People are stupid part 1

It strikes me that I haven’t written anything really worthy of the title Misanthropic Musings recently. And as I have 30 posts to churn out this month, I’m going devote a few of them to rantings about stuff which really annoys me.

I had a colleague when I worked for a hire car firm in Newbury who was constantly bemused by the notion that our customers were not familiar with our internal processes. On on occasion a customer rang up wanting to know why his car hadn’t been collected from his house several hours after he’d told us to end the rental. My colleague explained to him that it could take up to 24 hours for cars to be collected following the end of the rental period, hung up the phone, then started ranting about how stupid he’d been. I disagreed. From what I could see, the customer had no way of knowing that it could take up to 24 hours for his car to be picked up. It wasn’t written in our terms and conditions and he hadn’t been told when he ended the rental. Furthermore, given that his car had been delivered to him in within a 4 hour window, there was nothing inherently illogical in his assuming it would be collected within a similar time frame.

My colleague was unable to grasp why he would have jumped to such a conclusion. She understood why cars might not get collected straight away, but she didn’t appear to understand why the customer might not.

This reminded me vividly of a psychological test conducted on young children. I don’t know a lot about child brains, but I gather that a fairly critical point in their cognitive development comes when they become aware of ‘other minds’. That is, they grasp the concept that other people have their own views and memories of events.

The elegant test consists of taking the child into a room and showing them a closed smarties tube. The child is asked what they think is in the tube. The child replies, “Smarties” which is of course an entirely logical answer given the information they have at the time. The tube is opened, and it is revealed that the tube does not contain smarties, but instead contains a pencil. The tube is resealed, and the child’s parent is bought into the room. The child is then asked to predict what their parent will say when asked the question “What is in the tube?” Up to a certain age, the child will answer that their parent will think that a pencil is in the tube. The child has processed the information that the pencil is in fact in the tube, but is not able to grasp that someone else who is not privy to that information will be guessing according to what the child first thought before the pencil was revealed. The point at which the child answers that their parent will guess Smarties are in the tube is the watershed moment when the child can comprehend the concept of ‘Other minds.’

At that moment my colleague, raging away at the insolence of this customer, seemed like a toddler who is unable to grasp that a separate person who is not in possession as the same facts that they are, will come to a logical but incorrect conclusion. In the context of the test it seems like a very obvious thing for a mature adult to be able to wrap their mind around. But I see evidence that adults can forget this simple but powerful concept of ‘other minds’ all the time.

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