Sabotage, Judgment, and Subjective Truth

“Ain’t no way that I can be happy when I’m happy” —Atmosphere, Give Me

How many times have you seen someone self-sabotage their own life?

I known people who have dropped out of school, directionless. I known people who have arrived to work drunk. I known people who have ruined a relationship over a few hours of fun. I’ve known people that sacrifice sleep and performance for video games.

All of these choices in the present have impacts that can last decades into the future.

Do you know why these people do what they do?

We can’t know people’s private thoughts. We can’t read their minds now, and we can’t deduce their feelings and opinions from the past.

"Head shot" by erat, Flickr, CC-By-2.0
“Head shot” by erat, Flickr, CC-By-2.0
Motivations are generally unknown

All we can hope to understand is someone’s words and their actions — and even those might be beyond us, or even beyond the actor. They might not understand why they do what they do.

“Ain’t no way that I can be happy when I’m happy”

We invent what we believe are someone’s motivations based on our limited understanding of someone’s past, conflated with our own experiences.

Confirmation bias, our brain’s ability to say “ah ha! that matches what I thought!” connects a lot of weak dots. Confirmation bias leads us down these paths where we really honestly believe we know the truth.

But we don’t.

Everyone’s spiderweb of connected experiences and learned behavior is completely different. In fact, the deeper you try to agree with someone, the more likely you are to find differences.

Everyone's spiderweb of understanding is different. Image from, CC-By-4.0
Everyone’s spiderweb of understanding is different. Image from, CC-By-4.0

If we have different ideas and opinions deep within, why would we be able to guess at the motivations of others?

Common sense is anything but

We certainly cannot conclude someone’s motivations were based on “common sense.”

What someone decides in one moment is frequently based on their emotional state and whatever is front-of-mind at the time. In the same situation, you might make that same decision. In a different situation or at a different time, you might choose the opposite.


When we see someone’s actions, or even our own, we generally follow a process with the limited facts that we have:

  1. We see actions,
  2. we invent a reason,
  3. we categorize the reason as fact,
  4. we think we know the story,
  5. and we place a value judgment on that behavior, saying if it’s morally right or wrong.

We all like to believe we understand why someone else did something.

In fact, we like to believe we know why we did something. Logic is rarely the deciding factor to the majority of our daily decisions. We believe logic plays a role, we tell ourselves that it does… In reality, we justify our actions with reasons, after the fact.

Steps 3 and 4 is where Subjective Truth comes in.

Everyone is biased. Everyone is blind to that bias. As observers, we confuse objective, scientific truth, measurable and reproducible, with the subjective truth that we’ve created in our heads.

It’s not our fault. Our brains are constantly interpreting reality, doing our best to make sense of it all. We invent stories to connect the dots, because confusion is stressful.


Ah, and then Step 5. Judgment. Everyone’s “morals” are judgments on others, assigned after-the-fact.

“What were you thinking!”

“How dare he!”

You might make decisions on what they believe is right or wrong, black or white — but often things are more grey.

Most people, including you and I, make choices that benefit us in the immediate moment, ignoring our future selves, possibly sabotaging our success.

Only after an event happens do we get to decide on the outcome and pass judgment on the preceding behaviors.

If things work out after a sabotaging choice, we’re happy that we “got away with” those actions.

And if things fail? Others judge the behaviors to be foolish, while we’re busy justifying that we had no other choice.

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