Consistency, in practice and in thought, guides the creation of our stories and narratives. Selecting from the potentially overwhelming data of the world, our stories support what we believe and ignore or actively dismiss that which doesn’t. “New” information is not something we simply become aware of, but is all around us, happening every moment. This can be as banal and inconsequential as not paying attention to every shift in clouds above us, to the potentially disastrous of not seeing oncoming cars in traffic.
The ability, through story or perspective, to maintain an internal sense of right-ness and consistency is not always in our best interests.
Gilovich found that when gamblers were right, they tended to offer bolstering comments about just how right they were—“I knew it would happen,” or words to that effect. But when they were wrong, they tended to minimize their error by offering “undoing” comments about how the game should have turned out differently. In these cases the gamblers would often blame the outcome on a fluke event, like a fumble in the fourth quarter. To them, a loss wasn’t really a loss; it was a near win. In either case, the effect of the bolstering and undoing comments was largely the same: foresight became better in hindsight. (Halinan)Halinan, Joseph T. “Why We Make Mistakes”
Beyond ignorance or dismissal, we have here a rewrite of the past in a way that is falsely self-positive. Related to this is how we judge behavior we consider ‘wrong’; when the mistake is personal we often point to external circumstance, but when the mistake is someone else’s we direct our vision to the person’s internal failings.
Deeper is the Ocean
An intervention strategy within ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy) is referred to as “Dropping Anchor.” The idea is to take an experience of fusion (an unhealthy preoccupation with a thought/emotion) and mindfully reflect on it while expanding one’s awareness of the physical reality around and within yourself.
The purpose is not to avoid the feeling/thought or even to necessarily change the feeling/thought, but to defuse, broadening awareness to how much more is going on beyond the preoccupation. We are so very much more than any single thought, emotion, or even behavior. Acceptance is about dwelling in this larger reality, not necessarily being ok with any particular thought, emotion or behavior.
Fusion is an inevitable result of the ignorance/dismissal/rewrite processes described above. Selecting pieces of experience to create a self-serving Narrative requires putting oneself contrary to the rest of reality pinging on your mind. The world doesn’t go away simply because we don’t want to see it. The continual avoidance requires a constant doubling-down on one or more pieces of the Narrative, building mental walls that become increasingly isolating.
Importantly here, the personal gain accomplished is not necessarily about feeling better, but having the world make sense. We will put ourselves through a great deal of pain and suffering to avoid having to doubt the way we think of the world and ourselves. That we do this to ourselves is because the alternative, doubt and uncertainty, is considered, sometimes rightly, to be a generator of anxiety and thus greater pain and suffering. Better the devil you know, as the saying goes.
Here is where the Dropping Anchor exercise can run afoul. An anchor, to continue the metaphor, only works well when there’s a ground/bottom to settle on and catch you. In the midst of the ocean, an anchor may not be all that helpful and perhaps even cause further problems as it selects something that won’t keep you stable.
Dropping Anchor can be highly effective both therapeutically and as a technique within a broader meditative practice. Doing so in a healthy manner means remembering why fusion is both inevitable and often perceived as being helpful. Broadening one’s awareness can bring a level of self-reflective skepticism that can be disconcerting, especially if one’s sense of self or an Identity is tied strongly to the fused content.
Healthy, defused living means slipping into that deeper ocean of human potential, but there’s a reason why the lack of waves in a lake is associated so strongly with calm and peace. Exploring the former means acknowledging why the latter is so enticing.
Hallinan, Joseph T.. Why We Make Mistakes: How We Look Without Seeing, Forget Things in Seconds, and Are All Pretty Sure We Are Way Above Average (p. 68). Crown/Archetype.
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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Memory exists as a source of immeasurable joy and pleasure with loved ones and children and laughter and achievements parading across our conscious lives, even as it holds the repository of one of our greatest fears, that of its loss in dementia, alzheimer’s and brain trauma. The very substance of who we define ourselves to be is constructed out of our memories, as they provide a seemingly unbroken chain of evidence that we are who we say we are. Take away our memories, show them to be anything less than an absolute source for our rationalized self-narratives, and the very foundation of our lives feels like it trembles.
Thankfully we are not just our mental lives, we have bodies as well. More accurately, we each are a mind that resides and expresses itself within and through a body. The very nature of how our minds construct our perception of the world is through the mechanisms of the body. Within this limited structure, we simply do not consciously perceive all that is occurring in our lives, not in the moment nor in retrospect. As Daniel Schacter (2002) puts it:
“As I showed in my earlier book, Searching for Memory, we tend to think of memories as snapshots from family albums that, if stored properly, could be retrieved in precisely the same condition in which they were put away. But we now know that we do not record our experiences the way a camera records them. Our memories work differently. We extract key elements from our experiences and store them. We then recreate or reconstruct our experiences rather than retrieve copies of them. Sometimes, in the process of reconstructing we add on feelings, beliefs, or even knowledge we obtained after the experience. In other words, we bias our memories of the past by attributing to them emotions or knowledge we acquired after the event.”
Memory is not then a simple matter of paying attention and recording events, it’s a continually recreative process. Building those memories for recall is the subject of an experiment out of Penn State and published in the journal Cognition. In this experiment, participants watched video of a group of people playing basketball with different colored balls. According to conventional theories of memory where attention is the largest and most decisive variable:
“Object-encoding theory says the participants should remember all the information about the scene they have just witnessed – including the color of any balls. Feature-encoding theory says it is only necessary to remember the color of a specific ball if it is important to the task at hand” (Paddock, 2016).
In each of the watched recorded scenarios, the participants were tasked with keeping track of a particular colored ball, the target, and after a short time another ball was introduced as the “distractor.” After 31 different scenes were played out, the 32nd introduced a variation where instead of simply counting the times the target ball was passed, participants also needed to keep track of the color of the target ball. Interestingly, fully 37% of the participants chose the wrong color and of those, the majority chose the color of the distractor ball.
This led researchers to conclude that the participants were holding memories of both colors, but were not attributing the color to a particular ball. This negates both the “object-encoding theory” as the participants weren’t remembering accurately all the information and negates the “feature-encoding theory” as the color of both balls was being kept in memory. When the experiment was rerun with participants being instructed at the beginning to record both the number of times the target ball was passed and its color, only 14%, rather than 37%, got it wrong. Further, the experiment was run again with a new group and the results were similar.
The drop in errors led the researchers to conclude that “much of what we remember is also based on our expectation of how that information might be useful in the future. Once the participants realized it was important to remember the color of the ball, their recall accuracy improved” (Paddock, 2016).
We can use this information as a contribution to our understanding of how we live our lives. Our memories are not whole replications of our experiences through the mechanism of attention/perception. We take in far more information than we are at any given moment aware of and that information is accessible and attributed to conscious memory based, at least in part, on whether it is felt to be important for our futures.
When we engage in dialogue with others and find ourselves getting upset at the lapses in memory of others or, more humbly, ourselves, it is important to keep in mind how memory works. We are not, thankfully, computers regurgitating information based on algorithmic instructions. The shape of our thoughts, the stories of our lives and the memories that provide those thoughts/stories with substance are as much about what is perceived as being needed for our futures than it is about providing accurate portrayals of our experiences.
Our minds work through and within the interactions of our bodies and relational connections. Our needs, and therefore how and what we remember, are as varied as the relationships guiding what we focus on.
© David Teachout
Paddock, C. (2016, March 30). “Memory encoding may be influenced by expectation.” Medical News Today. Retrieved from
Schacter, Daniel L. (2002-05-07). The Seven Sins of Memory: How the Mind Forgets and Remembers (p. 9). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Kindle Edition.
Merleau-Ponty, Maurice (2004-07-31). The World of Perception (p. 51). Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition.
Communication is at core about, as even the root word notes, communion or the interchange of thoughts/emotions. Communion can be seen as the union of community, or any group beyond an individual. In other words, when you engage in communication with another you manifest a world together, a product of the each person’s interaction with information, the history of individual experiences, how all of that is recalled for each person and the internalized perception of the other person’s actions.
There is no way to communicate in such a way as to remove all doubt or potential for error. We exist in others’ minds as internalized projections of our own narratives, reshaped and molded through the lens of the worldview and assumptions of the other person. We simply do not exist for others the way we do for ourselves.
Issues of miscommunication, where what is said is not what is heard, can be addressed in part by a principle I’ve taken to calling “gap-filling.” (Mentioned in entries “Absence of Knowledge Is Not Presence of Truth” and “Filling in the Gaps: Communication Failure in Relationships”) Working to change ignorance to knowing, methods of rationality and dialogue are seen as inadequate, leading to the person simply filling in the ignorance with their own narrative. In practice, something has been said that doesn’t match an assumption and one’s internal vision of what is true provides a quicker feeling of security than introspection, reflection and speculative inquiry.
The practice of “gap-filling” often occurs in relationships when one’s insecurity triggers have been flipped. Seeking safety and attempting to avoid suffering, people gravitate towards what is previously known, what most easily fits with their core vision of relational reality. Examples are numerous and most easily noticed when on the outside looking in, noting how often someone comes to an understanding that you, being on the outside of the relationship, had seen already, whether it be that someone has been cheating or had fallen in love. Since all of us at one time or another are on the inside of those connections we see of others, rueful humility should direct us to acknowledge that we too have done the same.
Communication or communal-creation is a beautiful and powerful facet of human existence. There is no greater feeling than that engendered by manifesting new worlds when bonding with another. That feeling can blind us to the true complexity of what is happening each and every time we seek to continue building that bond, from chats over coffee to group gatherings to family dinners, romantic dates and sex. The effortlessness with which these actions contribute to the building of the worlds will come skidding to a stop when the accumulation of filled-in gaps becomes overwhelming.
Communication is not two separate and context-free individual entities lobbing words at each other, it is an interplay of energy and information within a context-full reality. Have you ever looked at a couple and marveled at the way they finish their sentences or simply seem to “get” one another and yet others don’t grasp the exchange? This is why. Recognizing the inevitable creation involved in communication will help in all connections, in whatever form they take.
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