Don't try to figure everything out from first principles



Sometimes people try to figure out how to act by reasoning out rules from first principles, then acting according to the logical implications of those principles, regardless of consequences.

That level of abstraction doesn’t work, because real life is more complicated. It obscures the real situation. You have to start from what’s in front of you.

This is a reason that social skills classes that try to teach atypical people how to be normal by following rigid rules do a lot of harm.


However, extrapolating from principles in combination with a specific event can be a good/only way to figure things out sometimes, and I’m not sure I’ve ever encountered a process write-up for it, soooooo… 

(this is my method and is partially for my own reference, but feel free to reblog additions/explanations/different methods/whatever) 

If you’re in a specific situation and don’t know how to react, or don’t understand what’s going on, you can try to identify the most relevant factors. These can be things like: 

  • the environment/circumstances, which will be especially relevant if it’s unusual or uncomfortable for anyone involved
  • the people’s backgrounds, it may be that this is relevant to their job, childhood, remind them of a past experience, or be particularly important because of their history or beliefs
  • the context of the event
  • the event itself
  • the moods of the people involved (are they particularly happy, sad, tired, stressed, busy? this could be impacting their behaviour or change the way that they’re perceiving events) 
  • anything else unusual about the situation/event
  • principles that apply

Once you have a basic idea of what the important factors are, you can see if any of them line up with what was strange/confusing/upsetting/surprising about what happened. For instance, if you recall/discover that the other person involved has been both sick and unusually busy recently, it may help explain why they weren’t as friendly towards you and eager to chat as they usually are. 

If the event & explanation are both very, very simple and unimportant, this may be enough. Otherwise, it will be helpful to check your work and make sure the conclusion you came to is reasonable. You can do this by

  • asking the people involved
  • asking someone else (preferably someone who knows the situation and/or the people involved)
  • thinking of similar situations, or situations involving the same person, and see if how they typically act fits with your conclusion
  • seeing if they act similarly in similar situations in the future
  • resolving whatever you think the issue is (or just reacting accordingly), and seeing if your response is considered appropriate/helpful or not

If all this seems to match up, and your conclusion seems reasonable, then you may not need to pursue it further. 

However, if your conclusion does not seem to be the best fit once you’ve looked into it more, you may need to re-evaluate it. Starting from the beginning, go over the situation, relevant factors, similar situations &c. and see if you have missed anything, or mis-identified something. Especially if the situation you’re currently analyzing isn’t matching with similar ones in the past, it may be that the two circumstances you’re comparing are not actually as similar as you think. This can be because you missed an important factor, or a bunch of minor factors that led to a big difference. If you think this is the case, re-evaluate with your new information/factors. 

It’s important to keep in mind that your analysis will only take into account the information that you have AND that you have identified as important. There are many times when you simply don’t have enough information without direct input from the other people in the situation. 

If things still aren’t making sense after double-checking your conclusion, consider that you may need other input in order to understand the event. At this point, you should consider where you can get this input (first-hand accounts and explanations are often most accurate when it comes to personal issues), and whether it’s worth it to just ask. 

Reasons for asking include:

  • possibility of clearing up the situation
  • starting a conversation about the subject

Reasons against asking include: 

  • requires interaction
  • the other person may be unhelpful, or may judge/expose you for not understanding on your own