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.


  • http://noahstjohn.com sherill

    Hi , I really like your post,it is very informative. As they say, you cannot please everybody. I totally agree with your hypothetical pie-chart showing the variety of thoughts a typical person has, it is true that people care less of what you do and are more focused on what they want for themselves. I have learned so much from this. Thanks for sharing .

  • Paul

    Like Sherill, enjoyed your post, but I’m still at a loss as to how to get around these rules/problems. It’s hard to relate to people who exhibit these trends only (which is most people). Your rules outline the facets of human nature and selfishness, and I quite agree with your point of view by the way, but how can you make someone else be interested in yourself, whilst they’re basically only interested in themselves? It’s so difficult relating to people when their all and only reactions are self based. It’s boring and lonely. Do you have tips for enchanting people to be interested in talking about ‘me’ instead? Sharing is actually where it’s all about. Listening only is pathetic and subservient.

  • Tamara

    Thanks for the excellent post. It puts a lot into perspective. My question is, if so many people are potentially lonely and have few people to support or care about them, why do those same people often breakup a precious rare person who DOES support them and keep them company? I was thinking of why breakups are so common, when people should perhaps cherish the opportunity to have even one person stand by their side. I’m happily dating someone now, but I’ve been broken up with by men for very inane reasons, and I do not relish in the fact but have noted that these men are sometimes then left alone (and possibly lonely), not dating anybody.

  • Jenni

    As a woman and a Special Education teacher, and an INFJ, I feel that I have alot of empathy and can’t imagine being any other way. I like to talk about my problems, I consider it healthy to “vent” and I also welcome others doing the same. What I have experienced, through dating, is that many men expect for women to be kind, empathetic, caring in a relationship, but they do not return the favor. If you require them to give back, they usually dump you because they can’t handle the pressure. I also have female friends who are totally lacking in empathy and I find that to be a turnoff. Maybe it’s because I live in self-absorbed, rushed NYC, but I think it’s endemic of the culture in America as well. I just don’t understand it, because I am not this way. I am non-religious, but it seems like only people who follow some kind of belief in a higher power or karma actually care about how they treat others. The rest are just a bunch of scum with no values. And they are the ones constantly posting “selfies” and seeking others’ approval for their hollow existences.

  • Jay

    These are some pretty interesting points, some of which took my entire childhood and a good deal of my early adult life to understand. It’s funny how a lack of understanding of the concepts of conceit and self-absorption can make a person completely socially dysfunctional.

  • C

    I found your blog by Googling productivity. After reading and proceeding to print some of your articles, I checked out a few of your Youtube videos. So, I think I definitely struck gold! Thank you so much for your insight! I really love your drive and because of it, the public now has the keys to success in seemingly all walks of life. Too bad most people are wasting their time on social media to see this, but I did post one of your articles to Facebook.

    Take care! Please continue to share your insight.

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  • shelley ihde

    Thanks this really helps. I wish I would have read this 30 yrs. Ago too but will use now. Again thanks sincerely Shelley

  • http://truthredux.com/ Penni

    Hmmmm. Very interesting :) 3 out of the seven say that people are intrinsically self-serving and self-ish. Far from being a bad thing – I think that is not only true, but an absolute necessity. If people just surrendered to that and nurtured and understood themselves first and completely, then they perhaps would not need to understand or justify others? They would then accept others (or not) as they found them.

    I would love to hear your thoughts on this :)

    btw I loved your post on why you are an atheist, esp not needing Zeus to explain lightning. And also the one on “isms”

    I’d like to suggest a third alternative – morph the labels any old which way you like :):)

  • Marissa

    Great article, I work with people and am trying to get a better understanding when it comes to building relationships and this has been very helpful. Thank you :))

  • rahul

    Thanks, it would help me, but if u give examples and easy words then it may help many more people.

  • Rebel

    Excellent article. Well written and informative. I guess it only makes sense to carefully observe other people’s motives, aswell as your own before acting or reaching to a conclusion. Failure to do so often results in miscommunication and misinterpretations.
    Like I said, Great article. I intend to put it to the test

  • MIMI

    I think that this article is highly accurate. I am very glad that I found it.

    I would encourage you to check your spelling more carefully; please learn the differences between “their”, “they’re,” and “there”. I say this not to be mean or judgmental but because I want you to make a good impression to your readers and maintain credibility.

  • ervi

    I personally tend to see malice in others just because it’s not rare that people don’t understand what i’m saying, or that start talking right before I finish, or they have fallacies in their logic etc…
    I am fully aware that there are cultures where the message is something that goes beyond the words and in some others the words usually mean what they mean but there are cases where people are supposed to understand the exact meaning of the words but fail… And honestly I’m sick of taking responsibility for it, in western countries it’s always the speaker’s fault if people don’t get the message but let’s be honest… some people don’t understand just because they’re not prepared enough or too emotional or confused or whatever and the fault is not always one-sided.

  • laura

    what a brilliant article, wish i had read this a few years ago, it has helped me to understand a hell of a lot! thank you so much.

  • Holly

    @ Jenni: How can you be truly empathetic if you actually can’t understand people and think that they are generally “scum” with “no values”????
    @Scott: Good article. Was the pie graph based on research or is it purely hypothetical? I especially like your term “selfish altruism”. I’ve been thinking of that a lot in the last few years. I tend to think that heroes who die for causes unrelated to their bloodline must get some kind of selfish kick out of it though, or else they wouldn’t make that sacrifice either….!

  • Eileen

    I’ve always felt this way about people. I thought it might be a flaw on my part in being so cynical about the REAL motives about people, but this makes sense. If I apply it to myself, I fit the category perfectly. If only it were the opposite and most people were humanitarian and only the minority self absorbed.
    This article helped to put my views, interpretation and reaction regarding others and their action into different perspective.

  • stunto

    Hi scott. Really insightful post you have here. I have read a lot from your archive and it helps me understand much about myself and life. This post has come to my notice at a very critical time. Thank you for all your blogs- study, personal life and business topics.

  • drishti

    Hey, I found your article the best among the bunch I stumbled upon. Apart from the precise insight into human behaviour provided here, please do also spread a detailed word about how to deal with loneliness within oneself and also eradicate it from the lives of people we touch. Also a word or two about increasing empathy and tips to gain better insight of the emotional and mental status of the other person would be deeply appreciated. Thank you!

  • iris

    Thank you.
    I honestly think that my faith helps me be more empathetic. A conept like the incredible need for and power of “forgiveness” guides me to checking myself…rather than checking others too much.mI’m sure that I could choose to forgive without my faith but, I’m not sure how often or what rules I would use….My faith reminds me that “I must forgive, if I want forgiveness and that I must love others as I love myself.” This clearly indicates that we are primarily self-centered creatures as you say.
    Looking outside myself and seeing the magnificent people, places and things in the world, help me become a richer person. As I am enriched I am able to give more day by day.
    You are very cool and so is this informative article. Thank you.

    This article helps me understand myself and others more. I love looking at things from a different angle, and seeing things differently. It is boring to constantly look at things “one way,” and I can’t really learn anything that way. I’m 62…I still love learning something new every day.

  • mark

    This is a very helpful way to keep a check on whether one is over-reacting or when confused. I think the pie-chart is an excellent image to conjure up quickly in a crisis, possibly averting some social or emotional disaster. As an autisitc, I have to re-learn stategies like these simple rules again every day. Of course, I need to spend more care and percentage points with the ’empathy’ aspect or I could get thumped by a stranger, but isn’t that an example of ‘selfish altrusim’ anyways? I certainly don’t hesitate to step in and assist others I have no shared genes with, I don’t have any of that awareness of social reserve that obviously stops many. If an old lady trips with her heavy bags and lies sprawled on the sidewalk, you don’t need much empathy to understand there is pain there!

  • Tapasya

    Thanks Scott.This will surely be helpful. .Hope this comment finds all friends across in great spirit. I believe self development is a continuous never ending process. Socialization is a part of it. While dealing with humans I try my MIRROR game. Whenever you feel hurt or down instead of pouncing on the next person get a quick mirror image of how you would feel if you happen to invite your forethought reaction. This being just an example its difficult at the beginning but once you master the MIRROR game you besides feeling good begin to comprehend people and that brings an end to all your troubles.

  • ishmael

    really nice. thanks. Generalyy I didn’t care completely so this will help me. God bless u.

  • Michael W

    I liked your article also, but I do think there are exceptions. There are some people like myself who have done for others and got nothing for it. I was walking into a 7Eleven and this guy and his wife were talking on the phone in their car with the windows down and when I came out, I heard him say his car battery was dead. Without hesitation, I let him use my cables and his girlfriend asked if there was anyway to repay me and I said, “nothing, I have been there.” Just being able to relate and know how someone feels makes me want to help them regardless. I have done countless things for others and expected nothing in return, sometimes people take advantage and perceive me as weak, but it takes strength to help people, especially, if what you say is true about self-altruism.

  • Michael W

    From an evolutionary perspective, complete self-altruism was necessary for survival but humans have evolved even more in conscious sense, that we can think of others and still care for ourselves. Its just that some people choose to drag their knuckles and others choose to evolve which is to at least somewhat care about others. It is more of a choice, blaming this behavior on instinct entirely, is just an excuse not to help at all.

  • johnjweyland

    i think it’s better if we learn to understand people one behaviour at a time and with help from the person

  • Dan

    “People skills is”? Yeah you sort of discredited yourself with the that, try “people skills are”. You may have people skills but you certainly don’t have academic skills of any consequence.

  • Trish

    Dan – wow, that was just nasty, and unnecessary. “People Skills is” is actually CORRECT – because in talking about “People Skills”, the author is talking about an ability, a skilfulness, a talent.

  • Nick Rowan

    To be honest I have been thinking about asking you a question. How can you sleep with these knowledge? I am very serious. I have been trying to figure out people and what you said makes a lot of sense.

  • Emily

    Still I don’t understand. I have a friend who goes from wanting to be my friend to not wanting to be my friend, one day she’s totally upset with me and the next she’s saying goodnight and good morning with the happiest smile ever. I just don’t understand, and I really do want to. :/

  • Ajaya Padhan

    really helpful for a person like me with highly introverted instincts. the first point gave me immense confidence.thank you.

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  • pam

    hya i found this to be so true to my relationship …may i ask a question please …i find my partner spends out on ipads/things for laptop an not cheap lol…an buys me a little something ,now i feel this is to cover for what he is spending on himself would …and found after he been doing this was coming bk ,and found someone here when they wasnt ment to come to house ,was to watch dog as i was hospt…when i concern myself bout smoking an i mean 15 in 2hrs i get moan’s…he sez or does gets turned round on me …so i’m wondering now if this is a self-indulged person or not …i have been there though his bad time’s but he ignore’s mine am i being selfish here…thank you

  • Jacob

    After going through this post i have come to realize how people
    behave the way they do.
    Nobody is actually perfect and every human have emotions.
    Interesting.
    Now i know why i can’t please everybody even though i always stretch myself against my will to please them.
    Keep posting this because its very educating and inspiring.

  • B

    I am posting this for recognition. Someone will read this and I will feel good for putting my thoughts out there. Someone may judge my post because they don’t agree. Either way this is all about me. I do not know how to communicate with people, mostly because I assume they are aware or have heard of all the mistakes I have made. Like there is a weekly memo about my shortcomings that goes to all who I know. The hardest thing about expressing my self today, is that I wake up and it has changed by tomorrow. I have all this brain and I don’t know how to use it, if I pretend to have confidence, I fit in, if I pretend to care, I am weak. I know that you are there and their judgements don’t matter, but they’re bound to point out your flaws to climb past on the social ladder. I am flawed, severely flawed and know one can know that you are sad or depressed and severely stressed. I smile and spend money, laugh at a joke when it’s not funny. It’s impossible that I am the only one with unique thoughts, we have to be the same, or else we would all have barcodes instead of repetitious names.

  • http://enlightenmentportal.com Zdravko Luk.

    What a profound article. I love the insights! All of them are great but I have to add something about the sixth one. This refers probably more to the western culture. For example my country which is located on the Balkan is probably one of the poorest and economically weakest countries on the planet, but people are rarely lonely here :) Of course there are exceptions to every rule…

    Loneliness really has to do with culture and with “individualistic” vs “collective” societies. Generally, western folks dedicate more to the individual accomplishments and this is one of the factor that contributes for greater loneliness, especially in huge cities like New York or London.

    Little bit off-topic there, so back to the article, great insights! These are really critical rules to understand people!

  • colleen

    i googled “people truly dont care” and it was such a relief to find words that agreed with me! They DONT. And i get so tired hearing about how they really do and i need to change my attitude. anyone can give a homeless person a dollar and feel good about themselves. People who help others during a disaster, isnt that just being a human being? How is that showing extraordinary heroic caring? a person would be sick not to. The best quote about this seems to be along the lines of when you hit rock bottom, you are aware of the people who truly care about you. And, it is a shocker to find this out. If people have at least one, they are very very lucky.

  • Sara Goodman

    Interested in your resources for your conclusions? Neuroscience?
    Thanks!

  • 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.

  • http://www.twitter.com/southsufficient South Sufficient

    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?