Misunderstanding as Mismatch

“…you can choose the people whose opinions you care about (and on what subjects), and you can choose the timescale you care about them on. Most people figure out the former [1] but the latter doesn’t seem to get much attention…

…You should trade being short-term low-status for being long-term high-status, which most people seem unwilling to do. A common way this happens is by eventually being right about an important but deeply non-consensus bet. But there are lots of other ways–the key observation is that as long as you are right, being misunderstood by most people is a strength not a weakness.”

-Sam Altman, “The Strength of Being Misunderstood.” SamAltman.com. December 1, 2020.

It’s a tautology. If you understand something that the person you are conversing with doesn’t, you’re going to be misunderstood. Conversely, if someone you are talking with understands something you don’t, you won’t understand them either.

On one level, it’s a question of truth. The assumption that Sam Altman makes above suggests that, over time, truth will out. But, does it? I’d argue that we rarely have opportunities to check our understanding. Either we ignore facts that conflict with our worldview, or we tend to slowly change our views with new information and forget that we used to believe the opposite before we got it. Do we care enough about our own opinions to validate them? And for most of us, the answer is that we don’t want to rigorously validate our opinions. We simply would rather just believe we are right. This, at least, is the general tendency.

So, do we care about what our past or future selves might think? Are we willing to lay out our model, stake out probabilities and evaluate how we did?

Or, more generally, is this something that we can do in community, where people join together to come to a consensus, and reevaluate our beliefs as a group in light of evidence as it presents itself. In the group setting, the general tendency becomes exponential. Groups don’t want to evaluate how effective they are because bad groups will shed members and become extinct. Individual members will then be cut adrift, looking for another group, a task that is harder as we grow older, because group dynamics and cohesion solidify in ways that exclude new members and new thoughts, both of which are disruptive.

The question isn’t whether to care what people think, the question is whether it is worth trying to create consensus or come to a shared understanding or whether it is even possible. The reality is that most conversation isn’t driven by truth, it’s driven by groups trying to assimilate members into an existing belief system.

If we cannot even understand ourselves and deal in good faith with past and future versions, how then can we deal in good faith with the mass of humanity? Conversations are based in this tug-of-war, and the value, for individuals, is exposure to new ideas and different ways of doing things. This is also true of groups, but the strategy requires forming cliques and sub-groups to change the larger belief system. All the while, it is nothing but misunderstanding and the potential for conflict.

It’s easy to not care what people think when you don’t think you can do anything to change it. Further, if those people can make your life miserable, keep your thoughts to yourself. Being Jesus and trying to save everyone, whether from their ideas or their circumstances, is very often an exercise in futility and disappointment. Undertake it when you are willing to accept that outcome and have the energy to spare.