The year was 1997. Accomplished chess player Garry Kasparov was again facing a unique opponent, the computer known as Deep Blue. When the computer made a move that appeared irrational to Garry, he grew agitated and visibly upset. Understanding that the computer was programmed to “see” all of the possible outcomes many moves into the future, Gary assumed intent behind this seemingly nonsensical decision. Frustrated, Garry walked away, forfeiting the game.
Only later to find out that the strange move by the computer was driven not by advanced programming, but rather by a glitch in the software. Garry had assigned intent to the move, when it was actually just a random action in response to an error.
I found myself thinking of Garry yesterday when I was attempting to navigate the icy roads of Atlanta after a surprisingly large snowstorm. A car suddenly cut in front of me in order to move from the far right lane to far left. At first, I was angry, assuming that this person knew about the cars behind him and intentionally made the decision to cut them off, slippery roads not withstanding.
And then a red light allowed me the opportunity to study the man behind the offending car. Far from the cocky and arrogant demeanor I expected from someone who apparently believed they had the run of the road, he seemed lost. Confused, even. I had been assuming intent behind his actions, when his countenance made it seem more like it was a random (and careless) action in response to an error.
How often do we fall into similar traps? Assigning meaning to the meaningless… Believing in intent when it’s accidental… Envisioning targets on our backs when really we just happen to be standing in between the arrow and its goal…
When we see the outcomes, we easily believe that we also understand the motivations. We assume intent and often act on these assumptions. Yet when we do so, we’re responding not to the reality of the situation, but rather our premature understanding of it.
The next time you find yourself assigning intent to someone’s actions, think of Garry and take a moment to consider that maybe what you’re seeing is just a mistake.