On Enjoying Disagreeable Company

Bears resemblance to: Ureshiku Naritai; A Suite of Pragmatic Considerations In Favor of Niceness

In this comment, I mentioned that I can like people on purpose.  At the behest of the recipients of my presentation on how to do so, I've written up in post form my tips on the subject.  I have not included, and will not include, any specific real-life examples (everything below is made up), because I am concerned that people who I like on purpose will be upset to find that this is the case, in spite of the fact that the liking (once generated) is entirely sincere.  If anyone would find more concreteness helpful, I'm willing to come up with brief fictional stories to cover this gap.

It is useful to like people.  For one thing, if you have to be around them, liking them makes this far more pleasant.  For another, well, they can often tell, and if they know you to like them this will often be instrumentally useful to you.  As such, it's very handy to be able to like someone you want to like deliberately when it doesn't happen by itself.  There are three basic components to liking someone on purpose.  First, reduce salience of the disliked traits by separating, recasting, and downplaying them; second, increase salience of positive traits by identifying, investigating, and admiring them; and third, behave in such a way as to reap consistency effects.

1. Reduce salience of disliked traits.

Identify the traits you don't like about the person - this might be a handful of irksome habits or a list as long as your arm of deep character flaws, but make sure you know what they are.  Notice that however immense a set of characteristics you generate, it's not the entire person.  ("Everything!!!!" is not an acceptable entry in this step.)  No person can be fully described by a list of things you have noticed about them.  Note, accordingly, that you dislike these things about the person; but that this does not logically entail disliking the person.  Put the list in a "box" - separate from how you will eventually evaluate the person.

When the person exhibits a characteristic, habit, or tendency you have on your list (or, probably just to aggravate you, turns out to have a new one), be on your guard immediately for the fundamental attribution error.  It is especially insidious when you already dislike the person, and so it's important to compensate consciously and directly for its influence.  Elevate to conscious thought an "attribution story", in which you consider a circumstance - not a character trait - which would explain this most recent example of bad behavior.1  This should be the most likely story you can come up with that doesn't resort to grumbling about how dreadful the person is - that is, don't resort to "Well, maybe he was brainwashed by Martians, but sheesh, how likely is that?"  Better would be "I know she was up late last night, and she does look a bit tired," or "Maybe that three-hour phone call he ended just now was about something terribly stressful."

Reach a little farther if you don't have this kind of information - "I'd probably act that way if I were coming down with a cold; I wonder if she's sick?" is an acceptable speculation even absent the least sniffle.  If you can, it's also a good idea to ask (earnestly, curiously, respectfully, kindly!  not accusatively, rudely, intrusively, belligerently!) why the person did whatever they did.  Rest assured that if their psyche is fairly normal, an explanation exists in their minds that doesn't boil down to "I'm a lousy excuse for a person who intrinsically does evil things just because it is my nature."  (Note, however, that not everyone can produce verbal self-justifications on demand.)  Whether you believe them or not, make sure you are aware of at least one circumstance-based explanation for what they did.

Notice which situations elicit more of the disliked behaviors than others.  Everybody has situations that bring out the worst in them, and when the worst is already getting on your nerves, you should avoid as much as possible letting any extra bubble to the surface.  If you have influence of any kind over which roles this person plays in your life (or in general), confine them to those in which their worst habits are irrelevant, mitigated, or local advantages of some kind.  Do not ask for a ride to the airport from someone who terrifies you with their speeding; don't propose splitting dessert with someone whose selfishness drives you up the wall; don't assign the procrastinator an urgent task.  Do ask the speeder to make a quick run to the bank before it closes while you're (ever so inconveniently) stuck at home; do give the selfish person tasks where they work on commission; do give the procrastinator things to do that they'll interpret as ways to put off their other work.

2. Increase salience of positive traits.

Don't look at me like that.  There is something.  It's okay to grasp at straws a little to start.  You do not have to wait to like someone until you discover the millions of dollars they donate to mitigating existential risk or learn that their pseudonym is the name of your favorite musician.  You can like their cool haircut, or the way they phrased that one sentence the other week, or even their shoes.  You can appreciate that they've undergone more hardship than you (if they have, but be generous in interpreting "more" when comparing incommensurate difficulties) - even if you don't think they've handled it that well, well, it was hard.  You can acknowledge that they are better than you, or than baseline, or than any one person who you already like, at some skill or in some sphere of achievement.  You can think they did a good job of picking out their furniture, or loan them halo effect from a relative or friend of theirs who you think is okay.  There is something.

Learn more about the likable things you have discovered.  "Catch them in the act" of showing off one of these fine qualities.  As a corollary to the bit above about not putting them in roles that bring out their worst, try to put them in situations where they're at their best.  Set them up to succeed, both absolutely and in your eyes.  Speak to any available mutual friends about what more there is to like - learn how the person makes friends, what attracts people to them, what people get out of associating with them.  Solicit stories about the excellent deeds of the target person.  Collect material like you're a biographer terrified of being sued for libel and dreading coming in under page count: you need to know all the nice things there are to know.

It is absolutely essential throughout this process to cultivate admiration, not jealousy.  Jealousy and resentment are absolutely counterproductive, while admiration and respect - however grudging - are steps in the right direction.  Additionally, you are trying to use  these features of the person.  It will not further your goals if you discount their importance in the grand scheme of things.  Do not think, "She has such pretty hair, why does she get such pretty hair when she doesn't deserve it since she's such an awful person?  Grrr!"  Instead, "She has such pretty hair.  It's gorgeous to look at and that makes her nice to have around.  I wonder if she has time to teach me how to do my hair like that."  Or instead of: "Sure, he can speak Latin, but what the hell use is Latin?  Does he think we're going to be invaded by legionaries and need him to be a diplomat?" it would be more useful towards the project of liking to think, "Most people don't have the patience and dedication to learn any second language, and it only makes it harder to pick one where there aren't native speakers available to help teach the finer points.  I bet a lot of effort went into this."

3. Reap consistency effects.

Take care to be kind and considerate to the person.  The odds are pretty good that there is something they don't like about you (rubbing someone the wrong way is more often bidirectional than not).  If you can figure out what it is, and do less of it - at least around them - you will collect cognitive dissonance that you can use to nudge yourself to like the person.  I mean, otherwise, why would you go to the trouble of not tapping your fingers around them, or making sure to pronounce their complicated name correctly, or remembering what they're allergic to so you can avoid bringing in food suitable for everyone but them?  That's the sort of thing you do when you care how they feel, and if you care how they feel, you must like them at least a little.  (Note failure mode: if you discover that something you do annoys them, and you respond with resentment that they have such an unreasonable preference about such a deeply held part of your identity and how dare they!, you're doing it wrong.  The point isn't to completely make yourself over to be their ideal friend.  You don't have to do everything.  But do something.)

Seek to spend time around the person.  This should drop pretty naturally out of the above steps: you need to acquire all this information from somewhere, after all.  But seek their opinions on things, especially their areas of expertise and favorite topics; make small talk; ask after their projects, their interests, their loved ones; choose to hang out in rooms they occupy even if you never interact.  (Note failure mode: Don't do this if you can feel yourself hating them more every minute you spend together or if you find it stressful enough to inhibit the above mental exercises.  It is better to do more work on liking them from a distance if you are at this stage, then later move on to seeking to spend time with them.  Also, if you annoy them, don't do anything that could be characterized as pestering them or following them around.)

Try to learn something from the person - by example, if they aren't interested in teaching you, or directly, if they are.  It is possible to learn even from people who don't have significantly better skills than you.  If they tell stories about things they've done, you can learn from their mistakes; if they are worse than you at a skill but use an approach to it that you haven't tried, you can learn how to use it; if nothing else, they know things about themselves, and that information is highly useful for the project of liking them, as discussed above.  Put what you know about them into the context of their own perspective.

Note general failure mode: It would be fairly easy, using facsimiles of the strategy above, to develop smugness, self-righteousness, arrogance, and other unseemly attitudes.  Beware if your inner monologue begins to sound something like "He's gone and broken the sink again, but I'm too good and tolerant to be angry.  It wouldn't do any good to express my displeasure - after all, he can't take criticism, not that I judge him for this, of course.  I'll be sure to put a note on the faucet and call the plumber to cover for his failure to do so, rather than nagging him to do it, as I know he'd fly off the handle if I reminded him - it's just not everyone's gift to accept such things, as it is mine, and as I am doing, right now, with him, by not being upset..."

This monologuer does not like the sink-breaker.  This monologuer holds him in contempt, and thinks very highly of herself for keeping this contempt ostensibly private (although it's entirely possible that he can tell anyway).  She tolerates his company because it would be beneath her not to; she doesn't enjoy having him around because she realizes that he has useful insights on relevant topics or even because he's decorative in some way.  If you don't wind up really, genuinely, sincerely liking the person you set out to like, you are doing it wrong.  This is not a credit to your high-mindedness, and thinking it is will not help you win.

 

1 A good time to practice this habit is when in a car.  Make up stories about the traffic misbehaviors around you.  "The sun is so bright - she may not have seen me."  "That car sure looks old!  I probably wouldn't handle it even half as well, no wonder it keeps stalling."  "He's in a terrible hurry - I wonder if a relative of his is in trouble."  "Perhaps she's on her cellphone because she's a doctor, on call - it then would really be more dangerous on net if she didn't answer the thing while driving."  "He'd pull over if there were any place to do so, but there's no shoulder."  Of course any given one of these is probably not true.  But they make sense, and they are not about how everybody on the road is a maniac!  I stress that you are not to believe these stories.  You are merely to acknowledge that they are possibilities, to compensate for the deemphasis of hypotheses like this that the fundamental attribution error will prompt.

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Dear Tech Support, Might I suggest that the entire Silas-Alicorn debate be moved to some meta-section. It has taken over the comments section of an instrumentally useful post, and may be preventing topical discussion.

Can somebody nonpartisan give us the Cliff's Notes of the whole mess? I tried reading it. Then I tried skimming it. It seems to rely on some whole pre-existing unpleasant dynamic between several commenters of which I am currently blissfully unaware, and it also looks quite seriously dull.

It also looks pretty damn childish, despite having lots of fun mature-sounding rationalist words. A silly playground arguments is still a silly playground argument.

Are we really going to do this kind of thing on LessWrong now? Nothing is going to turn away non-committed members quite like a huge load of tedious, irrelevent drama on a front page post. I myself am, at this moment, feeling a moderate urge to say "welp, looks like LW has gone to shit now, oh well, thanks internet drama," and I've been lurking here since the OB days.

It would take a lot of evidence to convince me that this shitstorm is going to end up being productive.

It also looks pretty damn childish, despite having lots of fun mature-sounding rationalist words. A silly playground arguments is still a silly playground argument.

Agreed. Post-grad vocabulary, pre-school behaviour.

I don't disagree. My goal in all of this is to make it so that Alicorn and I don't have to treat each other like enemies anymore -- so she can reply to my comments, and I to hers. To end this drama, in other words. And that really is the long and short of it.

For various reasons I'm having trouble understanding, Alicorn is committed to not relaxing her shunning of me. I consider this inconsistent of her and unproductive, for much the same reasons you give.

I would love for the hostility to end too, because it's pretty stupid that people can't publicly reply to each other on a message board. They should try to resolve past difference. ("You first" doesn't count as trying, IMHO.) It's not that I have a reason why I want to reply to Alicorns comments specifically; it's just that the whole charade of having to take circuitous routes to posting because of the presence of the other is just ... stupid.

If Alicorn and a mediator want to come to a (private, online) bargaining table so we can understand and settle our differences, great! That would take the talk off the main, and eliminate the basis for me calling Alicorn inconsistent.

Finding a mediator is the easy part. Getting my committment to such talks is easy too. All that's left is ...

Futilely request rational explanation for downmod.

Quit posting on this subject. Please. I didn't downvote you, but I will downvote any more posts on the topic by anyone.

My goal in all of this is to make it so that Alicorn and I don't have to treat each other like enemies anymore -- so she can reply to my comments, and I to hers.

I would love for the hostility to end too, because it's pretty stupid that people can't publicly reply to each other on a message board.

I suspect I'll regret getting sucked into this topic, but curiosity forces me to ask: if you think Alicorn is acting unreasonably, why not just resume replying to her comments as and when you want? She doesn't have any special editor/moderator powers to prevent you from doing so, as far as I can tell.

Why don't you ask all the other people who have been criticizing me what they think of this advice? Or check out the last time I tried that.

Why don't you ask all the other people who have been criticizing me what they think of this advice?

I don't (at least, not yet) have much interest in what they think of this advice, although I am curious about what they did when you tried it. So if you have a link to what happened 'last time,' I'll check it out.

I made my previous comment because of the unfortunate tendency in this discussion for several people to give me contradictory "obvious" advice, and rather than justifying contradictory positions to each of them, I've been content to just point out the kafkaesque standards I'm being held to.

As for the 'last time', I've linked this several times, but here you go. Notice how unpunished the good deeds go.

I made my previous comment because of the unfortunate tendency in this discussion for several people to give me contradictory "obvious" advice, and rather than justifying contradictory positions to each of them, I've been content to just point out the kafkaesque standards I'm being held to.

OK.

As for the 'last time', I've linked this several times,

I wasn't around for the past iterations of this discussion, and I haven't read the entirety of its latest iteration under this top-level post, so I probably missed it. If you're fed up with people prompting you to link it, I'm sorry; I hadn't realized you'd been repeatedly prompted to link it.

but here you go. Notice how unpunished the good deeds go.

Reading.

Edit - I've now read the thread, and I have some thoughts, but they're not urgent and I get the feeling you're not much interested in advice/rationalizations of advice, so I'll bite my tongue.

The whole affair smells quite a lot like harassment and someone not being content when asked to stop.

Who not being content when asked to stop? Me, or Alicorn?

First link:

[Alicorn:] Since at least one person seems to agree with you, I'm genuinely curious now. Assuming I'm correct in detecting sarcasm there, can you elaborate?

[Me:] [No, because ...]

[Alicorn:] [Do it anyway.]

Later, in the second link:

[Alicorn:] Let me clarify: you think I'm immature, almost constantly in error, you won't explain my failures in enough [!] detail for me to make use of the information even when I ask, [!] [emphasis added]


It's clear to me that what's going on is:

1) Alicorn wanted me to explain something to her that had a lot of emotional significance.

2) I refused.

3) Alicorn kept asking.

4) Finally finding herself on the receiving end in one of these situations, she seeks to "get back" by withholding her replies from me.

But I'm sure there are other interpretations. In any case, whatever you might say of me at least Alicorn was being "excessively persistent" when asked to stop ... well, at least by the standards she expects out of everyone else.

I'm not sure I want to like more people all that much.

I have a generally cheerful disposition, and I have no trouble with civility toward those I dislike. There have been people who clearly disliked me whom I thought well of nonetheless; I've met me, and I recognize this particular combination of attributes isn't to everyone's taste.

But I've never had a situation where I wanted to make an effort to like someone who I didn't like. I think the goals here are typically anti-productive, assuming reasonable socialization skills and some pre-existing friends.

It is useful to like people. For one thing, if you have to be around them, liking >them makes this far more pleasant. For another, well, they can often tell, and if >they know you to like them this will often be instrumentally useful to you.

Let's take a look at these advantages:

  1. More pleasant. Yes, true. Point well taken.

  2. Puppeteering. OK, maybe a bit too harsh, but "instrumentally useful," sounds like that. I certainly want people to do lots of things, but I don't usually trade in on personal relationships quite that way.

Disadvantages:

  1. Personal rot. There are qualities in people that it is unwise to overlook, because the cognitive dissonance is so strong. "He's fun, except for the light stealing," is not going to lead to healthy thinking. This is inevitably corrupting.

If you're admiring something that's interesting but maybe not admirable, you're changing yourself in some way that might not be good.

  1. Failure to change people a little tiny bit. Yeah, your view toward the other human is unlikely to change them a lot if they're adults, because people are bad at learning or attempting to learn new modes of socialization. (This is doubtless why Alicorn's posts on these topics are popular; the deliberate reinvention and aiming of self is both impressive and interesting. And quite rare.) But a little change might be brought about through social cues that recreational puppy-stomping is frowned on.

  2. A lot of effort that might be spent better elsewhere. Overall effort's not fixed, so you might gain extra effort points by doing this, but there's still got to be a net loss.

Premise rejection:

  1. People know more about themselves than you do. As far as experiences, yes, As far as who they are and what they are good at... maybe not.

Anyway, it's a very interesting post, much as I think it's a bad idea. I note that I was and remain a big fan of niceness in most circumstances and a big fan of the niceness post linked at the top of this one. I think this is dangerous step past that.

On a side note, I apologize for failing to honor the tone norm in this thread and addressing the post. For whatever reason, I found the post more interesting than the comment thread, which I gather was moved over from Gawker.

--JRM

Puppeteering. OK, maybe a bit too harsh, but "instrumentally useful," sounds like that. I certainly want people to do lots of things, but I don't usually trade in on personal relationships quite that way.

It is useful to me that my family buys me Christmas presents. This is because, every year, I receive items that it is good for me to have. This in no way diminishes the warmth, affection, and sincerity of the gifts. Similarly, the fact that it is useful to like people need not diminish the warmth, affection, and sincerity of that liking.

There are qualities in people that it is unwise to overlook, because the cognitive dissonance is so strong. "He's fun, except for the light stealing," is not going to lead to healthy thinking. This is inevitably corrupting.

I don't think you should overlook dangerous qualities. For instance, I know a guy who is basically diagnoseably psychotic. He is great to have as a friend because he supplies good music recommendations and has encyclopedic knowledge of the intricacies of D&D rules and how to break them, but I do not want him to know where I live. The fact that he will never get my address if I can help it doesn't prevent me from liking and appreciating his good qualities. (Incidentally, I don't like this guy "on purpose". He's quite amusing enough to be liked naturally. But I still wouldn't have him over for tea.)

Failure to change people a little tiny bit. Yeah, your view toward the other human is unlikely to change them a lot if they're adults, because people are bad at learning or attempting to learn new modes of socialization.

Liking people is not counterproductive to changing their changeable behaviors. If I like someone, and they're busily hoisting themselves by their own puppy-stomping petard, I will do my best to help them improve themselves. This is in their interests, which I will care about furthering because I like them. If someone I don't like is practicing net negative behaviors, I'm inclined to stand back and watch them go up in flames as the backlash hits. Do you have any stories about helping folks you don't like to be better people that you couldn't have managed if you'd liked them?

  1. The usefulness may not reduce the sincerity of the liking, but it certainly reduces the depth. If Steve gives me stuff, and I like him because of that usefulness, and then Steve stops giving me stuff... JRM no more like Steve. Viewing friendships as exchanges isn't evil or wrong, but if it's usefulness that's the prime driver, that's a different sort of friendship than one I really want.

  2. There are qualities that are troublesome that aren't physically dangerous. Affiliating yourself mentally with people who don't care so much about the truth is likely to rub off. I'd like to think of myself as a particularly resilient and incorruptible person, but there's a certain necessary diligence to retain that self-view (which I believe is related to actual resilience and incorruptibility.)

  3. On liking people not being counterproductive to changing behaviors: You might be right. I was considering the (perhaps) increased willingness to tolerate troublesome behavior and the reward function of friendships coming to those who are troublesome in some serious way. It may depend on the people involved. Or I might just be wrong.

  4. I think when we look at petty problems to determine dislikes (She likes the mundane and stupid American Idol, while I like the brilliant and intellectual Top Chef), that is indeed counterproductive. But most of the limited number of people I take an active dislike to.... I don't want to try to be their friends. At all. And I think the world is a better place for my lack of trying.

  5. I think the more serious and common error is to put up with malfeasing people past the point it's reasonable. I also think people tend to trust statements from others overmuch, even when that person has a track record of untrustworthiness. For most, a post on "Staying Away From Hazardous Humans You Like," would be more beneficial.

--JRM

  1. I don't think this necessarily follows. If Steve stops giving you stuff, he's still the guy who gave you stuff; you can still value him for the generosity/skill at picking out gifts/thoughtfulness/etc. that he exhibited then; and you can still think kindly of him whenever you use something he gave you.

  2. Can you go into more detail on how these things may rub off?

  3. :)

  4. I don't think you should be friends with everyone. But if you find that you do want to be friends with someone, it's good to be able to.

  5. I believe or disbelieve or am suspicious of statements by others for reasons other than how much I like them. (I do factor in my model of how much they like me, as I believe people are less likely to lie to people they like; but this doesn't affect their epistemic hygiene, their background knowledge, their skills at rationality, or their susceptibility to fallacy.)

(I do factor in my model of how much they like me, as I believe people are less likely to lie to people they like; but this doesn't affect their epistemic hygiene, their background knowledge, their skills at rationality, or their susceptibility to fallacy.)

I could conceive of situations where friends would be more likely to lie than strangers. A friend may lie about their actions if they care about your opinion of them and not care as much about the stranger's opinion of them.

However, it may very well be that people who I like practice better epistemic hygiene. Indeed, I've found simply being around people who are more careful thinkers forces one to switch into a more careful thinking mode, because if you don't, they'll tear you into little tiny pieces. However, that probably doesn't matter that much since detailed interaction can probably get you a better idea of how the person thinks more than this rough heuristic.

I'll try to explain what I view as the advantages of liking people.

It's instrumentally useful to give people the perception that you like them: they are more likely to like you, and to want to cooperate with you. Probably the best way to give people the perception that you like them is to actually like them.

There are qualities in people that it is unwise to overlook, because the cognitive dissonance is so strong. "He's fun, except for the light stealing," is not going to lead to healthy thinking. This is inevitably corrupting.

Yes, I agree. As someone with high Agreeableness and Openness, I've been burned in the past for being too trusting of people. This tendency is why people with high Agreeableness need to learn certain skills (alluded to by SarahC, including a healthy amount of suspicion. Similarly, Disagreeable people may need to learn to be more trusting and open towards people. Otherwise, even though they might avoid getting burned, they might shortchange themselves on positive interactions and connections with people.

An emotionally Agreeable person applying cognitive cynicism, and an emotionally Disagreeable person applying cognitive openness, could have the same estimates of people's trustworthiness; they are just coming from different routes.

Anyway, it's a very interesting post, much as I think it's a bad idea. I note that I was and remain a big fan of niceness in most circumstances and a big fan of the niceness post linked at the top of this one. I think this is dangerous step past that.

Well, the best way to be nice is probably to genuinely like people. I agree with you that adopting such an attitude has risks; I just think that if you can mitigate those risks, an attitude of Agreeableness combined with some cognitive caution towards people and their motives, is a powerful combination in our society.

It's instrumentally useful to give people the perception that you like them

Hmm. I've found that it's most effective to give people the perception that you're having fun and not judging them. The best way to give a perception like that is to actually have fun and conceal any snap judgments you make. This tactic doesn't seem to have the downsides of liking the wrong people.

I've noticed that I sometimes have this problem. However, there's a bright side that makes it slightly easier: I've found that generally if I have a pragmatic reason to enjoy someone's company that's generally some major positive trait (e.g. only expert on a certain topic around me, is a better chess player than anyone else around, is the only other Go player around, etc.) This provides a positive trait to start with.

The whole thing about the understanding that other humans have circumstances that help explain actions also is something that's been nagging at the back of my mind for a while as somewhat similar. The phrasing here about using it to actively assume that people had good reasons for their behavior made it click more. There's an old tradition in Judaism about trying to assume that people mean well and when one sees something negative one should assume extenuating circumstances not apparent to you. This idea was heavily promoted by among other people the Chofetz Chaim (he was a major Rabbi living around 1900). Sometimes this sort of view was pushed to points where something is just actively anti-rational (ridiculously contrived stories are sometimes told to Orthodox kids to inculcate this point). This also results in some very bad attitudes in the ultra-Orthodox population about not willing to accept that someone did something wrong even when there's heavy evidence (curiously this attitude occurs primarily with people of very high status). This leads to a general worry here: is the effort to try to think of explanatory circumstances here possibly against good rational thinking? In particular, there seems to be a problem if one tries to deal with the fundamental attribution error only when they are people you have a reason to try and like. This seems to easily lead to tribalism. (And again, using the comparison to Orthodox Judaism, these sorts of assumptions are essentially never applied to people outside the fold).

This is interesting. Not knowing much about Judaism, I want to ask: do those "ridiculously contrived stories" teach you to be in denial even when a fellow tribe member does something wrong to you, or is it only about wrongs done to other people?

It varies. These stories as commonly told seem to actually focus more on what would be here labeled as ritual rather than moral law more than anything else. (For example one such story is about a man is seen buying bacon at a store but it turns out he was buying it because his wife is pregnant and had a craving.) Empirically when this sort of heuristic is applied in the real world it applies generally when there are actual victims but the one engaging in the bad behavior in question is of high status (frequently either a rich philanthropist or a Rabbi) and the victims are either of low status (for example, converts, potential converts, children, mamzerim (Edit: They are a technical class of bastards who are somewhat discriminated against in ultra-orthodox settings)) or the victims are an abstract collection (frequently the government if it is say tax fraud).

It might help to give two recent concrete examples. Leib Tropper is an ultra-Orthodox Rabbi who it turned out was sexually exploiting women whose conversion he was supervising. Despite the existence of actual recorded phone conversations being circulated, repeated denial of any wrong-doing was a common refrain in the ultra-Orthodox world. Similarly, during the ongoing Rubashkin scandal with Agriprocessors, much of the Orthodox community has decided that they really aren't guilty or are not guilty of anything that major. The stories in this case they've decided to tell are conspiratorial and portray the US federal prosecutors as somewhat similar to the government of Czarist Russia.

Nice to see a fellow yeshiva bochur here ;)

I agree with your concerns about corrupting your rationality via this exercise. Even if it's instrumentally a benefit. I would require some proof that this is a good thing. I would use this in limited situation where the "lack of like" is probably due to accidental factors that do not really reflect on the the person.

To mention another famous Rabbinical story, a talmudic rabbi had a wife who, ahem, was kind of evil and always did the opposite of request. His son suggested to ask her to cook the said rabbi's Least Favorite food in order to get what he really wanted. The Rabbi was excited by the idea at first (I guess he hasn't thought of it??) but then commented that they should not do this because of "limdu lashonam dvar sheker" - "their tongues have learnt to speak falsely", so lying instrumentally will lead to further corruption, as I understand this.

BTW the original injunction of "Dan lekaf zchus" - "benefit of doubt" in approximate translation - comes from Ethics of the Fathers, and I believe one of the major commenters (R.Yonah IIRC) suggested, essentially, giving heavy weight to the prior: if the person is generally good you should try to explain an apparently bad act, and vice versa! you should explain an apparently good act of a bad person UNfavorably. Pretty sane thought.

BTW the original injunction of "Dan lekaf zchus" - "benefit of doubt" in approximate translation - comes from Ethics of the Fathers, and I believe one of the major commenters (R.Yonah IIRC) suggested, essentially, giving heavy weight to the prior: if the person is generally good you should try to explain an apparently bad act, and vice versa! you should explain an apparently good act of a bad person UNfavorably. Pretty sane thought.

I'm not sure. One can see how this goes wrong in Talmudic contexts. For example, there are a lot midrashim that explain away apparently good behavior by Esau and Ishmael, and there are a lot of midrashim that explain away or try to justify apparently bad or deceptive behavior by Jacob. Yet, a simple reading of the Biblical text shows that what is actually happening is that these just aren't 1 dimensional characters. So this general tendency can be actively distorting.

Edit: For others reading, midrashim are a classical Jewish set of stories generally told in an interconnected fashion to fill in apparent gaps in the Biblical stories.

I just ran across an interview with Patti Newbold applying the idea of assuming the best to marriage (with some caveats about not assuming the best when one is seriously mistreated).

I read your last section ("Note general failure mode: ...") with amusement as I have found myself following almost the exact train of thought several times recently.

It was an appreciated, although unpleasant, kick-in-the-teeth to realise that my thought process actually belied negative aspects to my character rather than positive ones.

Could I ask for advice then on reversing this situation? What internal monologue, or indeed actions, should be ideally followed based on a situation identical to the one given in the article.

I'd advise redoing the entire process, carefully and methodically. Note that the monologue I wrote doesn't include a single mention of the person's positive traits; it doesn't come up with a story to excuse the person's irksome behavior; and the behavior of the monologuer is not conducive to reaping cognitive dissonance, because she has a complete explanation in mind for why she's doing as she does (she is high-minded and tolerant and good) that doesn't involve liking the person. This means that if you get to that monologue, the steps I outline didn't "stick".

I don't have much to add, but in the spirit of Why Our Kind Can't Cooperate, I want to state that I've found this post very insightful and very useful. Thanks for posting!

Being able to pick out positive traits in people that you might otherwise not be able to stand will help you win in several ways: 1) You'll enjoy life more; 2) You'll get more people on your side; 3) You'll have more access to different modes of thought which, while they may be wrong, can help strengthen the foundations of your own ideas.

This actually does work. I tested it out in my day job, which requires regular interaction with people whose company I do not usually like, and found myself almost enjoying it! We shouldn't be afraid to like people, and to enjoy ourselves, for fear of actually becoming like them. If you make the effort to be friendly to that disagreeable person and find something pleasant about them, you're not making their disagreeable qualities pleasant (and thereby running the risk of adopting them yourself). So, don't be afraid to be nice, and by extension, to tolerate tolerance. This is a lesson I'm still struggling to learn.

I liked this post - particularly the way it leads you to critique your own inner thought life. I do have some of these habits - particularly noticing interesting or admirable characteristics in people who might be difficult in other ways.

But I do disagree with the idea of making excuses for the other person. Certainly we should be rational enough to realise we don't know exactly why the other person is ignoring me, or driving like a moron, or not showing any consideration to anyone. Perhaps they have an excuse for it, but probably they don't. And in most of the really difficult cases that we all have to put up with, there is no realistic excuse. The boss really is a control freak. The mother in law really is being unreasonable. Making excuses seems to me to be an answer that doesn't work.

What I tend to do instead is stay away from "That person is" declarations. For example, "That person is thoughtless." "That person is completely unreasonable." "That person is pointless, feckless, undeserving." Whatever. Just don't say it to yourself. It's always an oversimplification anyway, and it leads straight to disliking people. Use a richer classification and understanding scheme instead.

Suppose somebody is driving recklessly. You can say "They're a reckless maniac", and you'll dislike them. Or you can say "They're driving really recklessly." And then imagine their state of mind. They are having fun. They're enjoying themselves. I can understand that. Of course I believe it's the wrong thing to do, but I can see why they're doing it. And in that process, I'm no longer disliking them for it. I'm understanding what it's like to be them, and actually it's not too bad.

And that seems to generally work. Mother in law is mean to me? Why is that? Does she have an idealised husband for her daughter in her mind - who is a rather different man? Is she disappointed that this never happened? Is she acting out her own disappointments in her own marriage? (My real mother in law is nothing like this) Does she have notions of what a husband ought to do that I don't fit? I'm not making excuses here - just looking for what's really going on in her head when she reacts as she does. It's a better level of understanding than you get from just labelling her mean. You get to appreciate why she acts like that. And you're beyond disliking them for it - you're trying to see them as they see themselves.

You can even be quite ruthless. "That car sure looks old! That correlates with low income, and lower intelligence - it may not be driven as well as most. Give it slightly more attention and space. That one has a dent in it - they may not be such a good driver." You're trying to gain knowledge, and that's a process where the emotional positive is gaining understanding, not in finding a positive category to put them into. And this is perfectly compatible with meeting that driver later, finding out how they see themselves, you, and their place in the world, and liking them for it.

That car sure looks old! That correlates with low income, and lower intelligence

Insufficient data, though perhaps a reasonable heuristic. Many people do this, despite being able to afford a more expensive car. Why? Driving an older model high-end car is a good way to avoid the attention of thieves, while retaining a lot of utility. My 14 year old Mercedes has a feature set comparable to a recent model Corolla, but thieves will pay more attention to the Corolla. A car is also a bad place to put one's money. It's much better to buy a cheaper car and invest the difference.

I find it easy to agree with this as I've owned quite a few old cars myself (mostly by keeping a newer car for a long time). It really is just a heuristic. It's not even a heavily weighted heuristic for me - I take much more notice of driving errors like wandering across lane dividers than the age of the vehicle. But driving is probably the most dangerous thing I do and it's worth taking as much statistical advantage as I can get....