Ellen Langer

We often believe that people’s behavior reveal important differences about them. But wherein does the difference lie? It’s mid summer and my friends seem to have no trouble walking straight into the ocean water. I love to swim, but the water is often just too cold for me. I imagine that I look like a coward of sorts—not strong enough to brave it and jump in. While it appears as though they are simply braver than I am, a second thought leads to a different conclusion. If my body sensed the water just as theirs did, I too would be willing to go right in. Conversely, if the water felt as cold to them as it does to me, most would stay on the shore. That others can have a different experience of a situation is not as obvious as the difference in our overt behavior and so we often draw the wrong conclusions about people and become judgmental.

The example I often use in class is of a several horses running toward a group of people. If everyone else runs and one person stays put, she or he is seen as being in denial. If everyone stays put and one person runs, she or he is seen as a coward. What might actually be going on is that those who stay put think the approaching horses are friendly and the runners think they are in harm’s way. The only thing that differs between them is their understanding of the situation based on their individual, past experience. If those that stayed put felt they were going to be hurt, they too would run.

Next week, later in the summer, I may actually get a chance to swim.