Why Seeking Meaning in Most Any Action Sometimes Getting Us Into Trouble

Even when shown circles, triangles and other geometric objects randomly moving about on a screen, we tend to turn them into familiar objects.  Then we instinctively attempt to determine what they mean, a study found.

Two examples:

1. “When asked what they had been watching, the subjects used words like ”chase” and ”capture.” They did not just see the random movement of shapes on a screen; they saw pursuit, planning, escape.”

2. They “spontaneously endowed the geometric figures, on the basis of their motions, with ‘human’ properties. The larger the triangle shown, the more likely it would be seen as ‘aggressive, war-like, belligerent, mean, angry, etc.’”

Whether we love, dislike or don’t know someone, when we see that person doing something we instantly try to figure out what it means. Every apparently minor remark or action causes us to do this.

The difficulty usually happens when we project onto that person what she or he intends by that action. It is rare that we take a moment longer to step into their shoes to see what their action means to them (even if they may not be conscious of it).

The best way to see what it means is to recall what it meant when that person acted that way in the past. A pattern of action, tied to that person’s intention, is usually accurate.  That’s why it is especially valuable when seeing people for the first time, to keep an open mind – before making up our minds about them.  Of course such behavior runs counter to our instinct to survive where we rush to find meaning and decide whether to flee or stay.

From the psychologists Fritz Heider and Marianne Simmel who first studied our desires to see meaning, even in abstract images, we learn:

• “It is safer to mistake a twig for a snake than vice versa.

• Stories help us make sense of what’s happening but we do have a tendency to overreact to over-interpret.

• Leaders (well everybody really) should be always thinking about their actions and what stories will people be telling themselves as a result of their actions.”

My takeaway is to recognize again the value in Going Slow to Go Fast. That is to purposely pause when in a situation to look longer, to understand what that person really means before responding. I often fail at this and act too quickly.

To succeed in life and in work and to savor our time with others our first goal seems to be to bring out the better side in each other. That matters mightily if we are to get in sync. Once that person in front of you likes the way he acts when around you he is more likely to like and support you. Speaking personally, this is not a one-time lesson. Rather it is one that must be relearned, again and again.  It is all too human, to take generosity of heart for granted over time.

What better time than now to make this top-of-mind, during this holiday season?  In every situation we have the opportunity to be a Christmas light for someone.

3 Responses to “Why Seeking Meaning in Most Any Action Sometimes Getting Us Into Trouble”

  1. Niland Mortimer Says:

    Asians often see things differently from Westerners. In a study where groups of Japanese and English college students were shown a video of an aquarium with many small fish and one large fish swimming around, the Japanese all saw a single school of fish, a community, while the English saw a large dominant fish among many small ones. The collective vs the individual.
    We also tend to see what we want to believe we’re seeing even when the belief conflicts with reality.

  2. Kare Anderson Says:

    Fascinating experiment Niland I agree and cited in several places including in recent book (and on cover), Situations Matter by Sam Sommers

  3. Lori Says:

    Hi Kare, thanks for being a light in my life throughout the year.

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