Should We Care What Other People Think?

“Care about what other people think and you will always be their prisoner.”                      

—Lao Tzu

In modern American culture—and in many cultures in many ages—there’s great admiration for the trailblazer, the inventor, the social reformer, for those who defy public opinion to speak the truth as they see it. (As long as they defy the right opinions, of course.) If you Google the phrase “care what others think,” the first page of results (as of this writing, on my computer) gives nine links and five images—and with one exception, all of them either passionately argue that caring what others think is a terrible idea, or they give suggestions on how not to do it. And I get that. After all, the trailblazers and defiers are the ones who make history, who change the world with their new ways of seeing and doing. As a card-carrying member of the Strong-Minded Independent Thinker Task Force, I admire that too.

But as an independent thinker who questions truisms and social norms, I want to question this one as well. I understand the desire to reject conformity and defy public opinion. Boy, howdy, do I understand it. But as a catch-all guideline for how we should all live our lives, “Don’t care what other people think” is far too simplistic.

As a matter of pure practicality, it makes sense at least sometimes to care what other people think. To give an obvious example: If I’m preparing for a job interview, I need to put at least some thought into what my potential bosses will think of me. Humans are social animals: we live in an intricately interconnected piece of social machinery, and we depend on other people for our survival and happiness. Being aware of how we’re perceived by others is part of what makes that work. If other people see us as arrogant and unfeeling, disorganized and flaky, or shortsighted and reckless—and we don’t realize it or don’t care—we’re going to be in trouble.

There’s a social justice angle to this as well. When other people have power over you, you bloody well have to care what they think. In some cases, your actual life might depend on it. Not caring what other people think is a privilege. It’s a whole lot easier when you have power, wealth, or other advantages—even to a relative degree.

But apart from these practical concerns, it’s important, at least sometimes and in some ways, to care what other people think. It’s important for one very important reason, one that should matter to humanists and freethinkers and skeptics: other people are a reality check.

I don’t perceive reality perfectly, and I don’t know everything. In fact, I know only a tiny fragment of the knowable things. And I filter my perceptions through my expectations and wishes—filters that are often distorted. Listening to other people gives me a reality check. It gives me a clue about whether I’m overthinking or underthinking, overreacting or underreacting, being self-absorbed or not taking enough care of myself, being too abstract or thinking with the little head instead of the big one. (And it gives me a clue about whether I’m doing none of those things and am doing just fine.)

Of course these other people aren’t always right—but neither am I. Not caring what other people think would mean assuming that my brain is perfect and I know everything there is to know. That’s just silly. And other people aren’t only a reality check about, well, reality. They’re a reality check about morality. Other people provide a mirror that helps us see right and wrong.

I said earlier that if we come across as arrogant, flaky, reckless, and so forth, we’re going to be in trouble. That’s true for selfish, practical reasons; other people won’t treat us well if they think we’re jerks. But it’s also true for ethical reasons. If we’re coming across as jerks, there’s a non-trivial chance that we actually are being jerks. Human brains are wired with many cognitive biases, and our brains deceive us in many ways—and some of our biggest biases are the ways we rationalize our actions and think everything we do is right. Other people can see things about us that we can’t—and that’s especially true when it comes to the ways we screw up. If we care about being good, if we genuinely want to know when we hurt people, we have to listen when they tell us about it. We have to care what other people think.

Of course other people aren’t always right. But neither are we.

Yes, history is full of trailblazing geniuses who followed their vision despite the naysayers. History is also full of arrogant, stubborn fools who refused to listen to the people around them. It’s easy to see in retrospect which is which; in retrospect, the right choice can seem absurdly obvious. From the vantage point of today, it’s easy to see, for example, how Steve Jobs was a genius and General Custer was a fool. But in the moment we’re making a decision or developing an idea—especially a big decision we’re making with limited or imperfect information—it’s hard to know if we’re being Custer or Jobs. Only time will tell. (And even time can be a liar: sometimes things turn out well or badly, not because the ideas were brilliant or foolish, but because of plain old unpredictable luck.)

So when we’re trying to figure out what’s true and what’s right, we should listen to our own observations and instincts—and we should listen to other people. We should let all of this into the mix. Caring too much about what other people think can make us anxious, self-conscious, powerless; not caring enough can make us insensitive, self-absorbed, willfully ignorant. We have to find the balance. And it’s going to be a different balance with every decision—and we’ll never know for sure if we’re getting it right.

There’s a bit in the final book of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series, Mostly Harmless, where one of the Earth characters gets a chance to go off adventuring into space. She tells the space alien to wait while she gets her handbag. He gets impatient and takes off without her, and so she misses her one chance to explore the galaxy. The life lesson she learns is this: when offered a unique life opportunity, never go back for your bag. Except that later in the story, she’s offered a second once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. She jumps at it immediately, but it turns out that for this opportunity she needs her contact lenses, which are—you guessed it—in the bag that she didn’t go back to get. And she realizes that, “If there was one thing life had taught her, it was that there are some times when you do not go back for your bag and other times when you do. It had yet to teach her to distinguish between the two types of occasions.”

That’s what I’m getting at here. There are times when we should care what other people think, and times when we shouldn’t. And life is rarely going to be clear about which is which.

As freethinkers, of course we shouldn’t be swayed by mindless conformity. Of course we shouldn’t assume that something is true just because lots of other people think it is. But, as skeptics, we should also understand the limits of our knowledge and accept the strong probability that we’re wrong about a whole lot of things. We should understand cognitive biases and the hundreds of ways our minds deceive us. And we should embrace other people’s perspectives as a lens that helps us see the world—and as a mirror that helps us see ourselves.