Treat Them By Their Track Records
I’ve been friends with Robin Hanson for 25 years. To speak with him is to know joy. In all that time, he’s never done me wrong. But you know what? If Robin did something bad to me today, I would instantly forgive him. Why? Because I judge people by their track records. And given how much we interact, doing one quite bad thing to me every 25 years is an incredibly good track record! Indeed, that would easily put him in the 99.9th percentile of human beings.
Shouldn’t I be worried that Robin will read this, say “Moral hazard time, sucker!” and terribly mistreat me? No, that’s silly. After a quarter century, I maintain with great confidence that Robin is not that kind of guy. I’m far more worried, in fact, that Robin will do something that seems perfectly fine to him, yet quite bad to me, leading me to impulsively spoil a wonderful friendship over a simple misunderstanding. Which is precisely why I consciously strive to set impulse aside - and base my treatment of everyone I know on their track records.
What exactly is a track record? It is the sum of everything good and bad that I know you’ve ever done. Every good thing you’ve done is a mark in your favor. Every bad thing you’ve done is a mark against you. If I barely know you, one rude remark will probably keep me from ever getting to know you better. If I know you well, however, no specific thing you’ve done has much effect on how I feel about you, how I treat you, or how I ought to treat you. As Kahneman admonishes, “Nothing in life is as important as you think it is, while you’re thinking about it.”
Taken in isolation, almost nothing a person does is unforgivable. We’re all flawed human beings. The very best of us still occasionally gets confused and falls short of ideal behavior. Yet this doesn’t mean that you should be all-forgiving. What it means, rather, is that you should focus on the Big Picture: All things considered, to the best of your knowledge, what kind of person are you dealing with?
Yes, you could use truisms about human imperfection to rationalize blanket misanthropy. But that’s as absurd as loving everyone just because, “The worst of us is occasionally lucid and rises up monstrous behavior.” Even the best of people sadden us sometimes. That doesn’t make them bad. Even the worst of people gladden us sometimes. That doesn’t make them good.
“Treat them by their track records.” What does this adage buy us?
First, it cautions us to value our long-term friends. If you’re stunned by the shoddy way a close friend has treated you, ask yourself, “Given how long we’ve known each other, how many times should I expect to have been so stunned by a thoroughly admirable person?” In a complex world, can the correct answer really be “zero times”?!
Secondly, the adage warns us to prize our own track records. I don’t need my friends to deem me perfect. But I want to treat them in such a way that when they hear my name, their next thought is, “Wow, Bryan is an amazing human being. Who else even compares?!”
Third, the adage reminds us to not make a federal case out of small offenses. Indeed, whether any specific action even legitimately qualifies as an “offense” is almost always debatable.
Fourth, the adage urges us to admit to ourselves that we know a few deeply-flawed human beings. Whatever they say, whatever excuses others make for them, they do not “mean well.” There exists a nameless relative that I’ve known for my entire life. When I think about her, my first thought is, “In five decades, she never made me smile once.” Should you actually purge such people? Perhaps not. But should you just give up on them? Probably so.
“Treat them by their track records.” This is the path of prudence - and the path of justice. Set the petty grievance of the day aside. Forget a slew of minor shortcomings. Indeed, stop worrying about the worst thing a person ever did to you. Instead, take a bird’s-eye view of every person you know. See all the good. See all the bad. See both from a proper distance. You will be a happier person - and a model to others.
Well said! Let me add a thought. I have some friends with the long-term track records that you describe, and if one of them were to act in a way that seems out-of-character, I would seek to speak with them privately and ask if all is well. This is something that I have done, more than once, and nearly always, my friends are grateful that I care enough to ask, and that I know them well enough to recognize that their action - whatever it may have been - was not characteristic of them.
People can change - sometimes profoundly and abruptly. If unbeknownst to you, Robin were to pick up a bad drug habit then you would not want to wait for another 25 years to adjust the polarity of your trust accordingly. Maybe a better function than simple "sum of everything" would weigh recent events more strongly, and especially a series of recent events that depart from historical trends.