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How often do you underestimate others?

Today is May 10 and the Navigate the Chaos question to consider is “how often do you underestimate others?” This concept of underestimating others has two aspects for today’s reflection: underestimating our competitors and underestimating the feelings of others. When we underestimate our competitors we fail to realize the lengths by which someone will go to win. Such a scenario plays out in athletics, classrooms, and offices as they are three common areas where competitors battle to win. When we underestimate the feelings of others we make terrible assumptions about their happiness that, as research confirms, is far more often wrong than we acknowledge.

In 1975 Charles "Chuck" Wepner, from Bayonne, New Jersey, underestimated his opponent and gained a valuable lesson when he challenged Muhammad Ali for the world's Heavyweight title. Ali was guaranteed $1.5 million, and Wepner signed for $100,000. This was considerably more than Wepner had ever earned and he therefore did not need any coaxing. In the ninth round Wepner scored a knockdown, which Ali claimed had occurred because Wepner was stepping on his foot. There is a famous picture of this very moment in the fight that shows Wepner did indeed step on Ali’s foot, thus causing Ali to fall down. Wepner went to his corner and said to his manager, "Al, start the car. We're going to the bank. We are millionaires." To which Wepner's manager replied, "You better turn around. He's getting up and he looks pissed off." In the remaining rounds, Ali decisively out boxed Wepner and opened cuts above both Wepner's eyes and broke his nose. Wepner was far behind on the scorecards when Ali knocked him down with 19 seconds left in the 15th round. The referee counted to seven before calling a technical knockout. How ironic that Ali knocked out Wepner with just 15 seconds left in the match! Sylvester Stallone watched Wepner's fight against Ali and shortly afterwards wrote the script for Rocky. Soon thereafter Wepner retired from boxing and began abusing drugs. In 1979, Sylvester Stallone wanted to cast Wepner as a sparring partner in Rocky II, but he failed the audition due to his drug problems. In November 1985, Wepner was arrested on drug charges when he was found with four ounces of cocaine in an undercover police investigation. In 1988 he was sentenced to 10 years in prison under a plea-bargain agreement. He served 17 months in Northern State Prison, Newark, New Jersey, then spent another 20 months in New Jersey's intensive supervision program. In 2003, Wepner sued Sylvester Stallone, seeking payment for his use as the inspiration for Rocky and the film series. The lawsuit was settled with Stallone in 2006 for an undisclosed amount.

In addition to underestimating the competition, people also tend to underestimate what others are going through. In a May 25, 2021, article "Why We May Not Realize That Our Friends Are Struggling" published in Psychology Today, Juliana Breines noted that "when we under estimate other people's difficulties, we all feel more alone." Breines discusses research by Alexander H. Jordan and others who found people tend to underestimate the extent to which other people have negative emotional experiences. Now much of this happens because people who are experiencing a negative life situation tend to suppress such emotions thereby making it harder for others to perceive them. Breines suggests being authentic and in doing so one can increase closeness with others – and help them feel less alone as well. Let’s turn to an example Jordan and others used in their research.

In their 2011 article entitled “Misery Has More Company Than People Think: Underestimating the Prevalence of Others’ Negative Emotions,” Jordan and others start by proposing the following imaginary happy hour involving co-workers Juan, Lisa, and Jen. “Juan has been struggling recently with poor feedback from his boss, Lisa has been dealing with marital and financial difficulties, and Jen has been suffering restless nights due to loneliness. Yet surrounded now by pleasant company and good refreshments, they all wear smiles on their faces. When asked by the others how they’re doing, each of them, judging it inappropriate to express unhappiness at a happy hour, says that things are fine, and each is left thinking that only he or she is weathering rough times. Thus, whereas Juan, Lisa, and Jen attribute their own publicly carefree demeanor to impression-management concerns and situational influences, they assume that their colleagues’ similar behavior reflects true contentment in their personal lives.” This example illustrates what happens so often these days on social media. In short, our perceptions fail to recognize what others are going through in their current life situation. While it is true that many people, as shown in the happy hour example, mask their unhappiness due to the environment in which they find themselves. Today’s reflection serves as an excellent reminder to create an environment where people feel comfortable sharing their true feelings so you do not underestimate their feelings. If you are unable to create the environment for whatever reasons, remind yourself that the person or people you are speaking to might not necessarily be as happy as they appear. Doing so just might help them feel less alone.

  • How often do you underestimate your opponent?

  • Why do you think you underestimate others?

  • What has happened when you underestimated others?

  • How often do you remind yourself that you could indeed be underestimating how someone feels?

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