Thanksgiving and our “Poor Theories of Other Minds”

Thanksgiving is an awesome holiday, rivalling Halloween as the best day of the year.  It lacks the major downfalls of the other main holidays: it has no overt religious or military connections; it is never on a weekend, guaranteeing a few extra days off of work or school for most folks; there is no gift-giving required, and it has built-in feasting AND drinking, unlike, for example, New Years, when people drink plenty but often don’t focus enough on food.  And, invariably, something happens on Thanksgiving causing me to walk around for days as if I see reality in a new light.

There was admittedly a lot of build-up for this year’s revelation, and to be fair it isn’t the first time I’ve thought about this strange phenomenon.  It has, however, become unusually clear.  In the past few weeks I’ve heard it said of many a person (myself included), either explicitly or implicitly, that they have a “poor theory of other minds” (coined, I believe, by Mike) or that they have a very difficult time understanding what and how others think and see things.

For some reason, the small degree of overlap between different individuals’ thought processes is always especially clear on Thanksgiving.  This may be because we (or I, anyhow) tend to sit down to eat, for a fairly long period of time, with people with whom we do not usually take meals.  I find this to be true even when eating with my extended family, and because of this fact, I’m always uncomfortable at family holiday meals and tend to avoid them whenever possible.  This year, I became fixated for some reason on trying to get inside others’ heads, and found it to be entirely impossible.  It’s always difficult, but this time I found few leads to go off of, and less mental overlap, than at other times.  I would be willing to wager that most people who attempt this exercise will either fail outright or wrongly attribute their own thought-patterns and content to other people.

We have a lot of societal infrastructure that seems to function entirely based on people’s common faith in that infrastructure.  Currency, the postal service, celebration of invented holidays (e.g. Thanksgiving), banks, airports, table etiquette … everyone seems to agree on the workings of these things and trust them unquestioningly, understanding and accepting their rules and methods of functioning.  Some such institutions are shared almost world-wide – New Years, for example, is celebrated across the globe, and we can watch the calender turn over on television in major international cities where the people speak different languages and use different toilets from ours.  So clearly, there is some commonality in what occurs in peoples’ mental spaces.

Yet the possibility of so much overlap is difficult to grasp, especially when the sharp differences between peoples’ comprehension of reality is so apparent even within our own country.  The people who presumably share our trust in so much of everyday reality include those famous musicians who do crazy, incomprehensible things, those super-religious people who do crazy, incomprehensible things, those people immersed in [insert subculture here] who do crazy, incomprehensible things, those people who have different conceptions of etiquette and social norms who do crazy, incomprehensible things, those people who grew up in a different decade or socio-economic group or population density or region with mannerisms utterly incomprehensible to others.  There are just so many differences in thought content between individuals; the sharper the difference, the more we pay attention: think of Bob Dylan’s mental content vs. Sarah Palin’s.  But these differences exist between everyone to greater or lesser extent and with respect to different parts of our mental states.

Another example of an obvious thought-content difference: Beavis and Butthead vs. the viewers who laugh at them.  There is clearly minimal overlap between the thought-content and patterns of B&B and those of the average person.  There are probably very few people whose minds are actually comparable to that of Butthead, but I’m sure there are some.  Furthermore, I’d be willing to bet that every group of people is as different from some other where some part of their mentality is concerned as Beavis and Butthead are from the average person with respect to nearly everything.  There’s a little Beavis in all of us.  How sweet.

This was amusing and only a little frightening until I thought a bit too much about the fact that a whole bunch of Beavises and Buttheads has put together governments, banks, parks, driving laws, holidays, gas lines and water pipes, jokes and traditions.  It seems a little tweaking of our minds and all of this would have been impossible.  How the hell did all of that happen?  How does it survive?  A less radical question:  How do Beavises and rappers and conservative religious folks and even those of us with less nameable differences manage to interact every day with so little difficulty?  The fringe-folk are actually pronounced crazy or imprisoned or merely ostracized, but there is a whole continuum of minds out there.

It has occurred to me that although most people probably wonder what others are thinking on a semi-regular basis, bringing it to full attention might make some uncomfortable.  This girl I used to work with told her boyfriend that I was studying psychology (people constantly confuse philosophy and psychology for some reason) and he said “watch out, she’s analyzing you crazy fuckers.”  If only I could.

It has been suggested that I write with more humour.  I’ve entertained (and frightened) myself, but as for making others laugh I have better success when it’s unintentional, probably for the reasons described above.

So, [insert dick joke here] (thanks, Dan).

Let me know if anyone else is as baffled as I am by the functioning of society.


3 Responses to Thanksgiving and our “Poor Theories of Other Minds”

  1. Kevin Conner says:

    1. Direct control. For a long time people would simply subjugate each other on one scale or another, such that a city or kingdom was able to operate based on the thoughts of just a few.
    2. Indirect control. The church, advertising, and some of the more sneaky, Orwellian aspects of modern societies tend to just brainwash people. Common pastimes like shopping for clothes, baseball, and must see tv cause masses to engage in the same thing — either passive, cooperative, or competitive — and that engagement develops at least the same ideas in our minds. Across a democracy you see those kinds of common mindsets embedded in not all but most people. And there are specialties that create different kinds of similar people. The military has brainwashed itself for the sake of efficiency and military people tend to all act the same, at least when compared to other groups.

  2. Dan says:

    Huh huh, it says, “insert dick.” Huh huh.

  3. Mike says:

    Heh heh. Heh heh. Heh. “There’s a little Beavis in all of us.” Heh heh. HEH.

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