1 priority. He’s expecting his #1 priority to be her #1 priority. And the list goes on.
Their priorities are different, but their strategies for dealing with their priorities are similar. Priorities can differ greatly from person to person and can change frequently and radically in a lifetime. But personal life strategies are more universal and are programmed by human nature. Understanding both is important, but it’s more productive to learn universal human strategies first, then learn specific differences in priorities second than vice versa.
A difference in priorities is also what is at play in the means/end paradox. It’s a miscommunication of priorities.
This happens a lot in many relationships. One guy thinks his friend is incredibly wasteful with money because he spends all his money on rare pricey comic books. But when the World Series rolls into town, he’ll buy superexpensive tickets on the black market, an act his friend finds wasteful. The superficial difference is what they spend their money on. The profound similarity is that they each spend extravagantly to get their #1 priorities.
One culture may value materialism. The other culture values religious observance. Both have different priorities, but both will be willing to riot for those priorities.
People often make two major mistakes when dealing with others. The first mistake is they assume what is a priority to them is a priority to the other person. Thus if they do something for the other person that fills one of their own priorities, they feel like the other person should be grateful. Returning to our first example, Lisa believes emotional connection is one of Matt’s priorities too, so when she prioritizes it over sex she feels like she is being the more giving one in the relationship. But she’s ignoring his true priority, so in reality she’s actually just as guilty of relationship neglect as Matt is.
The second mistake is they assume what is a priority to them should be a priority to the other person and feel that the other person’s actual priority is objectively less valid than their own and needs to be cured. This can be a dangerously arrogant worldview.
In some cases such a view is acceptable when one person’s priorities are dysfunctional and harm the greater good, but some people walk through life believing the priorities of their lifestyle, family and culture automatically are superior to those of all other differing lifestyles, families and cultures. This leads to a lack of empathy and ultimately, superiority complexes and narcissism.
The feeling that other’s priorities are inferior come up in cultural relations, race relations and gender relations all the time.
To stick with the gender example, men think a woman’s need to just sit and talk and share emotionally for its own sake is unproductive, and therefore an inferior priority. So they often end up coming off callous or they try to offer solutions to problems when the women really just wants to vent.
Women think a man’s need for sex is an inferior priority, so they think sexually frustrating and teasing is harmless fun, even though if a man were to toy with her priority by holding out the promise of a relationship just for laughs with no intention of following through, she’d be thoroughly enraged. In our society, the priorities of men in general are considered inferior more often than the priorities of women are, to the point where many men start believing it too.
Understanding and respecting people’s priorities is a major component of empathy. The inability to appreciate other people’s priorities is why narcissists, superiority complex sufferers, sociopaths and other types of entitled people lack empathy and have trouble maintaining friendships and relationships and often can’t make meaningful connections.
There are immeasurable superficial differences among humans. Throw in all the animal species in the world and those differences increase exponentially. But they are all fundamentally similar in that they all prioritize according to what they feel best helps them satisfy their twin drives of survival and reproduction.
Remain conscious of the narcissism of small differences. Focus on understanding another’s priorities, and you go a long way toward understanding all those superficial behaviors about them that frustrate you.