Philosophical Multicore

Sometimes controversial, sometimes fallacious, sometimes thought-provoking, and always fun.

Why Everyone Says the Opposite of What Everyone Believes

Posted by Michael Dickens on January 28, 2011

There are many cases in which many people say something when really the majority of people believe the opposite. There are plenty of examples:

- People talk about how money doesn’t buy happiness and there are more important things than money, because we spend so much time trying to get more money—under the assumption that it will buy our happiness.

- People talk about how we need to take care of the environment, because most of the time we don’t.

- People talk about how we need to slow down, stop and smell the roses, because everyone already assumes that faster is better so no one needs to say it.

- “I have made this letter longer than usual because I lack the time to make it short.” (-Blaise Pascal) People say that short things are better because everyone believes instinctively that long things are better.

- People say that traditional gender roles don’t matter because they actually care about traditional gender roles much more than they’d like to admit.

- People say you should try to live your dreams because everyone believes you should get a steady job with and a secure income.

- People say you shouldn’t care what others think of you because we all care deeply about what others think of us.

Why is this phenomenon so common, even with such powerful cultural ideas? It seems that the more powerful the belief, the more powerful the reactionary idea. Look at my first example: consumerism is a strong force in our culture, and the idea that money doesn’t buy happiness is comparably strong.

The issue here is that we all believe something we don’t want to believe. We don’t want to believe that having more stuff will make us happier. (If we didn’t need stuff to make us happy, becoming happy would be a lot easier.) And it’s probably true that most happiness does not come from possession and consumption. But honestly, on some level, we think it does. And on some level we’re right.

Sometimes this phenomenon arises when we understand something rationally but not on a level where it has much of an effect on our decisions. This is the case with the environment: we all know we treat it badly, but we find it difficult to bring ourselves to treat it any better. We wish we could truly care about the environment, but on some level—on the level that matters—we believe that getting that new car is more important than the long-term sustainability of the planet.

Often we say the opposite of what we believe in an attempt to counterbalance our beliefs. People say we need to slow down because we spend most of our days assuming that faster is better. If you think about it, it’s pretty obvious that faster is better. If you’re faster you can get more accomplished. Moving faster is usually better. But, because we understand so well that faster is better, sometimes we overdo it. The suggestion to stop and smell the roses is an attempt to provide some moderation.

People say things they disagree with all the time. Sometimes they don’t want to believe it, or they believe it rationally but not instinctively, or they don’t believe it but they’re just trying to counterbalance the deeper, stronger beliefs. At the top of this post I’ve compiled a list of the best examples I could come up with, but this is by no means comprehensive. The phenomenon I describe here appears all the time in daily life. Watch out for it. Don’t succumb to what we all believe, but don’t succumb to what we all say either. Realize that both exist, and decide where to stand in the balance between the two.

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5 Responses to “Why Everyone Says the Opposite of What Everyone Believes”

  1. P.S. Sorry for not writing anything for over a month. This recent trend of not posting as often will probably continue. It’s not that I’m more busy; I am certainly more busy than I was a year ago, but I can still find time to write. I just want to make sure that if I’m writing about something then I actually have something to write about. I am working on some complex essays and I want to get them right before I publish them.

    P.P.S. I have just realized the hypocrisy of apologizing for something and then, immediately after that, stating that I’m going to do it again. I retract my apology. I apologize for any confusion this may have caused. I will be making no more half-hearted apologies.

  2. LRFLEW said

    I was just thinking something like this the other day. I was looking at it from a kind of school standpoint though.

    – Why do we say and KNOW that bullying is wrong, but do it anyways. Even when something isn’t “bullying” we still can feel good from other people’s misfortunes, even though we know it’s wrong.

    – Why does everybody know being popular doesn’t mean anything, yet we want everybody to like us. We want to be on television or the internet where everybody can like us. Then we look at the people exactly where we want to be and say “why do they do this?”

    I think it comes from instinctual feelings we have, and as a creature of the earth will never be able to overcome.

  3. Beth said

    It may also be that all of these “instinctual feelings” – such as “fast” vs. “relaxation,” “bullying” or domination over another vs. “niceness” or deference, etc. are derived from our ability to survive not only as individuals, but as a species. All of the points Michael makes that our society quietly does (although we seem to be yearning for the opposite) are programmed into our beings in order to ensure that we carry our genes on. Maybe we can not re-program ourselves so easily. It is a fact that humans, as a whole, evolve slower than the environment that surrounds us.

  4. phynnboi said

    “I have made this letter longer than usual because I lack the time to make it short.” (-Blaise Pascal) People say that short things are better because everyone believes instinctively that long things are better.

    I don’t think that’s what Pascal was trying to say. Rather, he was saying that it’s quick and easy to dump a slew of words on the page to express your ideas (“stream of conscious” writing), but takes time to cut away the fat and leave only what is necessary. It’s like machine gunning versus sniping. It can also be emotionally trying to cut those superfluous words once you’re wed to them–to “murder your darlings” as the saying goes.

    Books like Style: Toward Clarity and Grace address this issue in detail.

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