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Monday, November 30, 2009


Back in August, I listed some Mark Twain quotes. Among them was the following:

"A man's character may be learned from the adjectives he habitually uses in conversation."

Psychologists call this "projection," or projecting onto others what you are yourself. (When you do it with non-human species, it's called "anthropomorphizing.")

I used to work on a bond trading desk on Wall Street. (When you sit with the same guys for ten hours a day, you get to know them far better than you might want.) One thing I was able to observe was that they were constantly projecting their own traits onto others.

The dumbest guy on the desk was forever saying about various other people, "He just doesn't get the joke." This was his favorite insult. Yet he, himself, was remarkably clueless for a guy working at an investment bank.

Another trader, this one both dumb and self-satisfied, was always saying that various people "fell asleep at the switch." That would be a good description of his own trading style, which was to always try what worked the previous year.

The desk sociopath was forever saying, "I don't trust that guy. He lied to me once." (He thought that by saying this he was indirectly demonstrating his own honesty, but he was in fact doing the opposite.) He would say this about people who were basically honest as well as those who were not.

There was one fellow on the desk who was a truly decent person. He would frequently say of others, "He seems like a good guy." He said this about guys who were not as well as those who were.

I knew a guy in high school who was perpetually accusing other guys of being homosexual (he used the word "flitty," which was in vogue at that time). He would say this about many people who didn't strike me that way, and he would always sound very annoyed as he said it. I'm pretty sure he turned out to be gay himself.

I mentioned this tendency to a friend recently, and he said that he had noticed the same thing with his wife, who was always accusing others of being petty, suspicious, and vindictive. He said he had lost patience with her a couple times and actually said, "Not everybody is as petty and suspicious as you are."

My daughter constantly tells me, "Dad, you're not funny." She is an intelligent girl with many admirable qualities, but a sense of humor is not among them.

Projection is not always negative. I have one friend from whom I take investment advice, who frequently describes others as "very, very smart." This guy himself is extraordinarily intelligent (though his stock picking, unfortunately, has been less than perfect).

Think of the people you know and what their favorite (over-used) descriptions of other people are. You'll find a strong correlation with their own characteristics.

Just so you know, I find myself frequently raving about others' incredible toughness and intelligence.


Anonymous said...

I have to be the first here! John, you are intelligent, witty and charming - and a very fine swimmer too!

Anonymous said...

PS This was a good prompt to revisit your quotes posts. I found the last of the Twain quotes most telling.."When your friends begin to flatter you on how young you look, it's a sure sign you're getting old." I think we're both in that boat and we probably both do some projecting on the subject! :)

John Craig said...

Guy --
Hey -- What about tough??!

I return the compliment on all four counts.

John Craig said...

Guy --
I wonder what Twain (or Tolstoy) would have said about receiving compliments. Probably something to the effect of, the wisest thing to do is not believe any of it. My problem is, I tend to believe all of the compliments and dismiss all of the insults.

PS -- As I was writing this, I just 'got' your first joke. (I hadn't reviewed the post, just saw the email after getting home.) I'm not dumb, just slow.

John Craig said...

PPS -- On second thought, maybe I'm dumb.

Anonymous said...

This could also apply in politics - but in politics its probably more strategy than a projection. Examples: the Clinton's complained about the 'politics of personal destruction' used against them, but in fact they perfected the art against their enemies. Or the Leftist labeling of Republicans as 'mean spirited' - when nothing could be more true of many Leftist politicians.

- Ed

John Craig said...

Ed --
That's a great example. I often think, when I hear the Left accuse the Right of being "haters," that that is jut a form of projection. Most of the people on the right I've met personally are well mannered and polite, whereas I seem to have met a lot of people on the left who come across as sneering, jeering, and full of hatred.

Another thing the Left often accuses the right of is dishonesty. Yet political correctness is really nothing more than factual incorrectness. The title of Al Gore's movie, An Inconvenient Truth, was pure hypocrisy, as it was filled with misrepresentations, half-truths, and outright lies.

You've got me going here: another thing the Left likes to accuse the Right of is lack of public spirit. Yet in their personal lives, people like Ted Kennedy were the essence of hypocrisy and selfishness. Check out "A dissenting obituary" from a few months ago when he died. Since I wrote that I found out one more thing about him: that he refused to get health insurance for many of his own personal employees. Anyway, you're right, there are tons of examples in politics.

Anonymous said...

I've noticed this with a sociopath I knew. His favourite adjective for other people was "prick", which is perfect description of him.

- Gethin

John Craig said...

Gethin --

I have another one to add to the list: an Aspie who likes to say that someone "is so out of it he doesn't even realize he's out of it."