Brezhnev syndrome and why we’re bad at understanding others

People unlike us

Understanding others is hard. It’s so hard that we default to very simple heuristics when doing so. The easiest one is empathy. We have pretty good access to our own attitudes and motivations so we simply copy and paste those on to others — put ourselves in their shoes. This is ok and is the basis of our theory of mind or mindreading ability.

It’s also the dynamic behind the so-called Golden Rule; although I prefer to think of it as the Bronze Rule, because it’s so obviously overrated and insufficient. You simply treat others as you would like to be treated; and then of course once you learn slightly more about the world you recognise that some people aren’t like you and don’t want to be treated how you would. The rule therefore works in proportion to how typical you yourself are. If you are something like the median human then you can safely project your desires onto others and maybe get away with it 70% of the time. But if you are eccentric or neurodiverse or in any way unlike the majority of people around you, you’ll find that the Golden Rule and basic theory of mind sucks.

We don’t take others’ reports of their subjective experiences literally

I’m always struck by this when people suddenly discover that others have a totally different mental landscape to themselves. Occasionally something goes viral on the Internet which reveals that other people think quite differently to oneself. A recent example is the existence of an inner monologue: a literal inner voice which narrates experience as you’re having it. For some people, this is an unremarkable and basic feature of mental life. But many people — maybe half — don’t have this inner monologue. For them, whenever they heard people speak about it, they assumed it was purely figurative. Only when people compare notes of their own mental experience and actually have the open-mindedness to believe others when they report different mental experiences, can difference be recognised.

Another example is aphantasia. Turns out a lot of people who are aphantasic simply assumed that other people were using terms like “mental imagery” or “mind’s eye” in a metaphorical sense.

I’m fascinated by these differences that appear only when we compare notes. I keep a little list of subjective experiences that aren’t taken literally. Admittedly, I had some smugness in feeling like I was particularly aware of others’ differences. But I too am routinely surprised. One example was when people would say, “I don’t want to think about that it makes my head hurt,” or “Doing that mathematics homework made my head hurt.” Until recently I didn’t realise it was a literal pain or headache that people had when engaged in a certain kind of tedious or difficult mental exercise.

I have a friend who recently discovered this quite vividly. He went in for an eye test to get some new glasses and was asked by the optometrist to describe how clear the image he was seeing was. He said, “Well there’s the usual blurriness but otherwise it’s good.” The optometrist asked what he was talking about. It transpired that he has a not entirely uncommon condition in which the centre of vision is slightly pixelated. Until now, and he’s in his mid-30s, he simply assumed that everyone else saw things in a slightly pixelated way.

There’s another example that I see when I’m teaching literature. People have fundamentally different goals when reading novels. I don’t just mean that some people read for pleasure or escapism while others read for intellectual engagement or scholarly inquiry. I think most people know of that difference and recognise when they are part of one audience and not the other. A more interesting difference, one that doesn’t seem to be properly recognised publicly yet, is those who read for suspense versus those who do everything they can to avoid suspense. For people with anxiety, in particular, the idea of surprise, suspense, twists, unseen plot developments, etc, is unpleasant. Such people like to go to the last page of a novel to inspect the ending so that they will not be surprised by some dramatic turn of events. They prefer to rewatch or reread media with which they’re already familiar because they won’t be confronted by an unsettling surprise.

And yet TV writers, film produces, novelists, people who study audience engagement, etc. all assume a uniform reading public for whom surprise and suspense are virtually synonymous with engaging content. It might be that the audience who eschew suspense are a small portion of the total audience, let’s say 15% (rough estimate based on my own informal polling of literature classes). But this is a non-trivial proportion and until very recently their existence has not been acknowledged. I don’t just mean by writers and marketing executives, I mean by the majority of readers who must assume that everyone reads for the same reason as them: to be held aloft by a good story, which means surprising yet plausible plot developments.

Brezhnev syndrome

There is a more pernicious side to this general weakness in recognising difference. I call this variety Brezhnev syndrome, after reading a book called The Dead Hand. It was terrifying. It was an account of the secret Soviet bioweapons program carried out during the Cold War: anthrax and all that spooky stuff. In 1972 the US and the Soviet Union signed an agreement to cease all development of biological weapons. Thing is, the Americans adhered to it and actually dismantled their programs, while the Soviets simply continued in secret. The Americans did this assuming that the Soviets genuinely would discontinue their program; the Soviets secretly continued because they genuinely believed the US would do the same.

This phenomenon – whereby each side in a dispute simply assumes the other thinks like them – was given the name mirror imaging by a CIA analyst. There are plenty of examples of both sides misunderstanding one another during the Cold War. In the case of biological weapons, it’s clear that the Soviet Union and the US mirror-imaged one another. But there is an asymmetry here. In an important way the Soviets’ mirror-imaging is more dire. Brezhnev syndrome assumes the worst never the better of one’s interlocutor. The US too assumed that the Soviets were as virtuous as them not better. But that error doesn’t lead to as much conflict.

We do this all the time in personal life too. If we ourselves are habitual shoplifters we assume that other people must be doing it all the time as well because we assume that others wouldn’t be more virtuous than ourselves. If we baulk at shoplifting, we likewise assume that others must be equally virtuous as ourselves but not better; or that they may well shoplift because they’re not as good as us. But I struggle to think of situations where we assume the other is better than ourselves…

So this is Brezhnev syndrome: others’ virtue is only ever less than or equal to ours, never greater.

Basic point here is that some people are good and assume others are good (my mum is a great example: congenitally unable to see why other people are less altruistic & therefore baffled every single election); some people are bad and assume others are equally bad; some people are good and arrogantly assume that others are bad; but it is virtually unheard-of that some people are bad while they think others are better than them.

I think that the cognitive dissonance of such a scenario is too great, except for the true sociopaths out there. It is an interesting question as to how sociopaths feel. Some researchers might think their theory of mind is insufficiently developed to even cognize others’ intentions to this level of specificity. But I think that the Machiavellian skill of some sociopaths testifies eloquently to their ability to accurately second-guess others’ motives even and especially when they differ from the sociopath’s. It must be that they recognise people more virtuous than themselves and it is by exploiting this difference that they can run scams, climb to the top of corporate hierarchies, and — most frequently — become Real Estate agents.


A great example that a lot of people already recognise is censorship. It’s never the censor themselves who is harmed or brainwashed by an offending text, only an imagined audience who are gullible and weak-willed.

It’s not only official censors who betray this assumption that others are at best as virtuous but generally less so. Anyone calling for certain shows, books, ideas to be cancelled is making an argument that more impressionable audiences will be swayed by content they don’t like But which didn’t sway them.

Professional critics and theorists (my own profession) are especially apt to do so. Every critical reading of a text presumes that other audiences are missing interpretive skills or information that the critic has. Of course this may well often be true. But the asymmetry is extreme: I have never read a professional critic or reviewer consider that others may read or view a work and extract a more savvy interpretation than what they themselves offer.

Occasionally I’ve stumbled on amateur reviewers — on Goodreads, Amazon, etc. — who are more impressive. They sometimes admit that a book wasn’t for them or suspected that something went over their heads or that they didn’t like the message or tone, but that they assume others might get something more out of it, that others might appreciate aspects they could not. Bravo! These people should be running things.

Mirror-imaging as an involuntary disclosure or tell

I remember being particularly shocked by this when I read Jordan Peterson‘s book, 12 Rules for Life, wherein he had a long section talking about how we all sometimes feel like destroying the world, wishing to see the world burn. I applaud his emotional honesty and candour. But I’ve never felt that way. And I suspect that even if I’m in a minority there, it’s a sizeable one. This was a fascinating case of Peterson disclosing how he feels — in this instance an extremely ignoble thought — because he assumes everyone must feel that way sometimes and that if anybody claimed otherwise, they would simply be lying — it is unthinkable that others are more virtuous, more sane, more altruistic than ourselves.

It does seem that this is slightly more common among conservatives. The reason, presumably, is simply that defectors are more common among conservatives, and altruists are more common among liberals. This isn’t a moral judgement. I don’t even think there is anything intrinsically bad or immoral or evil about being a defector. Defection is simply a strategy that cannot not exist in our world. There will always be rent-seekers, parasites (which sounds pejorative but I just mean it literally), defectors, competitors, etc. in our world because there is the presence of cooperation and resources on which to be parasitic. The presence of a not too great proportion of defectors — say 20% — is a sign that there is something worth being parasitic upon and the system is sustainable.

Another example that springs to mind is a comment by the critic George Steiner. I‘ve always loved Steiner’s work. He was a bit of a fuddy-duddy but a damned good critic, I thought, and had the best line on modernism. Anyway, he made some remark along the lines of, “I’m not racist, but who among us wouldn’t mind if a family of [some ethnicity, can’t remember] moved in next door?” Again, he was being touchingly candid and vulnerable. I guess he just assumed everyone else in the room (presumably all white people) would also care if persons of colour occupied the house next door to them! To him, declarations of non-racism were only postures, politically correct formulae that no one could possibly believe. Doubtless in a lot of cases it is empty virtue signalling. But a lot of conservatives clearly don’t believe that anyone could actually be non-racist. Eesh.

Sexuality, kinks, and attraction

Mirror-imaging and Brezhnev syndrome turn up in all areas of life. But they are especailly common and easy to identify in sexual attraction. In short, people are attracted to different kinds of people, situations, fetishes, and so on.

One might think that in this age of Internet pornography in which every conceivable kink, every conceivable subgenre is in public view, we might have arrived at a received opinion that people are attracted to wildly different things.

But consider the example of dick pics. They’re commonly seen as something that is bad form, that no woman would ever want to receive, that is simply a case of male sexual aggression or overconfidence (I’ll stick with heterosexual people just for this example). And yet there is obviously a minority (at least) that appreciate a well-timed dick pic. It might be that the two groups of women are roughly equal in size and yet have somehow failed ever to compare notes. Neither group seems to be aware of the other. Although I do suspect that the dick pic enthusiasts are aware of the other but assumes that the dick pic haters cannot admit to themselves that they really do enjoy dick pics (Brezhnev syndrome). More research required.

Another fun example is when a film or TV reviewer criticises a movie or show because of the romantic relationship portrayed. In fact, they disclose that they personally are not attracted to the romantic lead or that they cannot see how the viewers would be attracted to a character who is unlike themselves. A recent example was a review of the show We Crashed. The reviewer disclosed that he didn’t think Anne Hathaway’s character would be attracted to the kind of man portrayed by Jared Leto; the implication being that this kind of woman should be attracted to a man who is, perhaps, more like the reviewer himself. Doubtless this is a comfort him, but it portrays an extraordinary lack of imagination and the lack of ability to recognise that people are attracted to various kinds. For a reviewer of culture, this is hopeless. Particularly so because the show is about two real life people.

Again, I see this in my own literature classes. Any time we study the novel Jane Eyre, there is a vibrant discussion (typically among heterosexual female-identifying students) over whether or not Rochester is a kind of sexual predator and a disgusting human being, or a literary bad boy, a Byronic hero, an enthralling and attractive man. It’s not that either is necessarily more correct than the other (although it does seem to me personally to be unattractive when a man imprisons his wife, is openly racist, and expresses no remorse whatever when this wife burns to death, no matter how luscious the lcoks, how dashing the rakishness). But it is stark that neither side of this debate can acknowledge the other or would’ve imagined the other could be a sizeable minority.

Relatedly, I wasn’t surprised to see Peterson recently tweeting about a plus size model on a magazine cover. Basically he said that he didn’t find the model attractive and no amount of authoritarian ideology would force him to concede the presence of beauty. Again, this is an hilarious disclosure of his own thinking and a further disclosure that he considers it unthinkable that anyone else could have a different view. He assumes there could not be anyone who is more “virtuous” on this front. Anybody who claims to find the model attractive must be lying and must be towing a politically correct cultural line. Doubtless he would find it hard to explain the men tripping over themselves to date or sleep with plus size models, or the presence of thriving porn subgenres and escort services, devoted to curvaceous women and BBW. These people would, according to Peterson’s rationale, be lying and engaging in some kind of charade, where they fake masturbate or pretend to be aroused by something that is inherently non-arousing because he does not find it arousing. Extraordinary.

I know I’m picking on Jordan Peterson, but he frankly is an exemplar not only of this mirror-imaging phenomenon but of the peculiarly conservative bent it often takes. Indeed, and here I will completely alienate any Peterson fans, it is what I considered to be his most fascistic tendency. I know that calling Peterson a fascist is unfair (I’ve read his books, I’m intimately familiar with his ideas), but I do think that the impulse to assume that people professing different beliefs to you must be in someway inauthentic is the underlying mentality of fascism. The writings of DH Lawrence are pertinent here — and I actually think DH Lawrence is in many ways Jordan Peterson’s most obvious intellectual companion in terms of 20th century authors.

Temperament and worldview

William James argued back in the 19 century that most philosophers in history had constructed their metaphysics, their worldview, based on their own temperament. I think there’s a lot of truth in this.

It also means that one’s temperament or mood or neurochemistry, is responsible for how one sees the world. One assumes how the world is and therefore that it is how others see it too. This is bad reasoning. But when I read even the best philosophers in the contemporary moment, I see the mistake all the time. Galen Strawson, for instance, simply cannot imagine that certain philosophers of mind think consciousness can’t have the qualitative aspect it appears to have. He presumes therefore that they are either lying or trying to make some kind of tendentious rhetorical point.

Philosophers who have a depressive mood and a neurochemistry which disposes them to gloominess will think that life is suffering (again Peterson is actually in this category: he says that life is suffering for everyone, which is another case of saying the quiet part loud, because I can testify from experience that suffering is not the default mode of everyone). And philosophers with a phlegmatic or cheerful disposition insist that existence is about exploration, engagement, creativity, and that the goodness of people can typically be relied upon.

I think any mature philosophy has to start from the point of view of radical difference. We have to recognise that there are others who have completely different experiences of reality, different preferences, different motivations, different feelings. It’s actually difficult to think of philosophers who truly get this. Isaiah Berlin is a notable exception. Gilles Deleuze too.