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Paternal Bias

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While I was shampooing in the shower recently, my 2-year-old son took a respite from his rubber duckies to ask, "Daddy ha-ppiness?" My heart melted with paternal pride. It had been a long week. My own (precocious) flesh and blood sensed my fatigue and responded with empathic concern about my existential well-being.

Upon rinsing the shampoo out, I opened my eyes to a toddler pointing south of my waistline. I realized that my own (pedestrian) flesh and blood was utterly disinterested in my well-being. Instead, he was eager to confirm the anatomically obvious, "Daddy ha' penis?"

Despite the blow to my paternal pride, this interaction captured two important facets of social thinking. First, as we navigate our complex social worlds, we fill-in lots of blanks to make sense of incomplete information. We make educated guesses about what we don't quite hear. We read between the lines. We rely on assumptions.

Second, we then fill in these blanks in self-serving ways. As my son reminded me, we hear what we want to make ourselves feel better.

These two thought habits constitute the basic ingredients of "naïve realism." In this bias, we assume that we objectively perceive reality in our social universe. To the extent that others share our views, they too perceive the world as it really is. But those with divergent perceptions from our own? They are self-interested, biased, and/or relying upon different (presumably impoverished) information. Naturally, we prefer spending time with those who share our view of the universe.

In my own parenting efforts, I strive to help both my children avoid this nasty bias. It helps explain so many vexing social phenomena that will affect their lives: Why teens self-segregate into cliques and bully students from other groups; why half of marriages end in divorce; and why politicians from opposing parties can't just get along. At the root of these and many other social problems lie two parties with competing perceptions of the world. Despite partial information informing those perceptions, both sides hold deep convictions that their perceptions are complete and correct.

While I do not have all the answers to counteracting this bias, I see some promise with two approaches I've tried with my own children.

Multiple explanations. To navigate our social worlds, we inevitably devise theories to explain why others do those crazy things that they do. As my kids devise their theories, I encourage them to develop more than one. In particular, I nudge them to make one of the pet theories "other-serving" rather than self-serving.

For instance, when informed that they need to go to bed now, are not allowed more dessert, etc. my children will, on occasion, express a dissenting opinion. Rather than responding to their protests with a rationale, I ask my children to guess what my reasoning is. Typically their first reason has to do with my penchant for cruelty. So I ask for another reason. Often, they suggest the tyrannical pleasure I take in being unfair to others. At this point, I ask for a reason that I might actually give.

Eventually, (at least on the good days) they manufacture an explanation that is vaguely connected to rest or health. (Admittedly, the successes are disproportionately with the 6-year-old, but the 2-year-old at least learns the rhythm of the game).

Consult others. Second, before drawing conclusions about others' behavior, we can check in with friends. If part of our problems stem from missing information, a second set of eyes and ears helps immensely. So as my children are trying to develop pet theories (particularly in the above scenario), I encourage them to help each other out by providing additional reasons.

In general, I feel good about these parenting practices. But here's the catch -- a lesson I learned from my own father. He was no more or less susceptible to naïve realism than the next guy... except for when he passed judgment on disagreements I had with others. On this topic, he was wholly and irrationally incapable of giving any credit to coaches who were stingy with playing time, ex-girlfriends who dumped me, and any other party who opposed me.

I remain convinced that the world would be a better place if we were less confident filling-in-the-blanks, fell prey to naïve realism less, and exercised more humility in judging others. If I can teach my own children this lesson while providing them the extravagant support I got from my own father, it would bring me untold ha-ppiness.