Explanations as Ego Defense

Those who know do not speak. Those who speak do not know.

~ Lao Zi, Dao De Jing


Most explanations are actually ego defenses. Self-aggrandizing soliloquies allowing the speaker to feel important, knowledgeable, and in control.

Explanations come after a loss. After a failure. People actually learn from postmortems, but postmortems also allow people to emotionally process the failure – and feel they will succeed in the future.

Success does not need to explain. Success speaks for itself.

Specific Example – Engineering

Recently, I was working on a engineering project with a friend. It was a big project, and we had different areas of responsibility on the code base.

After we got started, several time my friend failed to deliver. He would promise to have something completed, or promise to fix something – and it would not get done or fixed. When I would question him about this, he always had an ‘explanation’.

“Well, you see my time was actually better spent doing research than finishing feature [X]. See, research is very important since…”

This was a continual issue, and eventually I stopped working with him because of it. Rather than take responsibility for not delivering a feature on time, or breaking an existing functionality, he always had an ‘explanation’ for why he was actually right/correct/shouldn’t take blame.

To him, his explanations were always valid. I don’t think he ever noticed his own behavior pattern.

Explanations As Control

People want to understand the world, to make sense of it. I do not mean in some deep scientific or spiritual way; people want to understand the rules-of-thumb governing their lives. The important things.

  • Why did that business venture fail?
  • Why didn’t I get that job offer?
  • Why did that girl turn you down?
  • Why is that guy pissed at me?
  • Why did my marriage fail?
  • Why can’t I get a job, if I had perfect marks in school?

These are the important things. The painful things. The things people desperately want to control in their lives.

In ‘Magic: The Gathering’

Here’s a way to induce the “explanation as ego defense” psychological mechanism. Play a game of Magic: The Gathering with someone and win. Once the other person has lost, there’s a predictable sequence of psychological movements that occur.

Once it’s clear they lost, they will pick up the next card on their deck. Just to see what they would draw next turn, or the turn after. Or sometime the turn after that, if the game kept going.

Then, they will explain how they ‘would have’ won. How, if they had just stayed alive 2 more turns, they **surely would have** turned this defeat into their victory.

This sounds like an explanation. It is not. It’s to make the loser feel better, wiser, and smarter. More in control of the world around them, after the world has hit them in the head with a brick to show them that they don’t fucking know jack shit.

Facing the truth of your failure is hard. Much easier to explain away your loss, rather than (a) try to correct the actual issue, or (b) try again – and potentially lose again! Just avoid that uncomfortable, humiliating, and painful process called self-reflection and responsibility.

Winners Don’t Explain

Why would a winner need to explain anything? They won. They obviously know what they’re doing. It is self evident by their winning.

In Academia

Knowing feels good. The business professor feels like they know how markets and businesses work. That they could start a successful company or run one, and certainly better than so-and-so in the news is running Company X.

Reflecting on schooling, this is one reason people love teaching. After reading books about whatever, people feel that they are an authority on whatever. They get a Bachelor Of Arts in Whatever, a Masters in Whatever and perhaps even a PhD in Late 16th Century Romantic Whatever. You can become an expert, all without any of the potentially humiliating and painful work required to actually do Whatever.

Think of the English teacher you had who would talk about the reasons Harry Potter is a great piece of literature. They can instruct others on these subjects without ever publishing a single novel.

There are many, many people with hundreds of degrees in business school who are ‘experts’ in business. How many of them come anywhere close to Elon Musk?

The Man In The Arena

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.

~ Theodore Roosevelt

‘Knowing’ Instead of Competence

Competence is hard. You have to go into the arena time and time again, risking your ego and body and money and sometime your sanity. You fail many times, and it’s unclear whether you’ll ever get to the level you desire.

But by ‘knowing’ you can skip right to the expert step. It’s not real competency, but it ‘feels’ like knowing, and that feeling is seductive. It’s why martial arts teachers with decades of experience can talk for hours about the nature of combat, but lose to people with a few months of training in BJJ & Muay Thai.

Or the trainer at the gym with the certification from some organization that made him pass an online certification test to receive his PDF diploma. He’s shrimpy and can’t lift the weights, but he ‘knows’ about weight lifting and will happily tell people who’ve lifted more weight, trained as athletes, or competed how their form is wrong.

As a society, we seem to value ‘knowing’ and the signaling of knowledge (certificates, university degrees, diplomas, etc.) over actual competence. Actual competence is much more difficult than reading and vomiting up information. Much easier just to read and talk about ideas, and point out where other people have faltered.

The 2016 Election

In the wake of Trump’s win, I observed an interesting trend. Many books were published, and news specials were made, ‘explaining’ Trump’s win.

Again, few of these actually tried to explain. As in, interview people on both sides and put together reasons why actors did what they did.

I have observed mostly an attempt by people on the losing side to come to grips with their loss. They are no different than the loser in a game of Magic: The Gathering drawing their next card and explaining how they would have won if… if… if…

This broadly fits into the bargaining stage of the classic 5 Stages of Grief:

  • Denial
  • Anger
  • Bargaining
  • Depression
  • Acceptance

However, I don’t think it fits precisely since the Bargaining/What If stage frequently comes alongside cognitive dissonance. I don’t think most people reach acceptance; I think they remain somewhere between Denial – Anger – Bargaining for a great deal of time, and will engage in any psychological trick to save their ego and not have to accept inconvenient truths.

In Actuality, Most All Of Us Don’t Know Shit

In truth, most of us actually aren’t competent at much. We can tie our shoes, send email, and do a few things, but most people are incompetent at most activities. And this is fine; we have an economy of specialized labor so I just need to be competent at my job and don’t need to understand anything else.

But we all want to believe that we know.

Ultimately all things are known because you want to believe you know.
~ Zensunni koan, Chapterhouse Dune

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