Knowing me, knowing you ... AHA!

It is still quite normal to say that men are from Mars and that women are from Venus. It seems to be common sense to many people. It is also based on various studies done over the years which seemed to show differences in the way things were looked at and thought about as between the sexes. This remains the abiding impression even though a metastudy was carried out some years ago which puts a different perspective on the situation. It turns out that although there are differences, they are very small compared to the variation which already exists within each of the genders. Indeed, rather than men being from Mars and women from Venus, it would be nearer the truth to say that men are from Chipping Norton and women are from Chipping Campden, the difference is so small.

Having said that, there is other research which tells us that women are better than men at correctly identifying moods from photographs of strangers' faces. Recognising whether someone-else is happy, sad, angry or upset is a pre-requisite for empathising with him. If you do not know what other people are thinking, you cannot begin to feel their feelings.

We are not often called upon to make purely rational decisions - those without any emotional context for the person deciding - such as a when a judge has to decide whether tax is due having regard to the wording of the relevant Finance Act. As previously discussed, normally we are trying to decide how best to implement our wants and wishes. Our emotions give us a framework for what we want to achieve and we use our reason simply to determine how best to achieve it.

And so perhaps this is why we often find it difficult to understand each other's decisions. We do not necessarily feel the same emotions as others or not with the same intensity and so would ourselves have made a different ‘rational' decision in the same circumstances. Add to this then the likelihood that a women will understand what someone-else is feeling more easily than a man, and the probability of mutual incomprehension increases. Men will see women as acting ‘irrationally'. Of course, they are not – well, not necessarily, or at least no more often than the average man anyway. They are making rational decisions as to how to achieve their emotional aims, but in a world which they perceive in a slightly different way to the men around them. This may mean, however, that only the female half of ABBA could truthfully have sung ‘Knowing me, knowing you...'.

I wonder though if in fact we rely mainly on our intuition to decide what other people think. I suspect that it is largely a learning process. We see how other people react to circumstances, that their reaction may be different to what ours would have been and so we learn that there is a spectrum of responses to particular situations.  I suspect that BoJ has learned to be the person he is. He has adopted a personality because he can see that it works for him. A teacher wrote of Boris in a school report. “I think he honestly believes that it is churlish of us not to regard him as an exception, one who should be free of the network of obligation which binds everyone else”.

Since then, he has adopted as his personality that combination of clown and classicist which he has learned makes people think of him as both fun and clever at the same time, and so someone they can like and trust.  Ian Hislop believes (and regrets) that Boris’ numerous appearances as chairman on the satirical programme ‘Have I Got News for You’ helped to establish him in the minds of the public as having that sort of personality and so, ironically, contributed to his becoming Prime Minister. 

Learning the acceptable response to other people’s emotions though would be all the more necessary for those who are sociopaths and so have little or no empathetic intuition. We are told that, here again, there is a spectrum, with some having effectively no understanding of others and others with a limited understanding. Some do not manage to live even near-normal lives and are in prison as a consequence.

Others though succeed in getting through life without their character being too obvious, despite their lack of empathy.  They have to be good actors. But, necessarily, they are single-mindedly trying to look after their own interests. For them, any appearance of altruism is an example of transactional behaviour – something designed to appear to fit in with and so be accepted by society. But in turn it means that they can function well where that sort of narrow focus can be helpful. It is often said that CEOs tend to have that type of egotistical persona. Certainly some of the extremely successful people we read about seem to fit the description.

But there are very many who, although capable of understanding, do not want to do so. It is inconvenient for them to be aware of how others think. It can get in the way of what they want to do and they have enough privilege attached to their lives to be able to adopt that type of approach. And so they choose to suppress their empathetic instincts.

Now where the Donald fits in this spectrum is difficult to say, but I would guess that he is either a sociopath or someone for whom it is very inconvenient to be empathetic. He has demonstrated throughout his life that he comes first. His appearance as a showman on ‘The Apprentice’ was based on his own primacy and a completely unforgiving attitude to the candidates. He found that this appealed to a large audience and made him a popular public figure.

And so, I suspect, he was encouraged in his belief that this was the way for him to behave in real life. He seems to have taken the phrase ‘you’re fired’ with him into the White House. The number of people fired during the first few months of his presidency was astonishing and the rate of firings is still very high.

All of which means either that he is incapable of picking the right people in the first place or, as I suspect, that there are no people who are right for the job. It is difficult to see who could be the right person when it entails being at the same time an expert in your field and being willing to peddle whatever Trump wants said to an ignorant public. Those who have stayed are simply his glove puppets, people who will tell us that day is night and that lies are the truth.

The Times reported on Tuesday that a study had found that millennials in many democracies were now more disillusioned with their system of government than any young generation in living memory. It seems that a survey of nearly five million people showed that those in their 20s and 30s, born between 1981 and 1996, had less faith in democratic institutions than their parents or grandparents did at the same stage of life. The collapse of confidence is particularly pronounced in the “Anglo-Saxon democracies”  - Britain, the United States and Australia, with similar trends seen in Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa and southern Europe.

Dr Foa, one of the researchers, said that this did not mean that voters would support autocratic alternatives. They were though frustrated that their systems did not work for them. Inequalities in wealth and income, the difficulty of getting on the property ladder, the burden of student debt and a greater dependence on support from parents are the main problems. They have created a perception that “the chances of success or failure in life depend less upon hard work and enterprise, and more upon inherited wealth and privilege”. 

Nations where wealth is distributed more equally, such as Iceland or Austria, have much less divergence between the generations. “This democratic disconnect is not inevitable, but the result of democracies failing to deliver outcomes that matter for young people in recent decades, from jobs and life chances to addressing inequality and climate change,” Dr Foa said. 

In the UK, we have a prime minister who, completely oblivious to the needs of others, tells his friends that he finds it difficult to get by on a salary of only £150,000 plus free housing, as against a median salary for the UK of £30,000. And in America, the narcissistic, climate-change denying President gets free state of the art health care for his infection with the ‘Chinese Virus’, while trying to abolish Obama’s affordable care legislation. With this level of empathy, no wonder we have a younger generation wondering about the benefits to them of democracy.

20 October 2020

Paul Buckingham

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