Contradictory Sayings — or, Don’t Trust Anyone Over …

(Last Updated On: November 21, 2013)

UntitledScience Fact:  Contradictory sayings pose a dilemma:  what folk wisdom can we trust?

Call them sayings, adages, proverbs, old wives’ or husbands’ tales, fairy tales, Aesop’s Fables.  These wise words are supposed to serve as shorthand, a quick way to teach and to remember the lessons of life that everyone needs to survive and to thrive.

Then what does it mean when we find contradictory sayings, where the sage advice offered seems completely opposite?  Here are a few to consider:

Haste makes waste
He who hesitates is lost

It’s almost like:
Look before you leap
Time waits for no man

The early bird gets the worm
The second mouse gets the cheese

Out of sight, out of mind
Absence makes the heart grow fonder

This is related to:
Familiarity breeds contempt
Home is where the heart is

You’re never too old to learn
You can’t teach an old dog new tricks

Do unto others as you would have others do unto you
Nice guys finish last.

Traditional wisdom – feh!  Is it true, that we can’t trust anything said by anyone over ____ [fill in your favorite number] ?

Science Speculation: Like the contradictory sayings themselves, possible explanations disagree with one another.  But here are some theories to consider:

– The I Told You So Theory:  This theory supposes that it’s a natural human need to feel that we are “right”.  It gives us the self-confidence we need to navigate life’s ups and downs.  So when the unexpected happens, we can probably dredge up a saying that seems to fit and we can feel, whether we voice the words or not, “I Told You So”.

– The Recognition of Uncertainty Theory:  This theory is a friendlier version of the preceding one.  In this case, the existence of contradictory proverbs gives us comfort, it reassures us that it is not our fault that life is unpredictable.  We should not blame ourselves when things don’t turn out the way we hoped because after all, there are sayings that could have predicted both good and bad outcomes.

The Zen Theory:  The teaching of Zen often uses kōans, which are not riddles or puzzles but which often incorporate the not-necessarily-obvious identity of concepts normally thought to be opposite.  Zen texts often use literary styles unfamiliar to Western readers: allusions which appear disconnected with the main theme of the text; indirect references achieved by making the title of a poem seemingly unrelated to its subject matter; wordplay based on the multiple or contradictory meanings of words that sound the same (when spoken in Chinese!); verses linked together by hidden imagery or obscure references.  Applying these ideas to contradictory sayings, we would say that such contradictions are opportunities for instruction, and for deeper insight into our everyday lives.

The Divination Theory:  Wikipedia tells us that “Divination is dismissed by the scientific community and skeptics as being superstition.”  However, IMO a scientist should be cautious about dismissing anything wholesale, especially when it seems to serve a social purpose.  Divination is not exactly fortune-telling, it’s more of a technique to search for direction when life is confusing.  Years ago I took an extension course on Divination sponsored by UCLA that gave an overview of many practices.  It seemed to me that the underlying theme was to present the diviner with contradictory bits of information.  The struggle to resolve the contradictions was supposed to unlock the seer’s insight to provide guidance for the client.  If it turned out that the insight was useful, you could explain that psychologically by postulating empathic understanding, or you could explain it as a paranormal event.  Your choice.

To these explanations I would add a practical suggestion: if you are facing a decision and feel inspired to use folk wisdom as your guide, first look for two contradictory sayings that seem to apply.  Then ask yourself: are there ways in which both of these sayings can be true at once?  By forcing the contradictions to occupy the same attention space in your mind, you may unlock ideas and options that were previously hidden to you.  It’s a brainstorming technique, used to stimulate creativity.

How do you think about contradictory sayings?  Do they just demonstrate the futility of folk wisdom, or do you have a way to make them help you?

15 Pairs of Contradictory Proverbs
Contradictory Proverbs List
Contradictory Sayings
Contradictory Proverbs
Proverbs That Contradict Each Other: Why folk wisdom contradicts itself
The Psychology of Contradictory Sayings and their Applications to Surviving the Workplace

Drawing Credit: ryanlerch, on


Contradictory Sayings — or, Don’t Trust Anyone Over … — 7 Comments

  1. As usual this a thought provoking article.
    You have also given us a good tool to deal with decisions in your last paragraph. Thanks!

  2. I look at it a little differently, I think. I believe most people strive for a consistent and effective philosophy or strategy of their interacting with others and the natural world around them, but people vary along a scale from aggressive to passive (or any other opposite-pairs you choose to use to describe people). What is “right” for one person isn’t necessarily right for another, in terms of their tendencies.

    I think the kind of sayings you present are a verbal shorthand, for summarizing our own strategies toward life. We adopt those that seem the most natural for us, and use them to reduce fear and uncertainty when faced with making choices, much like repeating a mantra that calms us when under stress. So a person who is by nature cautious, will adopt such sayings as “look before you leap” because they “fit” their nature, and are reassuring when facing a difficult or risky decision. As such, they function as reminders to stay true to our nature.

    The difficulty comes when such a person, while trying to help another person, repeats such sayings that feel true to the person giving the advice, when the person being advised is of a different nature, such that the advice will not feel comfortable to them (and will not work for them).

    In this light, it isn’t surprising that there are many “opposites” when it comes to such folk advice … there have to be, in order to satisfy the range of differences between people. You adopt the ones you like, and ignore the ones you don’t.

    • A good take on the situation, Charles, certainly a valid one. Your approach suggests to me that as people change due to life’s experiences, they would change their favorite sayings, so they always have a “toolbox” of reassurances with them. Of course, people who are disposed to question everything (e.g., scientists and curmudgeons) might keep both versions on hand so as to cover all bases.