We Don’t Read Other People’s Emotions As Well As We Think We Do

First, the post basically has nothing to do with the NCAA Championship football game last night. Congrats LSU. I am very happy for all my LSU football loving friends and family that y’all won last night. I will be even happier when things go back to normal and y’all lose to Bama again during the next college football season. This mild disturbance in the force will not last.

I love the snark of this sign. “Nike Saban Puts Kale in His Gumbo” is one of the best ever.

Second, last night one of the two greatest coaches in college football history trended on social media even though his team, the greatest university in college football history, wasn’t playing. In my opinion, Nick Saban trended on social media because, 1) some people were convinced they could read the agony on his face, and 2) because snarkiness is one of the more fun aspects of college football. I love the second reason. College football snark is awesome. I laugh every time Bama gets a sack and the Million Dollar Band starts playing “Look Down” from Les Mis, or Mississippi State trolling Ole Miss by playing “Baby Shark“. Those are great moments. College football sass is awesome.

I do however have problems with the implications of the first reason, that “some people were convinced they could read the agony on his face.” Not really because of it picking on Nick Saban. He’s a grown man who has put himself in the public. Part of his job is dealing with such shenanigans. Go after Saban all you want, he gets paid over 8 million dollars to deal with such things and he is probably going to smash your team in the mouth next year anyhow (I’m a fan and Bama is the best – at least until South, Alabama, my B.S. alma mater, can play with the big boys – Go Jaguars!).

My problem is with the fact that as a chaplain I deal with many people who are convinced that they can tell what someone is thinking or what another person’s motives are based off of that person’s facial expressions and this incident with Nick Saban demonstrates this in a joking manner.

Here’s one of the images that have been used demonstrate that Saban hated Corso picking LSU.

Some people think that they can read Saban’s pain in the above photos. Maybe you can, and maybe you can’t. I don’t know. Personally, I wouldn’t be surprised if he was in a little emotional pain because he wanted to be the one coaching in rather than commenting on the game. But I couldn’t figure that out for certainty based on his face.

Unfortunately in real life many people I deal with make really bad, quick decisions based on being convinced they can read the feelings and motivations of another person. As a society we seem to have become convinced that we are all experts at reading other people’s emotions from their facial expressions. I think a great deal of “reality TV” is based on this fallacy. If it just stayed in the fake world of “reality TV” that would be fine, but when real people instantly respond to such wrong thinking lots of people get hurt – both the person responding and the ones they are responding to/on.

“I know they meant to do that because I could see them smile.” Maybe you could, maybe you couldn’t. “I could read on their face that they were truly sorry.” Maybe you could, maybe you couldn’t. Some of the research coming out on the effectiveness of judges determining sentences versus risk-based sentencing would seem to indicate that we as humans are no where near as good as we think we are on guessing the actual emotions that are going on inside another person.

So people become convinced they know the real motivations of another person without talking to that person and often respond in hurtful or destructive manners to their very possibly wrong guesses of the other’s emotions and motives. This often makes things worse, and rarely seems to make them better.

I tend to think our guesses of another person’s emotional life say more about our own emotional life. We often see our own faults and fears in the person we are accusing. Those accusations are our own judgement against us. I’ll use Saban again as an example here. The people posting about Saban being in torment in this situation are probably just revealing that they want him to be in torment. I think Saban is probably doing just fine.

Thinking that you know what another person is feeling and is motivated by without talking to them doesn’t really cost anything when it involves a college football coach – in fact, it can lead to some fun snarkatude. However, when it involves real people in your life it is an entirely different story. Then such belief can lead to dangerously destructive and hurtful actions. When I am emotionally hurt by someone I try to assume that I don’t know what is really going on in that person’s inner life until I have illegitimate reasons to know, and even then hopefully I approach my conclusion with doubt and humility. I believe this helps life to go better.

As for Saban, pick on him all you want – he’s keeping a list of names and will get you back. 🙂

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