The Critical 7 Rules To Understand People

My headline might sound overreaching. Clearly a rule can’t define something as complex as human behavior. But despite this, I’ve found most people tend to make the same mistakes. These mistakes are frequent enough that they create conflicts later. Remembering these seven rules will help you avoid these mistakes.

People Skills is About Being Nice, Friendly and Interesting, Duh!

Most the books I’ve read on dealing with people either make two claims:

  • Incredibly obvious stuff that most sensible people understand; even if they haven’t always mastered it. Things like be nice, be considerate, etc.
  • Bizarre and complex theories that may explain some behavior, but is difficult to generalize.

Between these two I’ve found there seems to be a gap of information that is can be applied generally, but isn’t always obvious. These frequent mistakes tend to cause most people conflicts, social errors and emotional upsets.

The Seven

Here are the seven rules I’m talking about:

Rule One: Never blame malice for what can easily be explained by conceit.

People don’t care about you. This isn’t because people are mean or hurtful, but simply because they are mostly focused on themselves. Consider this hypothetical pie-chart showing the variety of thoughts a typical person has:

Thought Chart

In this example, 60% of thoughts are self-directed. My goals. My problems. My feelings. Another 30% are directed towards relationships, but how they affect me. What does Julie think of me? How will boss evaluate my performance in the next review? Do my friends like me or see me as irritating?

Only 10% in this model is time spent in empathy. Empathy is the rare event where one person actually feels the emotions, problems and perspective of another person. Instead of asking what Julie thinks of me, I ask what is Julie thinking.

Within that 10%, most people then divide attention between hundreds of other people they know. As a result, you would occupy a fraction of a percentage in most peoples minds, and only a couple percentage points in a deeply bonded relationship. Even if you are in another persons thoughts, it is how your relationship affects them, not you.

What does this mean?

  • Embarrassment doesn’t make a lot of sense. Since others are only focusing a small portion of there thoughts onto judging you, your self-judgement is overwhelmingly larger.
  • People who appear to be mean or hurtful don’t usually do it intentionally. There are exceptions to this, but generally the hurt you feel is a side-effect, not the principle cause.
  • Relationships are your job to maintain. Don’t wait to be invited to parties or for people to approach you.

Rule Two: Few Social Behaviors are Explicit

Basically this rule means that most the intentions behind our actions are hidden. If a person is feeling depressed or angry, usually the resulting behaviors distort their true feelings. If I feel you snubbed me, I might hold my tongue but ignore you later.

The old joke is that women use words like, “fine,” and, “go ahead,” when they really feel the opposite. But I’ve noticed men do this too in polite situations, although often not in the same way.

The application of this rule is that you need to focus on empathy, not just hearing a person. Demonstrate trust, build rapport and learn to probe a bit. By focusing on empathy you can usually break away these subversions and get to the heart of the issue faster.

The other application of this rule is that most the time you feel something, nobody else knows about it. So don’t get angry when people aren’t responding to you. If you deceive your thoughts with your actions, don’t get angry when you fool people.

Rule Three: Behavior is Largely Dictated by Selfish Altruism

To say everyone is completely selfish is a gross exaggeration. That ignores all the acts of kindness, sacrifice and love that make the world work. But I would argue that most (not all, but most) behavior does work from the principles of selfish altruism.

Selfish altruism is basically win/win. It is where helping you directly or indirectly helps me. There are a couple main categories where this applies:

  1. Transactions – If I purchase a car, both myself and the dealer benefit. I get a vehicle, which I want. The dealer gets money to improve his lifestyle. This is the predominant form of selfish altruism between people who don’t have emotional bonds.
  2. Familial – Blood is thicker than water. We are designed to protect people who share our genes. This can sometimes shift towards extremely close friends and loved ones.
  3. Status – Helping someone is a sign of power. Many species of primates will offer assistance as a sign of dominance. People act similarly, offering aid to boost their self-esteem and reputation.
  4. Implied Reciprocity – Many relationships are based on the idea that if I help you, one day you will help me as well.

Occasionally behavior falls outside this group. Nameless heroes dying for causes that don’t help their bloodline. Volunteers devoting their time towards humanitarian missions. But these are the minority, whereas most actions can be explained by some form of selfish altruism.

How do you apply this rule? You understand the motives of people and appeal to them as if they were selfish. Find ways to help people within these four categories. Don’t expect people to offer aid outside of selfish altruism, it isn’t impossible, but it isn’t likely.

Rule Four: People Have Poor Memories

Ever been told someone’s name at a party and then forgot it later? Another rule of human behavior is that people have trouble remembering things. Especially information (as you’ll recall in rule one) that doesn’t apply to themselves. People are more likely to remember your similarities than your differences (unless they were emotionally incensed by them).

Recently I even broke this rule. I made arrangements to talk to a person I hadn’t met before on the phone. Even with my normally foolproof system of calendars and to-do lists, a few spontaneous schedule changes caused me to miss the call. I quickly apologized and made a new arrangement.

But the fact is most people don’t have organized GTD systems. People are forgetful by nature, so once again, don’t assume malice or disinterest if something is forgotten. The other side of this rule is that you can demonstrate reliability by having a good memory or system (if it doesn’t fail you).

Rule Five: Everyone is Emotional

Perhaps this is an exaggeration. But the core of the message is that people tend to have stronger feelings about something than they let on. People who regularly have outbursts of anger, depression or flamboyant enthusiasm are generally frowned upon in most cultures. This especially applies to men (for women trying to figure us out).

The application of this rule is to not assume everything is fine just because someone isn’t having a nervous breakdown. We all have our individual problems, angst and upsets that are normally contained. You don’t need to call people out on their private deception, but being sensitive to those underlying currents gives you an advantage in trying to help.

The alternate application of this rule is similar to rule two. People generally assume everything is fine unless you just had a blowup.

Rule Six: People are Lonely

This is another broad generalization. But it is amazing how many people who seem to have it all, suffer from bouts of loneliness. As social animals, I believe people are especially sensitive to any threats to becoming ostracized. In Neanderthal times, exile meant death, so loneliness and the desire to be with other people is a strong one.

The application of this rule is that loneliness is fairly common, so in that sense, you really aren’t alone. I used to be bothered when I felt alone or an outsider in a social group. Although I’m still human, I’ve found recognizing this feeling to be fairly common as a way to minimize it.

Rule Seven: Did I Mention People Are Self-Absorbed?

This may sound like a reiteration of rule one, but I believe the applications extend beyond relationships and your emotional state. The fact that people tend to be too concerned about themselves to give you much attention, that people tend to be lonelier, more emotional and feel differently than they let on applies to how you view the world.

If anything this perspective should make you more proactive and independent. Once I started really learning these rules, it made far more sense that I needed to take charge. By placing your individual happiness in the hands of another person (or people), you ignore all these rules and do so at your own peril.

I like to take an optimistic, but realistic view of people. People who are generally try their best, but make mistakes and suffer from unintended self-absorption. In other words, they are basically like you.

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  • Sara Goodman

    Interested in your resources for your conclusions? Neuroscience?

  • Tammy Charleston

    I’m the same way. I can’t help but put myself in someone else’s shoes…I feel their pain. The problem is, when I’m in need and no one bothers it drives me nuts …how can they just sit there and do nothing?

    .I cannot sit there comfortable while someone’s in distress so I have difficulty understanding how I can be running around going CRAZY looking for my keys and no one even flinches.I can’t do that… I HAVE TO help. I get really annoyed when in in distress &no one cares.

  • shivangi verma

    Yeah its true I find it hard too its like everyone jst blames fr nt being understanding they r like u dnt understand me if u continue to do this u r gonna loose everyone u r close to or ur frnds my prev relationship broke becoz my ex bf was like u dnt understand me a bit he wanted me to understand him widout him saying it I was like what d hell man how can sumone jst understand nyone if they r nt gonna tell only n all dis conversation was on messaging chatting which I think is one of cause of misunderstanding how can I know if a person is troubled if I dnt see him/her n if dnt talk to him n simply jst chat Bt dey dnt understand dis themselves n dey want us to change y d hell should I change wen dey r d one who should change I m jst tired of dis everyone complaining dat I m NT understanding becoz its only me who knows how hard I try to convince sumone dat yes I understand n I care fr u :/ n this was d first tym I hve posted sum thing like this on a website… I m really very upset plz if sumone can jst give an advice it would b helpful I jst want to b free of ny kind of troubling thoughts…

  • Ardi

    The best article i’ve read in a while. After many years of pondering the issue i just came recently to the same conclusions.

  • Lisa

    Don’t forget the most important thing: no one cares about anyone, and that includes everyone. Which means it’s neither a bad thing nor can anyone truly be wounded from it. There are no martyrs, we are each guilty and should be. Human nature is the survival instinct, and human nature is universally in balance. To be concerned that no one is concerned about you proves where your focus is.

  • seabird

    That is simply not true. My husband and I truly love and care for each other deeply. Everyone needs and wants love. It comes down to choosing to….. choosing to giving one love and as well as receiving one’s love.

  • seabird

    You can start by improving your English. The spelling of your words is very troubling.

  • Although there are some truths to these 7 rules, I dont think rule 1 applies to everyone. Some may have more empathy and less self absorption, others may have more self absorption and less empathy. My point is every human being has had a different upbringing and depending on the way they have been raised will play a huge factor to HOW they integrate with other people. More importantly most people help those they value when the reality is we should be helping people who have no value at all.

    Feed the Greed has become the social norm and now we need to help those with nothing before the world becomes split with Greed and Poverty.

  • Fergo

    Slight loss of credibility is definitely overshadowed by the content in the article. Great work, glad I stumbled upon this article!

  • Egotistical loner

    I’m not in anyway a psychologist but that sounds slightly bipolar. Is there anything you/other people do which might trigger mood changes?

  • Vanessa Tan

    Thanks for your post. This post is detailed and practical. Yet, in my opinions, if you could use more simple words to describe your post, it will be greater! Anyway, this post is helpful. I also have 7 tips on understanding people better, hope that you find it interesting

  • Kerry Hayward

    improve the way the write, the words you have used are terrible, some people will judge you by the way you present yourself.

  • immortalwombat10 .

    Its not altruism if its also selfish. Like, thats literally in the definition of the word.

  • Andrew Turner

    Unfortunately the article tells you how people are which after living for a while you would have to be pretty dumb not to suss out. It certainly does not help you to understand why they behave like that.

  • Mira

    Wonderfully original, and somewhat humorous, post. I assume you may also embody these qualities. Either way, I find your genuine writing refreshing. Have a wonderful day!

  • sillyjobug

    But the literal definition isn’t possible. You always gain something from helping another person, even if it’s only a feeling of pride.

  • sillyjobug

    I don’t think he meant that everyone is exactly that 60-30-10 split; rather, that’s an average around which we all float, but nevertheless self-focused thoughts will always predominate. Personally I agree with this. I don’t think anyone thinks about others more than themselves, not if you’re actually looking at every thought. (Especially if you take into account the “I” in “I want to help that person.”)

  • sillyjobug

    Sorry, seabird, everyone has a limit where they’ll truly have to choose between themselves and their loved ones, and everyone will choose themselves. Most of us never reach that point, but it exists somewhere. Every animal will ultimately protect themselves, and we are animals too. Humans can be grand and proclaim to love everything, but it’s constantly whittled down, first to humanity, down to country, down to friend groups, down to family. In the end the most important will always be the individual, whether that’s an amoeba or a wolf or a minnow or your husband.

  • seabird

    Sorry, you can not answer for “everyone”. Do you generalize much? I mean really. There are people that have taken their very own lifes to save others. You know that to be a fact. You have no valid argument here….. at all. Are you a liberal? yes or no?

  • Angel

    Well one bit of advice is talking on the phone than texting, another solution is to explore why it seem like you don’t understand your mate. Ask your mate or friend what you lack understanding him. If that person make it too dificult to understand them than maybe its time to move on with someone else. If that person doesn’t make an effort to understand you than drop him because it takes two to build a relationship of any kind. Its painful to change and make sacrifices for others constantly and see that others are not willing to do the same for you.

  • PJR

    I get you and I am so sorry for the loss of your baby. My nephew suicided and my so called best friend never even as much sent a sympathy card. I guess she forgot my support during the losses of her parents. Hugs, not everyone is made like us. This is a lonely world.

  • Wile Mutt

    Well said, South Sufficient. This article is difficult for me to digest. Most of my self-absorption has to do with licking my wounds for far too long after I get sh– on by someone who I thought was my friend but in reality, they fit the over 60% pie slice for narcissism in this graph. Letting go is very difficult. Getting out of a 20 year relationship with someone who never gave one hoot about me is infuriating. The emotional roller coaster of extreme anger to whining, wimpy “Oh–they didn’t really mean to do xxx to me, they really loved me and probably want me back” has to stop. I am working on it. Getting rid of the shame of allowing this to happen to me is major. This person had very similar personality/character traits that my mother had. It was all about her, all the time. So, yeah, I played a huge masochistic part in this relationship.

  • Wile Mutt

    Too much lopsided philosophy here and not enough dealing with reality. Great descriptions of narcissistic personality types though.

  • NattleN

    1.Why do we not find a way correct the majority’s selfish behavior instead of just “accepting” such behavior?
    Not addressing behavioral problems (any behavior negatively effecting yourself or others), makes it worsen by becoming widespreadly accepted and practiced.

    2.If people are never confronted about their personal deceit, how will they know it’s wrong?
    (By wrong, harmful to themselves or others).

  • john widmer

    Exactly. The ideal of altruism is set up on a false premise, but its not there to be something to become but to strive for.

  • XavierCarter

    Thank you for this. I have trouble understanding people. My social development seems okay but I have almost zero personal relationships. Added this to reads I’ll keep going back to

  • Vera

    This was very well written article. I like the simple English.

  • Idk

    I’m confused I didn’t read it I just wanted to right here so hi

  • Mike

    Wow… this is so accurate and fits the majority of people! This would also explain why many people do not get along with others. Many are too much alike

  • Mike

    Confronting them does nothing because in their mind they are right and you are wrong. This is the society in which we live. Such behaviors are learned as children, and if there were a time to correct it, it would be then.

  • Susan June

    Scott, I am super intrigued by the selfish altruism point on helping as a form of dominance. I would like more information on this aspect of behavior.

  • Nina

    Loved this

  • Bill

    I have to agree with Seabird. It’s a choice. Love is an action. Gratitude should lead us to wantonthink and help others – not personal gain or the feel good aspect. This will eventually destroy society.

  • sanja

    Yes but you feel good because you repaid them and done the right thing