How to Win Friends and Influence People Book Club, Part 1
By Bryan Caplan
[Note: Please leave questions and comments below, and I will respond in later posts.]
Today’s the first day of the How to Win Friends and Influence People Book Club. We’ll start by walking through Part One, entitled “Fundamental Techniques in Handling People.”
In the opening chapter, Carnegie explains that almost everyone thinks they’re wonderful specimens of humanity. They’re firmly convince of their own moral excellence and superlative skill. Even the infamous exude self-approval. Thus, Carnegie shares the tale of “Two Gun” Crowley:
When Crowley was captured, Police Commissioner E. P. Mulrooney declared that the two-gun desperado was one of the most dangerous criminals ever encountered in the history of New York. “He will kill,” said the Commissioner, “at the drop of a feather.”
But how did “Two Gun” Crowley regard himself? We know, because while the police were firing into his apartment, he wrote a letter addressed “To whom it may concern, ” And, as he wrote, the blood flowing from his wounds left a crimson trail on the paper. In this letter Crowley said: “Under my coat is a weary heart, but a kind one – one that would do nobody any harm.”
Crowley was sentenced to the electric chair. When he arrived at the death house in Sing Sing, did he say, “This is what I get for killing people”? No, he said: “This is what I get for defending myself.”
Carnegie’s claim: this self-serving bias is so ingrained in human nature that you must, at minimum, tiptoe around it. If you can’t hail someone’s excellences, at least don’t denounce their flaws.
If you and I want to stir up a resentment tomorrow that may rankle across the decades and endure until death, just let us indulge in a little stinging criticism-no matter how certain we are that it is justified.
When dealing with people, let us remember we are not dealing with creatures of logic. We are dealing with creatures of emotion, creatures bristling with prejudices and motivated by pride and vanity.
Carnegie gives many mighty anecdotes along these lines, then quotes in its entirety a short essay on parenthood. If this letter from a father to his child doesn’t move you, what will?
I am afraid I have visualized you as a man. Yet as I see you now, son, crumpled and weary in your cot, I see that you are still a baby. Yesterday you were in your mother’s arms, your head on her shoulder. I have asked too much, too much.
Carnegie ends the chapter, as he always does, with a maxim: “Principle 1 – Don’t criticize, condemn or complain.”
Now that Carnegie’s taught you how to make fewer enemies, chapter 2 tells you how to make full-blown friends. The big picture:
What do you want? Not many things, but the few that you do wish, you crave with an insistence that will not be denied. Some of the things most people want include:
1. Health and the preservation of life. 2. Food. 3. Sleep. 4. Money and the things money will buy. 5. Life in the hereafter. 6. Sexual gratification. 7. The well-being of our children. 8. A feeling of importance.
Almost all these wants are usually gratified – all except one.
The exception Carnegie has in mind, of course, is “a feeling of importance.” This is amazing when you realize how cheap it is to satisfy this want! The only catch is that you need other human beings to satisfy it for you – and they’re usually too focused on their own feelings of importance to lend you a hand. Carnegie’s advice: Start giving everyone around you the feeling of importance they crave – and they will be ever-so-grateful. Make the first move.
Carnegie insists that he is not recommending dishonesty. Instead, he tells you to make an effort to see the good in others, then heartily acknowledge the genuine good you find.
Emerson said: “Every man I meet is my superior in some way. In that, I learn of him.”
If that was true of Emerson, isn’t it likely to be a thousand times more true of you and me? Let’s cease thinking of our accomplishments, our wants. Let’s try to figure out the other person’s good points. Then forget flattery. Give honest, sincere appreciation.
In chapter 3, Carnegie begins with an appeal to introspection.
Why talk about what we want? That is childish. Absurd. Of course, you are interested in what you want. You are eternally interested in it. But no one else is. The rest of us are just like you: we are interested in what we want.
So the only way on earth to influence other people is to talk about what they want and show them how to get it.
Discovering exactly what other people want can obviously be challenging. But the first step in the discovery process is to put your impulsive egomania aside. He illustrates this point with many more gripping yet folksy anecdotes:
Andrew Carnegie, the poverty-stricken Scotch lad who started to work at two cents an hour and finally gave away $365 million, learned early in life that the only way to influence people is to talk in terms of what the other person wants. He attended school only four years; yet he learned how to handle people.
To illustrate: His sister-in-law was worried sick over her two boys. They were at Yale, and they were so busy with their own affairs that they neglected to write home and paid no attention whatever to their mother’s frantic letters.
Then Carnegie offered to wager a hundred dollars that he could get an answer by return mail, without even asking for it. Someone called his bet; so he wrote his nephews a chatty letter, mentioning casually in a post-script that he was sending each one a five-dollar bill.
He neglected, however, to enclose the money.
Back came replies by return mail thanking “Dear Uncle Andrew” for his kind note and you can finish the sentence yourself.
I suspect that high-IQ readers will find Carnegie repetitive, but even high-IQ readers need this repetition. This is a dead horse worth beating into the ground, and he does it with gusto:
If out of reading this book you get just one thing – an increased tendency to think always in terms of other people’s point of view, and see things from their angle – if you get that one thing out of this book, it may easily prove to be one of the building blocks of your career.
The closing maxim: “Principle 3 – Arouse in the other person an eager want.”
1. When you read Carnegie’s maxims, they seem painfully obvious. When you closely read Carnegie’s chapters, however, you realize that almost all of us live in near-total denial of the painfully obvious. We routinely treat other people as we ourselves would not like to be treated. We blurt out criticism when a moment’s reflection reveals the futility of our negativity. And we withhold kind words from others even though we have the reusable power to costlessly make their day. Good readers, please use your reusable power freely!
2. I first read Carnegie when I was seventeen. He made sense, but at the time I did not revise my behavior in the slightest. It took me over a decade to start reinventing Carnegie’s wheel, and I still struggle to hew to his teachings. Still, I pat myself on the back for openly praising appeasement as a social strategy. Even Carnegie didn’t go that far – but he should have.
3. Carnegie’s fundamental lesson, I aver, is that our social impulses are wrong. Our impulses are to criticize others, withhold praise, and talk about our desires. The wise approach, in contrast, is to withhold criticism, praise freely, and talk about other people’s desires. Basic economics lurks in the background: Since the supply of wise social behavior is low, the rewards for the self-aware few are sky high. So be one of the few suppliers on the market.
4. You could retort, “This is self-defeating advice. If everyone followed it, the Carnegie formula wouldn’t work anymore.” But give the man some credit: Carnegie’s own model of human behavior directly implies that most people won’t listen to him! Why? Because they’re too obsessed with talking about their own desires to systematically empathize with others. How to Win Friends and Influence People is a huge best-seller, but only a tiny fraction of humans will ever read it, and only a tiny fraction of those will follow through. Join this tiny fraction and profit.
5. I suspect some readers are thinking, “Carnegie is only useful for Aspies. The rest of us already know this stuff.” While I doubt that many consciously grasp Carnegie’s principles, I concede that most people recognize his wisdom when they hear it. That hardly means, however, that neurotypicals take his principles to heart. How many people do you personally know who habitually refrain from criticism, lavish praise, and talk about other people’s desires? Is even one such person in your life?!
6. At this point, I can hear Robin Hanson in my head, asking, “Why, though, have human beings evolved to be so ‘socially dysfunctional’?” One story is that when we criticize others, withhold praise, and blab about our own wants, we aren’t trying to influence the person we’re actually talking to; we’re trying to raise our status in the eyes of a broader audience. High-status people are hard-to-please and self-absorbed, so one good way to signal status is to emulate them. Fake it till you make it!
On reflection, this is a weak story. We criticize others, withhold praise, and blab about our own wants even when we know there is no audience around. And in any case, high-status people seem more Carnegiean than low-status people, though there’s ample variance.
7. Don’t many high-status people flout Carnegie’s advice? Sure. Part of the explanation is that people’s social skills are so poor that even absolutely cloddish people can still be well above average. Yet the bigger picture is that multiple factors matter in social interaction. A beautiful, super-smart, wildly creative, or ultra-rich person can do well despite their poor behavior. The even bigger picture is that many objectively successful people still suffer through life because their family and “friends” don’t actually like them. If these objectively successful people heeded Carnegie’s maxims, their inner life would not so mock their outer life.
8. You could object, “Maybe impulsive social behavior worked well in primitive tribes.” I’ve made an analogous argument about self-consciousness; worrying about strangers’ opinions makes little sense in a modern anonymous society, but made a lot of sense long ago. For self-help purposes, however, what’s important to know is not where your instincts come from, but that your instincts are wrong.
Your instincts are wrong.
I know this well, because my instincts are especially wrong.
9. Straussian question: Should we trust Carnegie when he admonishes us to avoid dishonesty? Or is he a thinly-veiled preacher of deception? My answer: It’s complicated. Carnegie actively fosters confirmation bias; he wants us to look for the good in others until we find it. While this isn’t a good way to accurately assess another person, it’s a good way to make friends and influence people.
10. Challenge: How could Carnegie explain the tremendous social success of Stalin or Hitler or John Gotti or even a common criminal with four girlfriends? As far as I can tell, the question never dawns on him; he paints every Great Man he invokes as a fine fellow. But if I were Dale, I would concede that brutality and fear are a viable alternative path to social influence. However, reliance on brutality and fear is an ultra-risky strategy with a trivial long-run success rate. Almost everyone who acts like Stalin or Hitler ends up alone and hated, if not jailed or dead. So while the Dark Side may fascinate social scientists, it’s irrelevant for self-help.
11. Further challenge: I’ve built my whole career on tenaciously defending unpopular views. Lots of intellectuals do. So how can Carnegie be right? Answer: I’m only successful because a notable minority of people likes hearing my unpopular views. And as Carnegie would advise, I strive to treat these people well. The same goes for the world’s leading politicians – and the internet’s top trolls. They make friends by making enemies, but it is their friends, not their enemies, that push them to the apex of their social pyramids.
Personally, I’ve also gained a great deal from the many people who plausibly could hate me, but don’t. When you go out of your way to be friendly, potential enemies often treat you with bemused tolerance instead of hostility. A big improvement!
12. Does Carnegiean behavior undermine the search for truth? Far from clear. As we continue with the book, we’ll see that he doesn’t literally oppose all criticism. Instead, he preaches tact and generosity toward others. Carnegie also urges us to monitor our own behavior to avoid giving others reasons to dislike us. While we can easily picture scenarios where this advice hinders the search for truth (“I won’t openly challenge this fool because he’ll seek revenge”), it is at least as easy to picture scenarios where this advice speeds the search for truth (“What makes me so sure I’m not the fool? I should carefully re-read people that seem wrong before I try to expose their alleged errors.”)
13. Final thought: When I was young, I probably would have sneered, “I don’t want to make friends or influence people. This is who I am; take me or leave me.” If I could go back in time, I would cheerfully reply, “There is an enormous payoff to small compromises. The world is full of people who would make great friends and speed your success, but you’ll locate them a lot faster if you go out of your way to be pleasant to everyone. We both know you have a lot to offer, but hardly anyone else on Earth does. Help your future friends help you.” Sure, I could have told my younger self, “In time you’ll learn not to be such an arrogant jerk,” but Carnegie taught me to (a) avoid criticism, and (b) arouse in the other person an eager want. Even if the other person happens to be my younger self.