Differences: Smallness and Closeness

When you look out into the distance, the distances between nearby objects are magnified relative to the distance between objects that are further away. Strangely enough, this is a good model for how the psyche works more generally; people are well aware of differences between "objects" that are "close". This way of dealing with limited cognitive differences is useful. For example, it is more important for you to understand the differences in character between your two brothers than it is for your best friend; it is more important for a New Yorker to know the difference between the North and South Bronx than it is for a Bostoner, and so forth. Also, knowing about the differences between the North and South Bronx is easier when you live in New York. That is, motivation and opportunity, the two horsemen of psychology, are at work again.

Keeping this in mind helps you avoid violations of other people's vanity. Many people have pointed to photos claiming that the person pictured "looks like you"; they were always wrong. Likewise, I once talked to a Frisian who declared that everything south of the river Elbe is Southern Germany, but I can assure you that residents of Cologne don't think they reside in the same corner of the country as Bavarians, and they don't like being told otherwise.

This is sometimes referred to as the vanity, or narcissism, of small differences, but perhaps it is not only the smallness of the differences that counts, but also the fact that differences which are nearby are easier to see. Your typical socialist will see Rothbard and Friedman as more or less interchangeable, but if you've actually read them, it's genuinely easy to point out differences between the two, not least because Rothbard spends a considerable portion of his time pissing in the general direction of Friedman. Which may well be an instance of the narcissism of small differences.

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