Tuesday, April 14, 2015

How we Understand Others & Ourselves

It seems to me that any exercise of one's right to speak what's on one's mind comes with the prerequisite obligation that one first thoroughly examines one's mind. I am stubborn on this point. I pay due respect to those thoughts which show evidence of care being taken in their formation. A sign of my interest or respect in somebody's thinking can be found in my reaction to them. If I question and disagree with that person, it may be taken as a sign of my respect for their thinking. If I smile, nod, and seem to agree with everything they utter, chances are I am not willing to put more effort into their thoughts than they have been willing to.

I find it unfortunate that our education system fails to provide us with the basic tools for self-examination and critical thought. I am not merely talking about logical fallacies and rhetoric, but rather, about sincere self-criticism and the ability to be aware of one's own self-serving beliefs and attitudes that skews thinking. But these words--belief and attitude--take on a specific meaning in my usage. I am getting ahead of myself, and I should start from the beginning, not the middle.

Here is a quote that is attributed to Mohatma Gandhi.
"Your beliefs become your thoughts,
your thoughts become your words,
your words become your actions,
your actions become your habits,
your habits become your values,
your values become your destiny."
This quote illustrates a few of the core principles in Hindu, Buddhist, and Judeo-Christian psychology. A variation is also found in the pragmatism of William James, in his Principles of Psychology. I think that this verse illustrates a pragmatic human truth as to how each of us come to develop a unique worldview (Weltanschauung). In psychology, we refer to a belief as the fundamental aspect of an individual's Weltanschauung. We hold many different beliefs which are learned through interaction with our parents, our culture, and members of our society. These beliefs are largely based on education (or indoctrination) and many of these were absorbed so subtly, and over such a long period of time, that we have no recollection of them being absorbed at all. In fact, most of these beliefs feel "natural"--as if they were with us from birth. This is not the case. Every branch or thought shows us that there is not one belief for which we cannot find a cultural exception.

Belief, Attitude, & Weltanschauung
Beliefs, based on learning from others and through personal experience, become a conglomerate that fuse together into an attitude. An attitude, as we intend it in psychology, is not used in the same way as it is often used in everyday language, so you will have to abandon what you think "attitude" means in order to understand how we use it. Attitude is a collection of beliefs that one has about a certain phenomenon. For example, one has a set of beliefs that forms their attitude towards science, marriage, men, women, transvestism, religion... everything in a society's culture. We all hold attitudes that govern our actions, emotional responses, and thinking about others. To recap, beliefs are formed by learning and experiencing, and attitudes are the basis for how we think, feel, and act about people, places, and things. Attitudes, taken collectively, form our Weltanschauung--our worldview.

I find it useful to think of the self as a conglomeration of beliefs and attitudes which influence how we think about, emotionally react to, and behave towards others. This serves my early insistence that it is imperative that we examine our beliefs and our attitudes to better understand our Weltanschauung and our sense of self. It is not only critical that we pay attention to what we believe, but also, to explore how and why we have come to the beliefs, and how they are structured in to attitudes. Plato's dialogues of Socrates have shown us that our attitudes are often based on contradictory beliefs that diffuse upon contact. This is not only why it is important to read these dialogues of Socrates--to be better able to challenge our own attitudes--but also why the dialogues are so often neglected. It is painful to think critically about one's own beliefs and attitudes. It might also be why  we are often more aware of the problematic thinking of others than we are of our own--it is always easier, and possibly more beneficial, for us to see the faults in others rather than in ourselves.

In my experience, this kind of training is absent in our educational system. It is not typical to find people who know how or have taken up the task of the imperative "know thyself!" There are many models and techniques that one can use to distill their self, and to understand not only what, but why, and how they believe what they do. It is not an easy task. It is far easier to "let sleeping dogs lie". However, the rewards in examining one's self are extremely valuable, and possibly even necessary for living a "good life". 

I am basing this short introduction on how we understand others and ourselves on four sources. Firstly, we will be investigating the 1958 text by Fritz Heider, The Psychology of Interpersonal Relationships. We will also be discussing ideas found in social psychologist Eliot Aronson's text The Social Animal. The aforementioned work by William James, The Principles of Psychology serve as useful foundation in the understanding of habitual thought and beliefs. Collectively, we will understand how we make sense of ourselves and of others through the social psychological concepts of attribution theory and self-justification.

The Motivating Role of Affect
Our most fundamental, and most compelling psychical phenomenon is affect. Affect, commonly called feelings or emotions are the most powerful motivators in the human condition. Although it is typical, if not somewhat dull, to consider biological drives as the most powerful motivators, we experience hunger, thirst, and sexual desire as we do the drive for power--as emotions. The etymology of emotion is the Latin emoter meaning "to move away from". Emotion moves us into thinking and into acting. However, emotion is also formed through beliefs and attitudes.

Festinger's Cognitive Dissonance Theory
One of the ways in which contemporary social psychologists talk about this emotional discomfort is  with the term cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance is pretty much what most people talk about as angst, anxiety, or guilt. Terms that hint at morality, or suggest some sort of emotional motivation, aren't so popular with contemporary, academic, psychologists, so they tend to use this term. Cognitive dissonance was first used by an insightful psychologist named Leon Festinger in the 1950s. What Festinger described was not too different from what previous psychologists told us about motivation and behavior, but, it was packaged in a language that was quite different from previous theories. Cognitive dissonance theory is essentially psychoanalytic ego defense mechanisms (without the psychoanalysis) and Gestalt attribution theory (without the attribution). We will discuss attribution theory next, and the ego defense theory in a separate essay. The reader should keep in mind that these theories are essentially identical, however the conceptualization of each offers unique, and useful, points of view into the human condition.

Let's illustrate cognitive dissonance with a worn-out but effective example popular in introduction to psychology classes; smoking. Aronson illustrates:
"Supposed a person smokes cigarettes and then reads a report of the medical evidence linking cigarette smoking to lung cancer and other respiratory diseases. The smoker experiences dissonance. The cognition 'I smoke cigarettes' is dissonant with the cognition 'cigarette smoking produces cancer.' Clearly, the most efficient way for this person to reduce dissonance in such a situation is to give up smoking. The cognition 'cigarette smoking produces cancer' is consonant with the cognition 'I do not smoke.' 
But, for most people, it is not easy to give up smoking. Imagine Sally, a young woman who tried to stop smoking but failed. What will she do to reduce dissonance? In all probability, she will try to work on the other cognition: 'Cigarette smoking produces cancer.' Sally might attempt to make light of evidence linking cigarette smoking to cancer. For example, she might try to convince herself that if Debbie, Nicole, and Larry smoke, it can't be all that dangerous. Sally might switch to a filter-tipped brand and delude herself into believing that the filter traps the cancer-producing materials. Finally, she might add cognitions that are consonant with smoking in an attempt to make the behavior less absurd in spite of its danger. Thus, Sally might enhance the value placed on smoking; that is she might come to believe smoking is an important and highly enjoyable that is essential for relaxation: 'I may lead a shorter life, but it will be a more enjoyable one.' Similarly, she might try to make a virtue out of smoking by developing a romantic, devil-may-care self-image, flouting danger by smoking cigarettes. All such behavior reduces dissonance by reducing the absurdity of the notion of going out of one's way to contract cancer. Sally has justified her behavior by cognitively minimizing the danger or by exaggerating the importance of the action. In effect, she has succeeded either in constructing a new attitude or in existing attitude." (Page 146, The Social Animal)
 Aronson's example provides us with an easy-to-understand illustration of Festinger's basic premise. When our action is incongruent with social pressures, we experience dissonance. That dissonance manifests as a psychical, and frequently physical, discomfort. In extreme cases we call it symptom. In order to alleviate this dissonance, we either have to change our behavior or change our belief. It is typically more likely that the mental gymnastics of justification will win out over a change of behavior, as was described in the example. These mental gymnastics have been precisely catalogued  by the psychoanalysts as ego defense mechanisms, also suggested earlier. In everyday jargon we know cognitive dissonance as the age-old experience called guilt.

Fritz Heider & Attribution
In 1958 the Gestalt psychologist Fritz Heider published The Psychology of Interpersonal Relations. The ideas and thoughts which Heider presents in this book remain some of the most important, and most useful, in psychology. Heider's work is curiously absent in Eliot Aronson's classic text The Social Animal, which leaves Aronson's book less rich and, due to the book's popularity, Heider's work less read. A future revision would not only benefit from the inclusion of Heider's work, but would also provide students and young psychologists with the important research in attribution theory.

Heider was a Gestalt psychologist informed by phenomenology. An accessible definition of phenomenology might be: the study of how people participate in meaning making within the world. Heider illustrated this concept in an experiment from 1944 in which he showed a short film depicting non-human shapes in motion. Human subjects projected human-like qualities on to the shapes. This illustrates the basic question of phenomenology; how we participate in reality making.

Heider's work in 1958 took up the phenomenological question in terms of how we attribute cause and effect in ourselves and others. Heider claimed that we make sense of our own behavior, as well as that of others, based on personal "motivations, intentions, and sentiments". In other words, our perception of "reality" is dependent upon emotional factors that are often self-serving. This concept is hitting on the same issues that Aronsons discusses as self-justification in his text.

Heider begins on the Kantian ground that we each seek-out meaning; specifically causation in the events of everyday life. Heider's theory rests on the idea that we seek to attribute causes to events which we experience. Heider also found that we are motivated to attribute those causes in such a way that serves the interests of the individual who is making the attribution. This is nearly identical to self-justification research discussed above. Heider found that we tend to attribute the cause of something either to a personal (internal) or a situational (external) cause.

I often illustrate this distinction of personal versus situational attribution to my students with an experience that is familiar to them: receiving an exam grade. When we receive a good exam grade, we find ourselves in a self-congratualtory mood, often praising our performance as due to "hard work" or laborious hours of study. These causes are both personal and internal attributes. Hard work and the self-discipline necessary for hours of study are attributes of personal choice and self-discipline. Contrast these personal attributions with the typical reaction one has to receiving a poor grade. "The book is terrible," or "the professor did not lecture on anything that appeared on the exam!" In the second example, the cause of one's poor test performance is attributed to something outside of themselves; an external cause. In short, we take credit for our successes and point the finger to a scapegoat for our failures.

This kind of behavior is referred to as the self-serving bias. It is the tendency for us to maintain a sense of security, empowerment, and self worth--in short, a sense of safety-- through a reshuffling of the factors that contributed to out situation. We tend to twist the facts to accommodate our personal interests. This behavior isn't isolated to a few others whom we meet here and there, Heider found that it is a characteristic of each of us; we all all attribute cause and effect in service to our need to self-preserve.

This self-serving bias is a prerequisite to one of the most popular attitudes that we find in American culture: the just-world hypothesis. The just world hypothesis is a belief, a false belief, that "good things happen to good people," and that "bad things happen to bad people." First discussed by social psychologist Melvin Lerner, the just-world hypothesis has become one of the most thoroughly researched topics in social psychology. It turns out that we have the tendency to place blame on victims as a way of maintaining our belief that the world is somehow a fair and just place to be in. This belief receives justification from as disparate places as "the justice of God" to "the laws of evolution". Both of these view the causation as being attributed to some greater, law enforcing entity.

What can we take from this handful of theories from social psychologists for better knowing ourselves? To start, we can learn to hesitate in our willingness to be right in every situation. We can pause and ask ourselves, "From where do I see this cause?" "From where do other people see this cause?" If we hold our own thinking against the criticisms we make of others' thinking, what do we learn about ourselves? What do we risk? If we have the tendency to attribute our successes to our own efforts, and our failures blamed to others, what might be gained by asking ourselves in a moment of failure, "what role do I have in this?" or, in a moment of success, "whom do I owe a debt of gratitude for their help in this success?" If we do so, we will find that there are few examples, if any, of an entirely "self-made" success or failure.

Direct comments, questions, & corrections to Matthew Giobbi.