Raw Concepts: Priority Analysis and Narcissism of Small Differences

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.

8 Responses to “Raw Concepts: Priority Analysis and Narcissism of Small Differences”

  1. A lot of people really get off on being almost uniquely belonging to a crowd. Thats probably why so many people no matter what they were in school, athlete, boorkworm, cheerleader, has some story of out they were the outcast of some group they wanted to belong to cause they life being seen as outcast.

    Also the thing about romantic relationship. Most people fall into meeting 1 of 3 needs, emotional, sexual and financial/status. Most people are either trading one of them for the other. Like You see with Kelsey grammer and his soon to be former ex wife. He gave her status as the wife of a famous tv star/ weathly man for her youth. Now that she is not as young anymore he as traded in for a younger model a la donald trump.

  2. I kind of get what you’re getting at but…. I dunno… something about this theory seems overly-simplistic and reductivist. I mean, sure, all human beings eat, sleep, defaecate, want love/affection/attention/status/self-worth, flee from bad things and pursue whatever they value for the hap hits it gives them… but the “small” differences can add up via a ripple effect.

    To analyze some of your examples: The religious person and the materialist person are indeed similar in that they value and will defend their worldviews. However, those worldviews shape each respective individual in different ways. A religious person tends to be more community and family centric, future/afterlife oriented, and have a moral outlook based on possible spiritual retribution (of course their are also idiosyncrasies related to differing religions, but that’s beside the point.) A materialist will tend to be more individualistic, short-term/present motivated, and may possibly have a moral outlook that can be summed up as “as long as I don’t get caught.”

    Let’s also look at the comic book collector vs. the World Series fan: most people into comic books (or more specifically, super hero comics) tend to indulge in “high escapism” (i.e. escape via high fantasy such as imagining oneself to be a super hero or wizard or robot pilot, etc.) Thus, he could have issues related to engaging reality (not to mention that “high escapism” tends to be a hallmark of childhood so he may also have maturity issues.) The World Series fan, on the other hand, probably participates in “low escapism” (i.e. fantasizing within the confines of somewhat achievable reality, such as wanting to be a rock star, millionaire, actor, athlete, etc.) The World Series fan is probably more well adjusted to mundane reality.

    Overall, I agree that all humans have basic template behaviors, but that “small” differences should not be underestimated.

  3. Yes, but in the big picture their similarities still far outweigh their differences.

    The differences you mention between the religious person and the materialist still boil down to differences in priorities. Community-centered versus individualistic? Two different priorities. How the religious person treats the community is similar to how the materialist treats the individual. If you understand one, you’ll understand the other. Same with future-oriented versus present-oriented. One prioritizes the future, the other prioritizes the present. The way the former reacts to incentives or threats to his future welfare are usually pretty similar to the way the latter reacts to incentives or threats to his present gratification.

    Once you understand a two people’s priorities, you can get them to behave the exact same way by aiming the same strategies at their #1 priorities. For example, if you show the present-oriented materialist the short term benefits of a 40-hour a week job and show a future-oriented community and family oriented guy the long term and future benefits of a 40-hour a week job, they’ll both really want full-time jobs.

    I also disagree that a person overinvested in comic book collecting is necessarily that much more out of touch with mundane reality than someone who takes sports way too seriously either. Read a comic message board and read a sports message board and tell me the fanatics in each aren’t suffering from similar pathologies: basking in reflected glory, hero worship, living vicariously through larger than life figures, antisocial disorders, obsessive preoccupation with meaningless trivia and stats. Listen to some of the people who call into local sports radio shows for example. They’re not really all that different than the comic book guy on the Simpsons. I’m not talking the regular comic fan and the regular sports fan but the rabid, hardcore guys.

    Practically speaking, the average armchair sports fan’s chances of becoming a pro athlete are about as likely as a comic fan’s chances of becoming a superhero. None. Both have more practical goals available to them such as being a local sports columnist or a comic journalist. The practical effects of the sports fan who takes his obsession way too far to me really aren’t all that different than the effects of taking sports fandom too far.

    I think in all these cases the similarities far outweigh the differences. Which isn’t to say the differences don’t matter, they are important. Just that understanding the similarities first leads to a simpler and more comprehensive, profound understanding, and more importantly, empathy, something that just focusing on differences doesn’t lead to.

  4. Great post! It would seem that the emotional/physical need problem is what leads to so many relationships going south (and sexless). Any comment on how to fix it? Seems like there might be some feedback loop so if one parties makes a move it can feedback to get their needs/wants met? This would be interesting to explore.

  5. Great post. This reminds me of how some of the bitterest feuds between two different ethnic groups tend to occur between cultures that are mostly the same – Irish Catholics and Irish Protestants, Greeks and Turks, Israelis and Arabs. Part of it is that inhabiting the same geographic area leads to competition over land and resources, but it goes beyond that.

    When the body senses some harmful microbe or pathogen, the immune system kicks in to contain it, neutralize it and eject it. The same sort of thing happens at the psychic level. People have this uncanny ability to separate themselves from the negative parts of their own personality and project that negativity at some outward force. The result is that people construct some positive group identity around an arbitrary demographic characteristic in order to create some “other” on whom they can blame all of their problems. For the black nationalist, it’s the white man’s fault. For the race realist, it’s all those inferior non-asian minorities. For the feminist, it’s the patriarchy. For the nativist, it’s immigrants. The list goes on.

    What all these groups have in common is the inability to face up to the fact that they create many of their own problems. And this narcissism is what allows them to continue fooling themselves into thinking that someone else is to blame.

  6. “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.”

    Interesting points. I think you are onto something here. That’s kind of a new perspective on things for me. Nicely done.

  7. Well said; particularly your analysis concerning the sports fan vs. the comic fan. I see your point in that regard now, and agree with you.

    Nevertheless there’s still something that bothers me about the religious vs. materialist example. Perhaps I’m misreading it, but there seems to be a subtext of: “if the materialist and religious person simply understood that they each value their respective worldview a lot, they would get along through empathy.” The problem is that their worldviews may be based on the template of prioritizing, but the results of pursuing these priorities are completely different.

    For example: even if the religious person comes to understand that the materialist highly values their pursuit of lots of gadgets, toys, doo dads, and physical status symbols, the religious person will still find such a pursuit disgusting and repugnant and antithetical to their own pursuit of enlightenment/spiritual oneness/etc. In the same vein, the materialist will still react with revulsion to the religious person’s pursuit of order through abstract ideas, as well as the, from the materialist’s point of view, arbitrary restrictions and silly antiquated customs and superstitions, even if the materialist understands that the religious person values these things highly.

    Plus, if you think about it, their dislike of each others priorities are somewhat justified. If either one were to impose their priorities on the other, one of their worldviews would be compromised.

    To use an extreme example: I understand that copulating with a child is a pedophile’s #1 priority, but I still think said pedophile is a disgusting sunuvabitch.

    Your example of utilizing the religious and the materialist’s priorities to make them do the same thing is good in terms of knowing how to get people to do certain things that you want them to do, but it’s also a limited example. One would have to be a master bs artist or the religious person in question would have to be mentally broken, in order to convince a religious person of the long-term spiritual and family values benefits of sleeping with a prostitute. Likewise, convincing a materialist of the short term gratifying benefits of selling all of their possessions to become a wandering monk would also most likely be an exercise in futility.

    All human beings do indeed value whatever they prioritize, but what different individuals/cultures/races/etc. prioritize produces different results that can potentially create differences that empathy alone cannot bridge.

  8. knowing why does not necessarily mean all is fine and dandy. Some priorities are superior to others, and therefore there are superior reasons why they are. Understanding why someone has something as their priority does not mean I approve of their reason or think its a worthy or equal one.