A Little Happier: “If They’ll Do It For You, They’ll Do It to You”: My Daughter and Father Hit on the Same Truth.

I love Secrets of Adulthood, when a big idea can be summarized in a phrase or sentence.

Because of something called the “fluency heuristic,” it turns out that if it’s easier to say or think something, this thought seems more valuable.

For instance, an idea that’s expressed in a rhyming phrase seems more convincing than the same idea paraphrased in a non-rhyming phrase.  “You get what you get, and you don’t get upset” is much better than “Take what’s given to you without a fuss.”

And any time something is expressed in a particularly succinct, powerful way, it has more power in our minds. Here’s an example.

My daughter Eleanor often gives me a sort of student-review of her teachers and their teaching styles. She’s not whining or complaining, but making constructive observations about what and what isn’t working.

In fact, I’ve often suggested to her that she write “A Student’s Guide to Teaching More Effectively” because her observations seem so helpful. (She shows absolutely no interest in doing this.)

But anyway, she’s been making these observations ever since she was very young. And I remember when she was really young, she said that it bothered her about a teacher that: “That teacher has favorites.”

I had a response that was perhaps not admirable, but understandable in a parent, “How does the teacher feel about you?”

And she said, “I’m one of her favorites, but still that makes me like her less. Because maybe I’m a favorite now, but the fact that I’m a favorite now means that I could not be a favorite.”

At the time, I remember being impressed that such a young child could understand this fact about the way the world works.

As it happens, just recently, my father was telling me a story about something involving a judge and the legal equivalent of a teacher having favorites. I don’t remember whether the judge in the story showed favoritism or didn’t show favoritism, but my father summed up the same problem that Eleanor had pointed out.

He said, “Well you know the old saying about judges. ‘If he’ll do it for you, he’ll do it to you.’”

That’s the power of the fluency heuristic: a few words sum up a big idea about the fickle nature of favoritism, and why it bothers us even when it’s working in our favor. Whether it’s a teacher, or a judge, or a boss, or whoever it might be: “If they’ll do it for you, they’ll do it to you.”




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