My daughter is taking a forensic science class, and her assignment yesterday was to review evidence from a hypothetical murder scene and deduce whodunit. A man was found dead at an apparent picnic in a field of flowers. Two glasses of wine were there, one with lipstick prints. Men’s-size-10 shoe prints and women’s-size-5 shoe prints walked to the picnic, but only the women’s shoe prints walked away. The man’s car was found abandoned downtown. Murder suspects included his multiple girlfriends, each with a different physical stature and alibi, some who wore lipstick, some who had outdoor allergies, some who lived downtown.
The task seemed straightforward enough until members of the class started allowing their personal filters and experiences to influence their interpretation of the data. Maybe the woman who never wore make-up planted the lipstick on the glass. Perhaps another girl abandoned the car far from her suburban home to deflect suspicion. Did the suspect with allergies take Claritin that morning? Were all the girls fed up with his philandering and act in collusion to kill him (think Murder on the Orient Express)?
The students were simply supposed to analyze the data. But instead, they easily slipped into the dangerous world of overthinking. They started reading other meaning and motives into the data. And the answer that was most obvious became hidden among all the second-guessing.
I think many of us have done this. We wonder why a friend doesn’t respond to our text, or why our usually friendly neighbor was abrupt with us. We interpret it based on our own outlook and perceptions. Did I make her mad? Was it something I said, or neglected to say? We explain the “why” to ourselves based on why we would have done something rather than try to understand from the other person’s point of view. I’m guilty of this all the time. I assume I might be responsible for someone’s actions. I think and rethink until I’ve worked myself up into a lather. Rinse. Repeat. I need to stop it.
So here’s what I’ve been trying to do. Step back. Take a breath. Use my creativity to think about many other reasons why someone might be acting the way they are. Turn off my ego. It may not be related to me at all. There may be nothing to it. As Sigmund Freud purportedly said, “Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.”
I’ll leave you with this funny example and save the discussion about how men and women think and communicate differently for another day…