Mash's Musings

Dissonance by distance

Published Aug. 30, 2021

I was recently chatting with a coworker about personal ambitions and interests. She wanted to explore building a startup and I wanted to meditate on life and catch up on a quarter century of not reading enough. The first step of both? Quitting our current jobs. We both had an easy time encouraging each other's goals and downplaying the perceived risk but as similar as our goals were, the calculus seemed to change when evaluating our own situations. My coworker captured the irony perfectly, "I can tell you that your fears are irrational but when I apply those fears to me, they seem completely rational."

It is strange to ponder how true this really is. When listening to someone else's woes or concerns, it seems all too obvious what the solution is or how culpable the friend is for their own suffering. When pausing to reflect on how it feels to be in their shoes, it's never so simple. Thinking about things from my perspective, at a psychological distance of zero, there is some strong dissonance about what facts are relevant or important but as that psychological distance increases, that dissonance quickly drops to zero.

When looking in as an outsider, we are able to take achieve a sense of clarity through simplification. All of our personal decision-making is enmeshed in decades of habits, social norms, anxieties, and rules but outside of ourselves; situations are boiled down to a handful of facts and decisions are clear. The complicated mess of emotions and feelings disappears and decisions become a matter of connecting the dots. Emotions and fears become fuzzy layers confusing the facts as opposed to valid reasons to consider the facts differently than they are. With my coworker, we were both able to look at each other's situations, assess that the actual potential downside is fairly limited, and the gain in wellbeing extremely high, but when viewed through our own lens, that jump into the shallow end stretches into an Olympic dive.

This relationship seems to hold true in even trivial situations, as I discovered in the middle of a game of chess. After thinking through a few ideas to try and push my advantage in the mid-game, I decided to bring my queen closer to the quickly growing kingside attack. The move seemed strong but I was aware of a lot of weaknesses in my position and key squares I didn't control. To my surprise, my friend spectating the match quickly calls out "Mate in 3." Turns out he was right. We discussed afterwards how much easier it is to notice these things as a spectator. Even though we were seeing the same board, the mere fact of having some psychological distance afforded him greater clarity. Even in a game of chess, we are so caught up in our fears and worries that we miss the obvious.

Unfortunately, getting rid of an egocentric world view is not an easy task which leaves me with two takeaways. The first is to remember this outsider perspective we have when listening to others, increasing our empathy for what it truly feels like to be that person. The second is to achieve nirvana, lose this narrow sense of self, and detach from our ego altogether. But in the meantime, I do the next best thing: ask a friend.