February 22, 2023
So, I binge-watched the Netflix show You last weekend, and it was something. I’m late to the game, I know; we’re already in Season 4. But hey, I’ve been busy.
I won’t spoil it for you, at least not too much, on the off chance you still want to see it. But it’s about a guy named Joe who, in the first season, falls for a woman named Beck and goes to great lengths to protect her… and I’m using “falls for” because I can’t think of a better way to put it… and I’m saying “to protect her” because that’s what he would say. From the outside looking in, his feelings are really just infatuation. Obsession. His fixation hits instantly when she walks into his bookstore, so he doesn’t really know her. He gets spun up by a concoction of visual stimulation and vivid imagination. He’s convinced he knows her thoughts and motives. Based on what? Based on nothing. He just… knows. And as long as he can make the right decisions, make choices that successfully draw her in, well… that’s all that matters.
And some of those choices are terrible. Sinister. Sociopathic.
The entire show – and the books it’s based on – is told from Joe’s perspective, a la Dexter. You know his thoughts. You hear his rationalizations. If you’re not careful, you can sympathize with his reasoning. If you’re not vigilant, you can find yourself rooting for his twisted version of devotion, even wondering why no guy has ever seen you as that special, wanted you that much, gone to such great lengths to protect you from assholes and manipulators. As awful as Joe is, he’s also much kinder, more patient, more understanding toward Beck (for most of the first season anyway) than I’ve experienced most guys be with me – and I’m sure I’m not alone. And he perceives with unnerving clarity how unsavory and hypocritical the people surrounding Beck legitimately are, reminiscent of Holden Caulfield (which is likely intended given that Beck’s most disturbing friend is written as a relative of J.D. Salinger).
According to Penn Badgley, the actor who plays Joe, many women have posted on social media their desire to be stalked and kidnapped by Joe. Call these women crazy, but I get it. He’s a fictional character. It’s fantasy. No one – man or woman – really wants to date a psychopath. We just want someone who’ll go the distance.
Such is the power of this story, at least as it is told on screen. If you ever felt firmly settled in your sense of right and wrong, this show might shake your foundation. Joe is no Dexter. He doesn’t make the world a better place; he does what he does only to get what he wants. And he doesn’t focus his evil energy on eliminating psychopathic serial murderers. The characters surrounding Beck, and getting in the way of Joe having her, aren’t pure but they aren’t evil. At the most, you want to punch them in the face. More likely is the fact that, if you find them in your lives, you’d prefer to just walk away.
And yet, you’re OK with the awful things Joe does to them. Not totally OK, but OK enough to keep watching.
Throughout my life, I’ve been surrounded by people who fell far short of being fair. People who weren’t kind, weren’t generous, weren’t sympathetic. People who were comfortable trying to fool me, con me, control me, use manipulative tactics to get me to do what they wanted me to do or believe what they wanted me to believe. Friends who wanted me to “dump him” for no other reason than that they didn’t want to be single alone. Friends who urged me to “dress more slutty” because they didn’t want to look like the sluttiest woman at the bar. Men who wanted me to believe that I was weak, or dumb, or had my own sinister motives, because if I could believe it, then they could be off the hook.
You’ve known these people too.
And though, on some level, I could feel how awful they were, just as Joe could see how awful Beck’s circle was, I gave them too many passes. Just as I gave Joe too many passes.
I did this not because I rationally determined that they had more good in them than bad, or were more deserving of my friendship than not. There was no cost-benefit analysis leading me to the spot where I was left thinking, “What the fuck am I doing with this toxicity in my life?!”
I chose to overlook their behavior simply because of what I knew about them first. What I learned about them first shaped my opinion of them almost immediately. Because that’s how the brain works: it moves fast, draws conclusions quickly, and doesn’t stop to ask what it doesn’t know – according to behavioral economics and neuroscience research.
Then, when new information comes along that contradicts the information that got to you first, it’s likely to be given less weight than it deserves, for no other reason than that it doesn’t align with what you already know. Because it didn’t get to you early enough. This is how the brain works, according to research. Sometimes we might toss out everything we believe in the face of overwhelming evidence, but mostly we stick to what we know. We cling onto what we know first.
And what we know first when we meet new people is usually not the bad stuff.
This tendency can have damaging consequences – personally, socially, and politically. Dangerous bits of misinformation thrive because they reach people hard, fast, and before those people have a chance to form any other sort of opinion about what the misinformation is spewing. Early means sticky. First often means unshakable. And so, lies thrive.
Timing is everything.
When we first meet Joe, he’s not cutting up dead bodies. He’s falling for someone. Sure, he’s creeping around her neighborhood and peeking in her window as she walks around wrapped in a towel. But he’s not a murderer. Yet.
When we learn he is, we have to reconcile these new details with what we already know. And when we do that, we hang on to what we learned first. We just can’t let that go. “He’s a creep, but he’s in love. He’d do anything for her. There’s got to be a good reason for his bad behavior.” It’s a mind fuck.
We do the same with our self-absorbed friends, our toxic acquaintances, our dysfunctional bosses, our creepy Tinder dates. We draw conclusions about them quickly based on the stuff they initially show us, which is usually not that bad. We quickly conclude that “he’s a good guy,” or “she’s pretty cool.” Whatever we learn later carries less weight simply because it comes later.
And then we make bad decisions regarding these people because we think we have good information. When we don’t. We aren’t ignorant or unintelligent when we do this. We’re using our brains. Our brains just aren’t well-designed for this type of complex information-processing.
Which means that when it comes to judging people well, we have to override what comes naturally.
The problem with how we judge isn’t that we don’t know enough from the start. The problem is that we think we do. So, it helps to go through our days practicing the assumption that what we know – about anything – isn’t necessarily perfect or complete. We can’t possess 100% certainty, but we can make good guesses. We can’t be sure our Tinder date is perfectly amazing, but we can say there’s an 85% chance they’re a decent person. We shouldn’t be convinced that our boss is an idiot, but we can say there’s only a 10% chance that they’re competent.
Thinking in terms of chances leaves us open. It gives us enough room to consider more evidence, because we know for sure that we aren’t sure. Then, as we learn new things, we can adjust our estimates, change the 85% chance to 90% when we meet our date’s lovely parents, or the 10% chance to a 5% when we observe our boss making impulsive decisions with their gut (rather than caring about the evidence). It’s sort of like sliding a nob up and down a scale whose endpoints read “totally not” and “totally,” every time we learn something new.
Until whatever new information we learn no longer moves the nob. Or until we know enough to make our next decision. Because contrary to what our brains trick us into thinking, we don’t need to be 100% sure about something to know what to do about it. We just have to be sure enough for that situation.
We don’t have to be totally certain that our date is a serial killer. We just have to have enough doubt about how safe he is.
What moves us forward isn’t our beliefs, it’s our choices. And what often screws up our choices are our beliefs. So, suspend belief. Leave room for doubt. Think about what you know in terms of the odds. And already, the chances will be lower that you’ll ever let a Joe mess with your life. No matter how romantic he might seem.