The Second Fundamental: Stalemates and infinite loops in a human-persuade-human world.

“You can’t change other people. All you can do is change your attitude.”

People say this sort of thing when they’ve decided to stop trying to change someone. Maybe generalizing like this helps convince them to let go, but of course it’s not true. Influence happens. Influence is as old as ecosystems. We are extensions of each other, under each other’s influence, and serving each other–sometimes unknowingly (you have about ten times as many bacteria as human cells in your body) and sometimes unwillingly.

And culturally too we are under each other’s influence, giving and withholding, taking and resisting advice that comes in myriad forms, from the subtlest gesture of approval or disapproval to the most blatant “You know what you should do?” assertion. There’s no getting around it. You can change other people–sometimes–which is reason enough for all of us to be a little wary of others’ influence.

I’m telling you for your own good.
Yeah, well, thanks for sharing–but I’ve got it covered.
You’re so stubborn.
Yeah, well, you’re so pushy.

No doubt a sequence like this feels familiar. It actually deserves greater recognition than merely feeling familiar. It’s a fundamental state, or at least the most fundamental secondary state in any argument:

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Level one:
Joe: X is true.
Sue: X is not true.

Level two:
Joe: Your belief that X is not true indicates a bias.
Sue: No, your belief that X is true indicates a bias.

Level one is about X. Level two is about beliefs about X.

Of the stubborn we suspect an unwillingness to admit they’re wrong. Of the nagging we suspect some ulterior motive like the desire to influence just because it’s fun to boss people around. And who’s to say who is right?

If we had enough time and brain capacity, we’d discover that such levels can climb upward infinitely. Following level two, level three would be about beliefs about beliefs about X:

Joe: Your belief that I’m biased indicates that you have a bias.
Sue: No, your belief that I’m biased indicates that you have a bias.

And on and on. But our minds are mercifully limited. It’s easy to get confused by the time we hit beliefs about beliefs about beliefs. At first we’re hopeful that climbing to another level is going to get to the crux of the matter–if Joe could only make Sue see her bias; if Sue could only get Joe to see his. But as we climb the air gets thin and a layer of haze obscures the lower levels. We get disoriented, so we stop climbing.

Beliefs are representations. We have our perceptions of the evidence and from these perceptions we form meanings. The meanings we make “re-present” what we think we’ve perceived. We end up with re-presentations of re-presentations. We enter a hall of mirrors, reflections upon reflections.

The debate about X “turns personal” the moment the second fundamental is reached, the moment one party starts representing the other’s representation or beliefs. When I start having beliefs about your beliefs–re-presentations of your re-presentations, I’ve got an attitude problem. Not the usual kind, but rather an exploding, self-perpetuating problem with attitude iteration. Suddenly there’s the potential for a belief about a belief about a belief about a belief, ad nauseam. The moment you hit that second level you’re potentially off to the races. It’s like the moment you turn a mirror to face and reflect back what’s on other mirrors. The light suddenly begins to ricochet in nearly infinite loops of iteration.

There are ways to escape such iterations. One is through exasperation:

Joe: Oh, for God’s sake, get a life, Sue! Don’t you have anything better to do than sit around triple-guessing everybody? Jeez.

In Sue’s defense, the temptation to spiral up these levels is not evidence of a character flaw. Relationships all have such infinite loops built into them.

I’d like to go out alone tonight. Are you OK with that?
Yeah, I’m OK . . . are you OK with my being OK?
Yeah, I’m OK that you’re OK. Are you OK that I’m OK?

I resent that.
Well I resent that you resent it.
Well I resent that you resent that I resent it.

You’re arrogant.
Well, look who thinks he’s high and mighty enough to be a judge of who’s arrogant?
Well, look who thinks she’s high and mighty enough to be a judge of who’s a judge?

I love you.
I love that you love me.
I love that you love that you love me.

Yes, such loops are laughable–a lot of humor has that iterative quality to it–but don’t let the laughter distract you from the profundity of self-re-presentation.

At the second level–beliefs about beliefs–there’s already no ultimate authority. If Joe thinks Sue is being too stubborn and Sue thinks Joe is being too pushy, either could be right–and there’s no way of saying for sure who is right. Time will tell, perhaps.

Joe: Thinking back, I was in denial. I was kidding myself. I should have known that I was overconfident, and that actually you had it covered.


Sue: Thinking back, I was in denial. I wouldn’t take your very sound advice, and now I regret it.

But in the moment, there’s no knowing for sure.

I do have a little advice about how to handle the second fundamental:

Don’t let an iterative loop exasperate you. It’s not your partner; the presence of iterative loops is inevitable in relationship.

• Don’t pick a partner who gets exasperated about your occasional climbs up through the levels. It’s not you, it’s relationship.

• Conversely, don’t assume the answer lies a level out and that if you persist you’ll get to the bottom of things and you’ll finally prove that you’re right.

• Recognize that abandoning the climb is intrinsically dissatisfying, even when it’s the right thing to do. You know the answer isn’t down a level. You’re guessing it’s not up a level, either.

• Allow stalemate to be one of the options. It’s one of only three ways to deal with a conflict: surrender, fight, or give it a rest. When none feels quite right, giving it a rest–unrestful as it is–is the best you can do. After all, sometimes you can’t change other people.

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