A story about a super ignorant guy I once knew; the memory of which still annoys me

Every day in Baltimore, I used to walk past the intersection of two one-way streets (N. Charles and 28th, for the Baltimoreans out there). Now, normally (at least in Maryland) it’s legal to take a left turn on red, if both streets are one-way (in the appropriate direction, obviously). However, this intersection was governed by an arrow traffic light.

Now, to me, it’s pretty obvious that the arrow light supersedes the general traffic principle: you’re never allowed to make a turn when the arrow is red. In this case, that makes sense because visibility was a little poor and it was difficult to see the cars coming from the right.

However, there was this one guy in the neighborhood who I’d always see at that intersection, honking furiously at when the person in front of him dared to stop for the red arrow. A few times, I saw him squeal out and around the stopped car and take the turn anyway.

One day, I was walking past the guy while he was doing his thing and I noticed his window was open, so I yelled, “Hey, dude, the arrow is red!”

But he yelled back, “No, I’m allowed to take a turn on a one-way street.”

I waited a moment and yelled, “Err…but the arrow is red!”

This went back and forth a few more times until the arrow finally turned green and the car ahead of him took the turn. As he took his turn, the guy yelled, “Dammit, I know how to drive!”

I don’t normally get annoyed at people’s behavior, but there’s something about this guy that has continued to annoy me, even months later.

What I find so interesting about this guy is that he was absolutely sure he knew something that the rest of us didn’t. He thought we were the ignorant ones; the ones who just didn’t understand the law. It’s so interesting. Maybe, somewhere, this guy is writing a blog post about how there’s this one intersection where everyone is a fucking dumbass who doesn’t understand that you’re actually allowed to take a left turn on red in certain circumstances.

The guy didn’t seem stupid. I’m sure that if he sat down and thought about this situation, he’d realize that you’re actually not allowed to turn there. But he didn’t do the thinking. He leapt upon the most obvious explanation (people are stupid) and didn’t go any further.

7 thoughts on “A story about a super ignorant guy I once knew; the memory of which still annoys me

  1. xan

    This is an extreme example of a general phenomenon that fascinates me. When something incomprehensible happens, you can either react by noticing that *you* are confused, or by attributing the property of “confusingness” to the phenomenon itself.

    We used to accept that lots of stuff in nature was fundamentally confusing. Nature was a bunch of black boxes, and we pretended to know what was happening inside them by using words like “magic” which didn’t actually explain anything at all. But over time, we cracked a lot of those boxes open and found actual explanations inside. By now, we recognize that there will probably be stuff inside boxes we haven’t yet figured out how to open. Our enlightened society pretty much gets the idea that when we don’t understand a natural phenomenon, that’s a property of *our* brains, not the phenomenon itself.

    But somehow most people haven’t yet learned to extend this to the phenomenon of human behavior. When we don’t understand why another *person* is doing something, we tend to assume he is crazy instead of considering the possibility that we are confused.

    Politics would be great if it consisted of people with different value/belief systems coming together and trying to make compromises. Instead, it largely consists of people with different value/belief systems completely unable to understand why anyone would disagree with them, and not trying very hard to figure out why. If you don’t understand why people on the other side of the abortion debate believe what they believe, then *you* are confused and the onus should be on you to figure that out.

    The mpre confused you are about someone’s behavior, the less qualified you are to judge the reasonableness of that behavior. Instead, most people take stronger confusion in their own minds as stronger evidence that the behavior itself is unreasonable. There should be a name for this phenomenon; I nominate the Fundamental Confusion Attribution Error.

    1. R. H. Kanakia

      Excellent post. However, I don’t think this guy was actually confused. He _knew_ exactly why this phenomena was happening. It was happening because people didn’t know this (mildly obscure) part of the traffic law that he knew. Because it is so mentally satisfying to think that other people are ignorant and I am smart, he was willing to accept this explanation even though it didn’t _quite_ explain the situation (i.e. if you’re allowed to turn on red, then why would there be a red arrow, when the regular red light ought to suffice). I think there’s also a general tendency on peoples’ part to be satisfied with the easiest answer to a question (other people are ignorant) rather than searching harder for an explanation that fits _all_ of the aspects of the situation.

      1. xan

        You’re right. This guy is quite sure he knows what’s going on in people’s heads, he just happens to be wrong and overconfident in himself.

        When you find yourself saying, “HOW can someone be so stupid as to believe X, what an idiot,” that’s more the phenomenon I’m describing. (well potentially. people really can be stupid. But when it’s half the population, as is often the case in politics, or the entire population, as is often the case in history, people are typically of about average intelligence).

          1. xan

            to the contrary, I know exactly why they’re doing it! of course I am probably wrong and way overconfident.

            (social science in a nutshell)

            1. xan

              oh lord. I had to find out what happens on this blog if I leave a sixth nested comment. with a gratuitously long word like supercalifragalisticexspellingerrordocious.

Comments are closed