The Second Fundamental: Stalemates and infinite loops in a human-persuade-human world.
â€œYou canâ€™t change other people. All you can do is change your attitude.â€
People say this sort of thing when theyâ€™ve decided to stop trying to change someone. Maybe generalizing like this helps convince them to let go, but of course itâ€™s not true. Influence happens. Influence is as old as ecosystems. We are extensions of each other, under each otherâ€™s influence, and serving each otherâ€“sometimes unknowingly (you have about ten times as many bacteria as human cells in your body) and sometimes unwillingly.
And culturally too we are under each otherâ€™s influence, giving and withholding, taking and resisting advice that comes in myriad forms, from the subtlest gesture of approval or disapproval to the most blatant â€œYou know what you should do?â€ assertion. Thereâ€™s no getting around it. You can change other peopleâ€“sometimesâ€“which is reason enough for all of us to be a little wary of othersâ€™ influence.
Iâ€™m telling you for your own good.
Yeah, well, thanks for sharingâ€“but Iâ€™ve got it covered.
Youâ€™re so stubborn.
Yeah, well, youâ€™re so pushy.
No doubt a sequence like this feels familiar. It actually deserves greater recognition than merely feeling familiar. Itâ€™s a fundamental state, or at least the most fundamental secondary state in any argument:
Joe: X is true.
Sue: X is not true.
Joe: Your belief that X is not true indicates a bias.
Sue: No, your belief that X is true indicates a bias.
Level one is about X. Level two is about beliefs about X.
Of the stubborn we suspect an unwillingness to admit theyâ€™re wrong. Of the nagging we suspect some ulterior motive like the desire to influence just because itâ€™s fun to boss people around. And whoâ€™s to say who is right?
If we had enough time and brain capacity, weâ€™d discover that such levels can climb upward infinitely. Following level two, level three would be about beliefs about beliefs about X:
Joe: Your belief that Iâ€™m biased indicates that you have a bias.
Sue: No, your belief that Iâ€™m biased indicates that you have a bias.
And on and on. But our minds are mercifully limited. Itâ€™s easy to get confused by the time we hit beliefs about beliefs about beliefs. At first weâ€™re hopeful that climbing to another level is going to get to the crux of the matterâ€“if Joe could only make Sue see her bias; if Sue could only get Joe to see his. But as we climb the air gets thin and a layer of haze obscures the lower levels. We get disoriented, so we stop climbing.
Beliefs are representations. We have our perceptions of the evidence and from these perceptions we form meanings. The meanings we make â€œre-presentâ€ what we think weâ€™ve perceived. We end up with re-presentations of re-presentations. We enter a hall of mirrors, reflections upon reflections.
The debate about X â€œturns personalâ€ the moment the second fundamental is reached, the moment one party starts representing the otherâ€™s representation or beliefs. When I start having beliefs about your beliefsâ€“re-presentations of your re-presentations, Iâ€™ve got an attitude problem. Not the usual kind, but rather an exploding, self-perpetuating problem with attitude iteration. Suddenly thereâ€™s the potential for a belief about a belief about a belief about a belief, ad nauseam. The moment you hit that second level youâ€™re potentially off to the races. Itâ€™s like the moment you turn a mirror to face and reflect back whatâ€™s on other mirrors. The light suddenly begins to ricochet in nearly infinite loops of iteration.
There are ways to escape such iterations. One is through exasperation:
Joe: Oh, for Godâ€™s sake, get a life, Sue! Donâ€™t you have anything better to do than sit around triple-guessing everybody? Jeez.
In Sueâ€™s defense, the temptation to spiral up these levels is not evidence of a character flaw. Relationships all have such infinite loops built into them.
Iâ€™d like to go out alone tonight. Are you OK with that?
Yeah, Iâ€™m OK . . . are you OK with my being OK?
Yeah, Iâ€™m OK that youâ€™re OK. Are you OK that Iâ€™m OK?
I resent that.
Well I resent that you resent it.
Well I resent that you resent that I resent it.
Well, look who thinks heâ€™s high and mighty enough to be a judge of whoâ€™s arrogant?
Well, look who thinks sheâ€™s high and mighty enough to be a judge of whoâ€™s a judge?
I love you.
I love that you love me.
I love that you love that you love me.
Yes, such loops are laughableâ€“a lot of humor has that iterative quality to itâ€“but donâ€™t let the laughter distract you from the profundity of self-re-presentation.
At the second levelâ€“beliefs about beliefsâ€“thereâ€™s already no ultimate authority. If Joe thinks Sue is being too stubborn and Sue thinks Joe is being too pushy, either could be rightâ€“and thereâ€™s no way of saying for sure who is right. Time will tell, perhaps.
Joe: Thinking back, I was in denial. I was kidding myself. I should have known that I was overconfident, and that actually you had it covered.
Sue: Thinking back, I was in denial. I wouldnâ€™t take your very sound advice, and now I regret it.
But in the moment, thereâ€™s no knowing for sure.
I do have a little advice about how to handle the second fundamental:
Donâ€™t let an iterative loop exasperate you. Itâ€™s not your partner; the presence of iterative loops is inevitable in relationship.
â€¢ Donâ€™t pick a partner who gets exasperated about your occasional climbs up through the levels. Itâ€™s not you, itâ€™s relationship.
â€¢ Conversely, donâ€™t assume the answer lies a level out and that if you persist youâ€™ll get to the bottom of things and youâ€™ll finally prove that youâ€™re right.
â€¢ Recognize that abandoning the climb is intrinsically dissatisfying, even when itâ€™s the right thing to do. You know the answer isnâ€™t down a level. Youâ€™re guessing itâ€™s not up a level, either.
â€¢ Allow stalemate to be one of the options. Itâ€™s one of only three ways to deal with a conflict: surrender, fight, or give it a rest. When none feels quite right, giving it a restâ€“unrestful as it isâ€“is the best you can do. After all, sometimes you canâ€™t change other people.