With Regards to Suffering

I read an article on Quartz by Karen Weese this morning that helped me reflect on society’s biases—as well as my own—around how people react with such a range of behaviors and whether that is primarily caused by the individuals themselves or their circumstances. In short, the idea is that when people behave differently than we would, it is not the individual that we should be skeptical of, but their context. I remain hopeful in mankind and I try to find opportunities to explain irrational behavior in terms that don’t condemn. Behavioral economics supports me in this and it drives us to better understand, and even predict behavior based on the things we can understand: context. Two applications from the article are noteworthy. In particular the second applies to my profession directly.

Poverty’s inherent lack of resources and time significantly but temporarily diminishes intelligence, making it hard for just about anyone to thrive. Skeptical? Read the article. Poverty is hard.

Job and situational stresses (particularly WWII bomber pilots) reduce mental bandwidth, which makes it hard to reliably execute even common tasks. In creating software for higher education classrooms, this means that we need to remember that our users aren’t focusing on us, the tool, but on their assignments. We can’t expect everyone to read and explore and emotionally invest in what we build because they’re already invested in other things. Know your place.

It’s too easy to write people off and explain away their failures or our differences on intelligence, race, political party or gender. Anyone can do that. If you want to talk about intelligence and diversity, invest actual time yourself in understanding where people are coming from and how little they may need to care about what you care about. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “we must learn to regard people less in the light of what they do or omit to do, and more in the light of what they suffer.”