Sometimes when people say something, it is tempting to reinterpret their meaning in a way that is more convenient for you, rather than just accepting that they actually believe what they say. Often the reinterpretation allows you to assume that someone shares your basic worldview or incentives, even if they don't.

Cartoon from the New Yorker

Cartoon from the New Yorker

Example: Trump's immigration policies

During the 2016 US presidential election, two of Trump's signature commitments were a ban on Muslims entering the US and building a wall along the US-Mexico border. Some people interpreted this just as showmanship, perhaps coming from the worldview that all leaders would retrench closer to realism when governing. Drawing on an Atlantic article, Peter Thiel said [ref]:

“I think one thing that should be distinguished here is that the media is always taking Trump literally. It never takes him seriously, but it always takes him literally. ... I think a lot of voters who vote for Trump take Trump seriously but not literally, so when they hear things like the Muslim comment or the wall comment, their question is not, ‘Are you going to build a wall like the Great Wall of China?’ or, you know, ‘How exactly are you going to enforce these tests?’ What they hear is we’re going to have a saner, more sensible immigration policy.”

But in office, Trump was committed to those literal policies. Within a week he issued "an executive order temporarily suspending immigration from seven Muslim-majority nations and the U.S. refugee program" [ref], and has consistently tried to obtain funding for an actual concrete wall. What's more, many of his supporters weren't just looking for a "saner" immigration policy, they also supported his literal vision. 62% of Republicans favoured an actual wall in 2016, and this increased to 82% in 2019 as it became a partisan identity issue.

If Thiel and others had taken Trump at the face value of his statements, rather than sanding off the edges in search of a hidden competence and moderation, it might have alerted them that he'd be prone to look for sweeping, unrealistically simple solutions to problems, and might have tempered their support much earlier.

Example: Chinese Communist Party ideology

After decades of a US-led liberal international order it seems hard to believe that there could still be genuine Marxist socialists in the world. Combined with China's embrace of market mechanisms, it can be tempting to look at the CCP's comprehensive policy documents defining the creation of a powerful socialist state, and assume they are largely domestic posturing rather than representing a true vision to be executed on. But given the CCP's track record in actually executing on these policies in the past, there is no reason to believe that they aren't actually committed illiberal socialists with an alternate view of building a powerful and successful society. Taking the policies seriously means taking them literally, rather than assuming that they are ideological tissue paper around a core of fundamental values that are very similar to ours.

Peter Mattis writes:

"We need to be able to deal with China as it is, not with what we want it to be. For many years, we had a growing gap between our assumptions and the day-to-day reality of US-China relations... So, again, what has the CCP done to not be taken seriously? It has created and acted on detailed policy road maps for the last 3+ decades. The Party takes their documents seriously, why can’t we?"

Peter Mattis on CCP documents

Tanner Greer writes:

Westerners asked to think about competition with China—a minority until fairly recently, as many envisioned a China liberalized by economic integration—tend to see it through a geopolitical or military lens. But Chinese communists believe that the greatest threat to the security of their party, the stability of their country, and China’s return to its rightful place at the center of human civilization, is ideological.

Despite the concessions made to market-price mechanisms that have helped drive China’s recent economic boom, Chinese communists believe that they lead an ideological-political system distinct from and in opposition to those of the capitalist world. Circumstance forces temporary cooperation with the self-interested capitalists, but these two systems cannot be permanently reconciled.

China’s Plans to Win Control of the Global Order - Tanner Greer

<aside> ⚙ Operationalise: When trying to understand others' behaviour, pause and reflect on whether you're genuinely making use of the signals they're providing, or whether you're instead seeking an explanation of those signals in a way that is convenient for your existing narrative. Related, pause to reflect on their incentives, which could be very different to yours, and see if that explains why their behaviour is different to what you'd do in a similar situation.