Imagine looking in the mirror and seeing someone else’s face. Frightened? Confused? Wondering whether you’re dreaming? The level of concern here connects us to why we get frustrated when other people don’t seem to see us accurately. We act in an ‘as if’ universe, where our behavior is done ‘as if’ it is as immediately understandable and clear to everyone else as it is to ourselves. When the reality that others don’t have immediate clear access to our own minds comes crashing down with all the weight of their judgment, there’s often an immediate feeling of annoyance, if not outright anger.
I believe the pure relief and, often, joy of ‘being seen’ makes sense when placed against the backdrop of living a life in a world that doesn’t conform to our ‘as if’ belief. There’s a weight lifted and that release forms many a basis for love and intimacy. Of course it does. Who wouldn’t want to create a life with someone who, out of the thousands that came before, takes away the constant wariness of looking in the mirror of our social interactions and possibly not seeing our own face?
Why is it, then, so difficult for others to understand us? We’re the same species. We’re using the same words in sentences that, in a specific culture, are generally accepted as having a common meaning. While we will accept that other people don’t have access to our inner mind, this seems a small thing. Unfortunately it isn’t small. It’s not even large. It’s the whole problem.
Past, Present, Future
In this world of digitized behavior, kept for all eternity, the human proclivity to organize the present in line with the past has gotten enormous support.
In a nutshell, people will interpret your current behavior in a way that makes it consistent with your past behavior, and they will tend to play down or completely ignore evidence that contradicts their existing opinion of you. What’s more, they will have no idea that they’re doing it.Psychology Today
The quote from Heidi Halvorson above is perhaps a bit more positive than warranted, in the sense that people will “have no idea” they’re ignoring evidence to the contrary of a set opinion. On the contrary, quite often evidence to the contrary is deliberately dismissed as being aberrations, as detours from the ‘true’ reality of the person being judged. This dismissal is particularly strong when judgment is joined with identity. In other words, it’s not simply that a behavior is wrong, it’s that the behavior is representative of their associated race, gender, social group. Any contrary behavior to this homogenized story will be dismissed as belonging to a long con or other form of manipulation.
There is a space in which people are unaware they’re ignoring data, often in the day-to-day minutiae of life. Ever been driving and suddenly came to the realization that you don’t remember the last several miles? This detached or autopilot thinking happens fairly often, especially when a job is repetitious or a person feels no sense of ownership for what they’re engaged in. We can acknowledge this tendency while still pointing to how certain ideologies seem to support doing so deliberately. Anytime in which a part of someone is taken to be the whole, rest assured there are a great many variables/aspects/characteristics/behavior being dismissed.
The First Will Be Last
First impressions are, as the oft-repeated advice goes, very important. The strength of these first impressions is intimately tied to the degree of cognitive/emotional weight given to a situation. As noted above, that weight is shifted and focused more fully based on ideologies that parse people into singular identities, rather than whole people who contain multitudes. That said, seeing a random person on public transit will not generate many associations and you likely won’t remember them if you were to see the person later. If, however, they had been belligerent to you personally, or had engaged in behavior deemed bizarre, then later there’d be a quick judgment applied. Also, a random person will generate weaker associations than someone you’re interviewing for an important job or who shows up to take your kid out for a romantic date.
In other words, information we get about a person early in our observation of them influences how we interpret and remember everything that comes after.Psychology Today
Early impressions are within the same mental spectrum of bias, but they’re stronger precisely because they’re fed by other biases and themselves become one. Indeed, first impressions are encouraged to be especially defining because they’re so often associated with one’s intuition, a form of knowing felt to be pure.
Importantly here is recognizing that, whatever the limitations of first impressions may be, the influence is ongoing. We will actively interpret a person’s behavior, not based on the intent of that person, but on the story we already have of them. Further, our memory will follow suit, selectively recalling the information that fits that story as well.
It’s the Relationship
So how do we learn to mitigate these influences? How do we start to live in such a way that the lack of our access to other people’s minds is not just acknowledged but constrains our own behavior? First and foremost, we need to look at how we construct our perspectives, namely through relationship.
Perspective and the communication based off it, is too often assumed to be like lobbing a ball back and forth over an invisible line. Each person has their space and they receive the proverbial ball whole and complete exactly as intended. The complete error of this metaphor cannot be overstated. At best what is going on is the communication ball is being shaped by the interweaving of at least six variables or threads as it moves from one person to another.
- Intent of person A
- History of person A
- Environmental context(s)
- Intent of person B
- History of person B
- Automatic biases of A and B
None of these threads are singular in themselves either. The history and intent of a person will be a build-up of learned assumptions based on all the interrelationships they’ve had throughout their lives. Nobody can have access to all that. For that matter, nobody has conscious access to all those pieces of information for themselves.
The best we can do, and it’s really not as depressing as it may initially look, is to take a pause before or very quickly after each judgment we have. Within this pause, we can consider how much the story we have about the other person is about our own judgments and the influences of our many layered context. Within that pause we can learn to listen more, speak less and seek first a greater understanding of our fellow traveler in humanity. Judgment is undoubtedly going to happen, but we don’t need to hasten its arrival.
There is much research noting how, when it comes to bad behavior, we excuse our own by pointing to external variables and blame internal unchanging qualities for others. Further, we like to give rationales for all behavior, to place each exhibit into a personally coherent narrative and create an individualized museum dedicated to life’s exploration. Unfortunately, like any archeological dig, we are only able to see what we’ve currently dug up, what we’re currently focused on. There are any number of other behaviors lost to history or simply not being looked at.
In science there’s a built-in mechanism for continuing to ask questions and a peer review process to help doubt flourish even after conclusions have been reached. When it comes to humanity, there is no built-in process, it has to be taught, practiced and actively engaged in continuously.
The result of all this is a tendency to make what is normal human responses within disparate social situations, into glaring pointers towards pathology. A person lies and it’s a sign they’re a sociopath and pathological liar. A person experiences variations in mood and it’s a sign of bipolar disorder. Periods of sadness are now major depressive disorder. That the person in question faced a difficult choice, went from a challenging environment to a supportive one and is working through a loss, respectively, are all side-notes to the need to identify something aberrant.
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When I was a kid there was a toy I loved, a kaleidoscope of sorts, where you looked in one end and by turning the other end, sifted grains of multi-colored sand to make different patterns. You couldn’t add any new grains, you couldn’t change the colors. The only thing you could do was change the speed with which you turned the one end. We have a tendency, as human beings, to attempt isolating one or another grain or color and believe by doing so we become capable of seeing the entire image. In fact, not just the entire image, but every potential image.
When was the last time you felt shame? Doubt? Self-criticism? Do you remember what it was about? Now, do you remember what it wasn’t about? That last question may be rather jarring. Let’s put it another way: what are you not thinking about right now? Hmm…. yeah, likely even more confusing. Let’s try something different. Pick an object, any object, around you and stare at it. Now, without looking away, describe what’s behind you. Obviously there are shortcomings to this as you may be in a familiar place, but I hope the point is made. There is an entire reality living, breathing, existing outside of your momentary perception, both in sight and in mind. So why the isolating focus on any one thing?
To have our focus be easily swayed would have really put a damper on our survival potential as a species. Were we the proverbial dog gallivanting after every ‘squirrel,’ we’d have walked off a cliff, got eaten by an animal or missed out on catching our food. In other words, we’d have died. To survive we needed the capacity to focus, which came with the tangential skill of ignoring everything else. So next time someone points out that you were ignoring them, just blame your biology. I’m kidding. Really.
A Perspective Reminder
Let’s come back to the shame and criticism piece. Or, if you’d like, the self-congratulatory and joyful piece. It really doesn’t matter, because you can participate in the focus/ignore process with any of the above and more. Within ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy), this is called fusion, which I’ve written about here. The difficulty with fusion is that the whole of who you are and the surrounding extent of reality gets removed from consideration. And that contributes to a whole host of problems.
Depression? Focus on self-doubt and criticism and ignore the vast majority of time you’ve lived without failure. Anxiety? Focus on what has or could go wrong, ignore the vast majority of events that were either neutral or went correctly. Relationship difficulty? Focus on what she/he did wrong, ignore the majority of behavior that was loving or neutral (as a strong caveat, this is not about when abuse is occurring and if such is happening, absolutely should you remember that and use the reminder to get help).
Step outside the typical mental health therapy categories for a moment. Ever considered yourself incapable because of who you are, your gender, your family, or some other part of yourself?
Notice that as you focus on a trait, characteristic, event or identity, the ‘self’ or who you are gets more and more hidden. This doesn’t mean we get rid of these things, it does mean we consider more carefully what we’re doing when we think this way. It takes practice. That practice begins with the simple acknowledgment: “I am more than any single thought, feeling or behavior.”
As soon as shame, self-doubt and criticism occur, we can learn to reflect on what is being hidden by those labels. Here are three skills to work on:
- Asking yourself: What am I not noticing? The question may seem counter-intuitive, but that jarring feeling may get you outside of the rut you find yourself in.
- Change focus: bring your attention to physical sensation, like the feel of your clothes against your skin; or to an object in your immediate experience, noting as many characteristics as you can; or if you’re stuck in a memory, deliberately and imaginatively place yourself as an observer instead of a participant.
- Shift perspective: pursue a different story, like the old choose your own adventure novels; imagine how someone from a different socio-cultural background would think; or deliberately change the thought/feeling by singing it or mimicking it as the voice of your favorite actor or fictional character.
Who you are is more than the sum of your parts, it’s perspective too. What we considered life-ending as children, we can usually laugh at now. Our thoughts about love and hate have gone through many evolutions as our lives have unfolded. Our smiles have gotten deeper. Our concerns have gotten broader. What we consider important has changed. This is all for the good, because the world is a lot bigger than any one of us and that means there’s always room to grow.
Featured photo by Malcolm Lightbody on Unsplash
Ask yourself “What do I believe?” and the result will likely be a cascade of memories highlighting actions, thoughts and experiences fitting a particular set of Virtues, or Values-in-action. The whole of this cascade will provide the basis for a rather nice structure or Narrative that you can offer to yourself or another to express who you believe yourself to be. This process also has a rather powerful effect of providing a sense of continuity and rightness about your life.
What it is not is a means of selecting what is True and Correct as if from a bin of differentiated facts.
Senses, reflexes and learning mechanisms – this is what we start with, and it is quite a lot, when you think about it. If we lacked any of these capabilities at birth, we would probably have trouble surviving.
Ever put together a puzzle? If so, have you tried doing so with the image-side turned down so you only have the bland cardboard cutouts to work with? The latter is a lot harder and typically only done by those who’s desire to self-challenge is a lot higher than my own. But why is it harder? The shape of the pieces is the same and isn’t a puzzle simply about fitting them together? Alas, no, it isn’t, or at least the process isn’t that simple. Shapes matter, but so does the image we’re creating as a whole. Without consciously being aware, we have a pre-established guide of the larger image funneling the shapes to connect.
This whole-part strategy is a mechanism for weaving together disparate pieces of information. However, it’s just that, a mechanism or strategy, it doesn’t create something out of nothing, it has to work with what is given externally. Thankfully life is a whole lot bigger than any one of our perceptions, so we can create new stories quite often and even ones that are different than those of another despite having been in the same place and time.
Ever expressed a memory of childhood to a sibling and had them dispute it? Had a moment of confusion when declaring one’s view of an event only to have a spouse, friend or colleague direct attention to a different view of that same event or a piece from it that wasn’t seen? Welcome to the puzzle-making that is experience.
How does this fit with the initial “Who am I?” question. Glad you ask. We generally only talk about “life experience” once we’ve gathered a certain amount of it. As a consequence we don’t appreciate what went into creating it, taking our perception as gospel or simply the “correct” view. Not much in life feels better than being right and we go out of our way to keep that feeling alive and well.
But here is what we are not born with: information, data, rules, software, knowledge, lexicons, representations, algorithms, programs, models, memories, images, processors, subroutines, encoders, decoders, symbols, or buffers – design elements that allow digital computers to behave somewhat intelligently. Not only are we not born with such things, we also don’t develop them – ever.
We don’t store words or the rules that tell us how to manipulate them. We don’t create representations of visual stimuli, store them in a short-term memory buffer, and then transfer the representation into a long-term memory device. We don’t retrieve information or images or words from memory registers. Computers do all of these things, but organisms do not.
The above list of terms and quote has to do with a common metaphor used for describing human cognition: a computer. While we as human beings are inevitably going to use metaphors in helping us understand ourselves, like any other content of thought we can get too caught up in it, losing the trees for the forest. Further, if we don’t question the assumptions of our metaphor we can run ourselves directly into difficulty that otherwise could have been avoided.
Rather than looking at our minds as retrieval devices, consider instead a painter. We have the canvas of our biology, social structure, and relationships working with the paints of our senses, reflexes and learning mechanisms. Information here is not like data in a machine, a part of reality to be retrieved from within it. Rather, what we consider information/facts are the resulting images pieced together through learning processes within our own personal history.
This is not a call for a post-fact society. Nor are we getting into the swamp of declaring every opinion is the equal of any other. Such is more concerned with the functions of our learning and it’s application within different areas of life. We’re here simply considering the basic process of how we develop a worldview. And at that level, it is little wonder we love the feeling of rightness and continuity. Where we get into the weeds/swamp of difficulty is mistaking the end result of our thinking strategy with the strategy itself and declaring our personal perspective equivalent to the whole of reality itself. Talk about ego!
Where this leads us is to consider ourselves and our beliefs about the world differently. Rather than our beliefs being reflections of the world itself, they are attempts at piecing together the varieties of information our body/mind parses from within the world. Even we ourselves can be seen as paintings on a canvas, so long as we never forget there is still paint to be used and space to be painted upon.
When we stop and rest upon a single thought/idea and think we have no more room to move, the result is fusion, stagnation and anxiety as we attempt to keep reality molded to only one form. Further, such fusion makes us incapable of seeing how those around us, including our loved ones, are moving along the same process we are. When they see differently, when they express themselves in alternative fashion, they are not being contrary to a singular correct reality, but instead are working within it, just from a different vantage point.
Right and wrong still matter, but judging such doesn’t have to be the first and only means of interacting with another and ourselves. The vast majority of human behavior is an honest attempt at dealing with and working within a reality that we only see partly and yet are commonly fooled into believing we see a whole lot more of. When we consider that we ourselves, not just those we disagree with, are operating in this same learning process, we may find there’s a lot more space to move, understand and grow than we initially thought.
Aeon. “Your brain does not process information and it is not a computer – Robert Epstein | Aeon Essays.” Aeon. 18 May 2016. Web. 14 Feb. 2018. <https://aeon.co/essays/your-brain-does-not-process-information-and-it-is-not-a-computer>
There are few issues related to dialogue more annoying, more prone to misinterpretation, than interruptions. You’re happily sharing the latest and greatest from your mental repertoire, only to have it suddenly sidelined by a variable completely outside your control. It’s like that moment when walking down a city street, minding your own business, when an invisible crack in the concrete trips you up. Heart-racing, arms akimbo, head whipping around to see who saw, any shred of the thinking you were just engaged in shattered.
Art of the Conversation
Interruptions are a great way of showing what dialogue is largely about. Contrary to a common notion of it being an exchange of ideas, dialogue is far more concerned with the desire to be heard. If dialogue was really concerned with an exchange of ideas for the purpose of growing our knowledge-base, we’d be in a fight to see who could stay silent the longest. On the contrary, the struggle in dialogue is usually about who can say what more often, in the most witty, ear-catching way, particularly if it leads to the other person repeating what they just heard. This brings to mind the old advice we all got from our wise grandparents, that if God wanted us to talk more She’d have given us two mouths instead of two ears. Unfortunately, it’s more the case that we have two ears precisely because we want to make sure we hear ourselves talk.
We don’t share our opinions or behave the way we do without a bone-deep belief in the rightness of our actions. Having others acknowledge our words and actions, even at the cost of another person’s equanimity, is a small price to pay, in our eyes, for continued confirmation.
In short, the experience of being right is imperative for our survival, gratifying for our ego, and, overall, one of life’s cheapest and keenest satisfactions.Schulz, Kathryn. Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error (pp. 4-5). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.
The Power of Being Heard
Interruptions serve another purpose as well: acknowledgment. They’re a tacit, and sometimes not so much, attempt by the person doing the interrupting that they consider themselves and what they have to say as at least as important as whatever the other person is doing. I hazard to guess that interruptions occur far more regularly from bosses to their subordinates and, in the case of children interrupting their parents, is about asserting their importance. The vast number of stories about bosses getting in the way of work and children getting in the way of parental social situations seems to bear this out, albeit anecdotally.
Some, reading the above, may believe that what is truly going on there is about power. However, acknowledgment doesn’t necessarily have to be about power, or at least not at its most basic level. Power requires a certain social structure to be played out. Instead, the focus here is more generally a concern of existential angst, or, in other words: the need to be seen.
We really, really, need to belong. It’s why there’s never a waking moment when we aren’t considering, at some mental level, who we are in relation to something, someone or some group. And at the heart of that need is a concern with our continued existence. This is why banishing or ostracism has been such a powerful tool for punishment and social control. We crave the continued acknowledgment of our social ties because being alone or cut off is a yawning abyss.
Seen in this light, interruption is a great indicator of one’s anxiety, connected to whatever relationship is currently being attended to. Rather than seeing it as some great social affront or pointing to a lack of care for the other, the broader concern for connection, being seen and knowing one belongs, can be acknowledged. Not every interruption points to a narcissistic pathology, sometimes, if not often, it’s simply about being human.
Featured photo by Asa Rodger on Unsplash
Exploring the so-called “replication problem” in psychological research, in particular focusing on “the Marshmallow Test.” Looking at issues about replication, definition and the nature of complexity in studying people.
Check out this episode!
“Because of the way the Reproducibility Project was conducted, its results say little about the overall reliability of the psychology papers it tried to validate, he argues. “The number of studies that actually did fail to replicate is about the number you would expect to fail to replicate by chance alone — even if all the original studies had shown true effects.”
Psychology’s reproducibility problem is exaggerated – say psychologists
“The problem is that scholars have known for decades that affluence and poverty shape the ability to delay gratification. Writing in 1974, Mischel observed that waiting for the larger reward was not only a trait of the individual but also depended on people’s expectancies and experience. If researchers were unreliable in their promise to return with two marshmallows, anyone would soon learn to seize the moment and eat the treat. He illustrated this with an example of lower-class black residents in Trinidad who fared poorly on the test when it was administered by white people, who had a history of breaking their promises. Following this logic, multiple studies over the years have confirmed that people living in poverty or who experience chaotic futures tend to prefer the sure thing now over waiting for a larger reward that might never come. But if this has been known for years, where is the replication crisis?”
Try to Resist Misinterpreting the Marshmallow Test
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