Sometimes we learn about an individual through a third person. Sometimes we hear bad things about that individual which might even constitute gossip. Logically, we should take what we hear with a grain of salt. Hearsay is inadmissible in court after all.
But what if your best friend, a trusted colleague, or a loved one tells you something? What if they tell you what someone else did or said against you? Although technically it’s still hearsay, it’s upsetting, and your best friend wouldn’t lie about something like that, right? Nor your loved one or a trusted colleague. Therefore what they tell you must be true.
Or so goes the faulty logic.
It’s either a lie or the truth, and my friend wouldn’t lie to me, so it must be the truth. We become cognitively trapped into believing what we hear because of a logical fallacy called either-or thinking or dichotomous thinking (see my earlier post on shades of gray – https://parbsanonymous.wordpress.com/2015/07/06/shades-of-gray-to-reduce-depression-and-bias/).
Reality is more complicated.
It’s not necessarily as simple as being a “lie” or the “truth.” On the lie-truth continuum are other possibilities, including three that each begin with the letter M.
Maybe your friend was trying to be honest with you, but your friend misheard what this other person said. After all, it was probably an eavesdropping situation, so how far away was your friend from the actual overheard conversation?
Maybe your friend misinterpreted something. Maybe your friend heard only part of a longer statement. Or maybe your friend didn’t catch a case of sarcasm or humor.
Human memory is not as good as we think (see Pledge #6 – https://parbsanonymous.wordpress.com/pledges/), and so if any time has passed between when your friend overheard something and when your friend speaks to you, there is always the possibility of misremembering (e.g., Loftus, 1979, 2003).
Here’s just a suppose…
Suppose your friend overheard your significant other, let’s say girlfriend, strongly criticize you in some way. Or maybe your girlfriend mentioned wanting to break up with you. You’re loyal to your friend – you don’t want to call your friend a liar – so you begin to fathom the possibility that your girlfriend has a problem with you.
Even if you’re wise enough to talk directly to your girlfriend, your preconceptions entering that conversation might negatively affect your interaction – you might seem accusatory or you might overinterpret what you hear. According to research on the self-fulfilling prophecy, you might end up causing hostility where there was none (e.g., Kassin et al., 2003).
Thus, considering the three Ms above might help you to avoid an unnecessary break-up.
If you have a strong relationship with your girlfriend, it may seem far-fetched to think that this case of dichotomous thinking can actually break you up (soap operas aside). But you can treat this break-up scenario as a parable.
There are a variety of relationships that can apply here – with coworkers, acquaintances, or extended family. And in these cases, direct follow-ups may be unlikely with the person who supposedly disparaged you. Once you think one of these individuals has wronged you based on hearsay, even if they didn’t, it can bias your later perceptions and sour the relationship.
Acknowledging the three Ms means not knowing for sure what the truth is right away – that’s hard for most of us – especially when your trusted friend says “I know what I heard.”
But hearsay is hearsay, so waiting to gather more direct information will maximize accuracy and minimize unnecessary negative emotions.
Kassin, S. M., Goldstein, C. C., & Savitsky, K. (2003). Behavioral confirmation in the interrogation room: On the dangers of presuming guilt. Law and Human Behavior, 27, 187-203.
Loftus, E. F. (1979). The malleability of human memory. American Scientist, 67, 312-320.
Loftus, E. F. (2003). Make-believe memories. American Psychologist, 58, 867-873.