Mistaking Hunter Motivations and the Need for Better Listening

How well do you understand hunters? Consider your best hunting partner. You might spend days on end with this person every year in meandering conversations about life’s important questions. You have likely spent hours listening to them describe what is important to them and what motivates them to hunt. Maybe you don’t hunt but you have seen photos, social media captions, heard and read stories from hunters, including friends who hunt. You might have formed your opinions about both hunters and hunting based on these interactions. In either case, you might feel like you understand why a person hunts – their motivations, perspectives, and values.

Now, consider another question: how well do you feel the other person understands your motivations, perspectives, and values – as a hunter or non-hunter? Likely, you have also shared your ideas with them on a range of topics related – even tangentially – to hunting. So they should also have just as strong a grasp of your inner moral workings as you have of theirs.

If your answers to the two questions are different, it might be worth reconsidering our assumptions about how well we truly understand other people and their motivations.

This isn’t about clarifying or defending the motivations of hunters. Each hunter can explain their motivations to hunt. Rather, this is about explaining that no matter how much we think we know about others’ motivations and how sure we are that we know how people think and feel, we are likely not as accurate as we think. This is because of something psychologists call the “illusion of asymmetric insight”. If we want to connect with and understand each other better, a little more listening can go a long way.

You Don’t Know Me, But I Know You

We all have parts of ourselves that we allow others to see – those parts we express through our words and actions and allow the world to see. We also have parts of ourselves that we keep beneath the surface – our private thoughts and feelings reserved, at most, for only those closest to us but more often not shared at all. Just as we only see the tip of an iceberg that is above the water, we generally feel that only a small part of us is visible and knowable to others. Most of us is beneath the water, contained within ourselves and knowable only to us.

In 2001, psychology professors Emily Pronin, Justin Kruger, Kenneth Savitsky, and Lee Ross published a paper titled “You Don’t Know Me, but I Know You: The Illusion of Asymmetric Insight” in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Pronin and her colleagues discuss a phenomenon that we have all likely experienced. “We often feel that our behavior has been misinterpreted or our character and motives misperceived. Furthermore,” they go on to explain, “we have grave doubts that anyone can know us who has not ‘walked in our shoes,’ ‘seen the world through our eyes,’ or ‘looked into our heart and mind'”.

Iceberg in the Torngat Mountains.

Pronin and her colleagues conducted a series of experiments to test individuals’ perceptions of their interpersonal knowledge, including of close friends and through face-to-face interactions. Results showed an asymmetry in the insight people believed they had about both themselves and others.

The illusion of asymmetric insight describes three main points:

1. We think we know others better than others know us.
2. We think we know ourselves better than others know themselves.
3. We even, at times, think we know others better than they know themselves (but never the reverse).

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We recognize that others have their own icebergs, but the way we understand the visibility of our relative icebergs is clouded by the illusion of asymmetric insight. While people believe that their iceberg is mostly submerged, unobservable, and unknowable, they also tend to believe that others’ icebergs are far more exposed, revealing much more of themselves to be observed and known. In other words, people think that their essential qualities can be known only through their private internal thoughts; however, they also think that other people’s essential qualities can be observed externally through their words and behaviours.

“The illusion of asymmetric insight makes it seem as though you know everyone else far better than they know you, and not only that, but you know them better than they know themselves.”

David McRaney, The Illusion of Asymmetric Insight

Pronin and her colleagues go on to explain, “At the same time, while we know from experience that we sometimes misjudge our peers, we continue to feel that there are at least some important respects in which we may know them better than they know themselves”.

The Illusion of Asymmetric Insight

So we simultaneously feel that others cannot possibly know and fully understand us while at the same time we believe that we understand others. The illusion of asymmetric insight helps reveal the mismatch between our efforts to see someone else’s perspective and the misunderstandings we continue to face. These misunderstandings are often particularly pronounced when trying to deal with complex issues like hunting and conservation.

They also extended the experiments to the level of the group to test whether the dynamics observed among individuals were recreated among the collective.

“The results showed liberals believed they knew more about conservatives than conservatives knew about liberals. The conservatives believed they knew more about liberals than liberals knew about conservatives. Both groups thought they knew more about their opponents than their opponents knew about themselves.”

David McRaney, The Illusion of Asymmetric Insight

When we engage in social or political debates with other groups, the illusion of asymmetric insight can be a powerful roadblock to mutual understanding. As Pronin and co-authors describe, “We feel that the ‘other side’ just ‘doesn’t get’ our point of view, and that agreement could be reached if only we could somehow make those views, and the basis for those views, clear to them. Indeed, we think that their group members must not understand our views because if they did understand they would cease to be on that other side”.

So we are convinced that the “other side” doesn’t understand our perspective. What about our perceptions of our knowledge about the “other side”?

“By contrast, we think we get their point of view; we simply reject it as invalid”.

Can We See Something from Another Person’s Perspective?

We now understand that we are far less accurate in our interpersonal knowledge of others than we think. So we should try to see things from other people’s perspectives, right? Well, additional research tells us that even when we try to understand the perspectives of others and take the proverbial walk in their shoes, it doesn’t always work.

A 2018 paper by psychologist Tal Eyal and her colleagues, Mary Steffel and Nicholas Epley, titled “Perspective Mistaking: Accurately Understanding the Mind of Another Requires Getting Perspective, Not Taking Perspective” reports on experiments designed to test how well participants could imagine the perspectives of others.

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There is a great deal of scientific literature and conventional wisdom that promote the benefits of trying to put yourself in someone else’s shoes – what Eyal and her colleagues describe as “perspective taking”, or the effort to see something from someone else’s point of view. However, while the effort to understand another person’s perspective is noble, it is important to assess whether we are successful in this effort. As they describe, “Perspective taking may indeed work wonders for you in social life. Is increasing accurate insight into the mind of another person one of them?”

Eyal and her co-authors designed a series of 25 experiments to test the accuracy of perspective taking among strangers, acquaintances, friends, and spouses. The experiments asked participants to deliberately try to take the perspective of another person. Overall, the results found “no evidence that the cognitive effort of imagining oneself in another person’s shoes, studied so widely in the psychological literature, increases a person’s ability to accurately understand another’s mind”. Amazingly, in some cases, perspective taking actually decreased people’s ability to accurately understand someone else’s perspective.

So, what do Eyal and her colleagues suggest? Are we destined to live in the dark from one another, our icebergs permanently hidden beneath the tumultuous waters of our own internal emotions and complex moral reasoning?

Not exactly. Eyal and her colleagues tell us that instead of perspective taking, what we need to spend time on is “perspective getting”. Results from their experiments suggest that accuracy in understanding the perspectives of others increases when we get new information. In other words, “If you really want to know what’s on the mind of another person, it is hard to do better than getting their perspective by just asking them”.

Understanding Hunter Motivations

Insights from Pronin et al.’s experiments at the group level are particularly relevant right now as political and between-group polarization has become the defining social-political tool of our time. Politicians and media outlets look for opportunities to expose differences between groups of people and present those differences as insurmountable divisions between “us” and “them”. Often, people frame these proposed divisions as rooted so deeply in an unchanging moral fabric of who we are as people that finding an in-group becomes our only way to survive socially.

I’m using “hunters” and “non-hunters” as broad and loosely defined groups here. I don’t mean to imply that these are exclusive and impermeable groups with fixed membership, nor do I think that these groups are always divided along firmly entrenched ideological lines and destined for opposition. I use the categories here only to illustrate how the illusion of asymmetric insight might help bridge understanding.

In the context of communication about hunting, the illusion of asymmetric insight can help us see that as hunters and non-hunters, we both feel that we know more about the other group than that group knows about us. As Pronin et al. say, we think we get each other’s point of view; we simply reject it as invalid. And as Eyal et al. found, even when we try to put ourselves in the mind of the other, we get it wrong.

As someone who started hunting later in life, I have still lived longer as a non-hunter than a hunter. I am aware that as non-hunters looking in from the outside, we can feel so certain that we understand hunters and know what they think and feel while they hunt. The reverse is also true. As hunters, we feel certain that we understand the motivations and perspectives of non-hunters and anti-hunters. Social psychology research tells us that the tendency to make this mistake is at least one thing we all have in common.

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As hunters, we often feel that non-hunters cannot understand our motivations. We know deeply the complexities and layers of emotions we feel about hunting and we are certain that no one can understand them without experiencing hunting firsthand. At the same time, I imagine that non-hunters and anti-hunters feel certain that hunters fail to understand them and their moral and political motivations. We feel confident and secure that we understand our own motivations and perspectives so thoroughly, and equally confident that the other group does not understand themselves as well.

Conclusions

There are a few lessons here for hunters and non-hunters. In the current context of conservation and the ongoing biodiversity crisis, it is beyond debate that we will need hunters and non-hunters – and their associated and representative organizations – to find ways to cooperate. Cooperation will require some level of shared understanding about one another.

We need to listen to each other more actively and empathetically. We should learn from the research by Pronin, Eyal and their colleagues that we do not understand others as well as we think. Further, others believe they understand us better than they do. In both cases, we need to listen to each other and honestly explain to each other what we think and feel. There is a wonderful opportunity for reciprocity here. The solution to us being better understood is the same solution to us understanding others better.

We need to create opportunities for meaningful dialogue and engage in that dialogue patiently, honestly, and sensitively.

The next time you have the opportunity to explain to a non-hunter what motivates you and why you hunt, take that opportunity seriously and engage in it honestly and sensitively. Refrain from using the same catchphrases and regurgitating facts. Make it personal and take the time to explain your motivations, feelings, and perspectives. Tell your stories and find ways that your ideas can connect with the other person.

Extend the hand back. Ask the other person why they don’t hunt, how they feel about it, and what motivates them in their decision-making. No matter what, do not simply look for opportunities to argue and prove them wrong. Listen. Ask questions and hear their perspectives.

To non-hunters, I’m not here to convince you that hunting is good and right or to change your mind on anything. Rather, I am simply saying that you might not understand our motivations as well as you think. So take the time to ask hunters why they hunt, how they feel about it, and what motivates them. Then listen to what we have to say.

We can find common ground and shared perspectives. When we understand each other better, we will be able to work together more effectively. When we can work together more effectively, we can find and implement better conservation solutions.

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