Monday, September 10, 2012

Psychology or Psycho-epistemology?

The field of psychology is about thinking errors and the resulting psychological problems, at least that’s the view from a philosophical perspective. Within the field of psychology, these problems are known as cognitive biases and there is something they call cognitive dissonance. Among laypeople, the psychological problems they notice are negative emotions.

Oil painting by Ragod Rustom
In order to solve one’s psychological problems, he must correct his thinking errors. And how are thinking errors corrected? In epistemology (the relevant field of philosophy), it’s about reflecting on one's thoughts, emotions, and experiences, and learning about oneself, about one's mind. And like all knowledge creation, its guessing and criticism.

Make guesses about what the thinking error might be and criticize the guesses, and criticize the criticisms. The guesses left uncriticized are considered the truth, for now, until you come up with another criticism, and the cycle continues. 

To illustrate how people can correct their thinking errors, I'll explain two psychological problems.

The first example is a situation where someone gets offended by a racial remark. But the racial remark is not about himself. It’s about someone that they care about. So they are offended *for* someone else. The situation involves a stranger making a racial remark about a guy’s friend. The guy gets offended. He’s mad. He thinks, “how could that person say such a thing? What an asshole!” Well the simple answer is that that person *thinks* that way. So the guy goes to his friend and tells him the story expecting him to get offended. But, to his surprise, he's not offended at all. The friend notices his surprise and decided to provide an explanation as to why it doesn't make sense to get offended -- his goal was to help his friend solve his psychological problem. Note that I’m not talking about whether or not the guy has the *right* to get offended. Of course he has the right to have his emotions and think the way he wants to. The point is whether or not he *should* get offended.

Friend: How many strangers out there are racists?

Guy: I don’t know, half?

Friend: Ok so that means that 1 out of 2 strangers you meet are thinking racist thoughts, but almost none of them say those thoughts to you.

Guy: Right.

Friend: Now getting back to the original situation, were you offended that he said the racist remark, or that he thought it?

Guy: That he said it. Why aren’t you offended?

Friend: Well the very first time someone made a racist remark towards me, I was offended. But since then I learned that most people are that way and why they are that way, so I’m not emotional about it anymore. […] So back to what we were saying… Why aren't you offended that he was *thinking* it? Whats the difference? If you're going to get offended that he said it, you should be offended that he thought it.

Guy: Well ya.

Friend: And so if you're offended that people think this way, then are you going to go around to every person and say, "HEY, ARE YOU A RACIST? CAUSE IF YOU ARE, THATS OFFENSIVE TO MY FRIEND… Oh you’re not a racist? Oh never mind then I’m not offended.”

Guy: LOL!

Friend: And he could be lying to you. So he could be a racist, but you’re not offended because he lied and said he isn’t a racist.

Guy: Ya..

Friend: Now consider this. Why is that person racist? How did he learn it?

Guy: From his parents.

Friend: From society as a whole, which includes his parents. And he hasn't yet figured out that he's wrong. So he made a mistake and he hasn't corrected it. And he may die a racist.

Guy: Right.

Friend: But don't we all make mistakes?

Guy: Ya.

Friend: Do you think people should get mad at us for making mistakes?

Guy: Well depends on the kind of mistake.

Friend: Why should it depend on that?

Guy: Well what if it’s a really bad mistake?

Friend: Bad how?

Guy: Like say if someone kills another person.

Friend: You're talking about a crime. Thinking or saying a racist remark is not a crime. Can you give an example that isn't a crime?

Guy: What if someone called me stupid?

Friend: So. Why does that upset you?

Guy: Don't you get upset by that?

Friend: No. I've been called stupid many times. Sometimes people say it when they disagree with me, meaning that they think my idea is wrong, because it conflicts with their worldview. And they don't have a criticism of my idea, so they attack the source of the idea because they don't know a better way. So he made a thinking mistake, which is to criticize the source of an idea rather than the content of the idea. I expect that he learned it from his parents, and from society. Should I be mad that he has this mistaken idea about how to think?

Guy: I guess not. It’s not his fault.

Friend: No. It is his fault, *his* mistake. He should take responsibility for correcting his mistakes. But in this case, he doesn’t even know he’s mistaken. But that doesn't change whether or not I should be offended. The point is this, what problem does getting offended solve?

Guy: What?

Friend: What are you getting out of getting offended?

Guy: Uh.. nothing but he shouldn’t… (stops to think)

Friend: Sure there are a lot of things that he could do wrong, and a lot of people do those things. Are you saying you want to correct him… help him think better?

Guy: Ok let’s say I did.

Friend: Do you think getting offended will help you do that? Your mind will be clouded so it’ll be harder for you to come up with good explanations. And your emotional reaction might antagonize him so he might respond with emotion too. So getting emotional won’t solve your problem of helping him correct his thinking. Its counter-productive.

Guy: Ya that’s true.

It’s important to consider how this new understanding will help this person going forward. Psychological problems can be solved. Actually whole classes of psychological problems can be solved. So consider that one class of psychological problems is that someone *gets offended by racist remarks*. He could learn all the thinking errors that cause this and then never get offended by racist remarks again, thus solving that problem and never again being affected by it.

Now consider a broader class of psychological problems, which is *getting emotional about people making mistakes*. Someone can learn all the thinking errors that cause this and then never again get emotional about someone making a mistake, including himself.

The second example is a major psychological problem, major in that it causes other problems in one’s life.  Two guys were in a car and a song came on the radio. One guy had a reaction to the song, or least his friend guessed that the song was the cause:

Friend: What are you thinking about?

Guy: Nothing.

Friend: The song reminded you of something.

Guy: Uh.. Ya my friend, he killed himself.

Friend: How long ago?

Guy: When I was 15. (he’s in his late 30’s at this point)

Friend: Something bad must have happened.

Guy: Well ya he killed himself.

Friend: Sure but being affected by that for 20 years means there is more to it -- you are conflicted about something.

Guy: Well it’s not really a problem. The anxiety doesn’t last long. I’m pretty good at forgetting about it now.

Friend: So you’re burying your problem... slipping it under the rug. But that doesn’t solve your problem. It will resurface.

Guy: (while laughing) Ya that’s been happening for 20 years now.

Friend: So when it first happened, I bet it took days for you to recover each time you had anxiety about it.

Guy: Ya.

Friend: And now it takes a lot less time to recover. How long?

Guy: A few minutes, sometimes faster.

Friend: So you’ve created a habit of burying the problem, and you get faster at burying it each time.

Guy: Ya!

Friend: If you figure out what the problem is, then you can solve it and prevent the anxiety altogether.

Guy: What do you mean? I already know what caused it.

Friend: Well when you experienced the trauma, it’s not his suicide that was the trauma. It’s your interpretation of that event that was the trauma. You had a thought that causes the anxiety. And each time you get anxiety you are rethinking that thought. What is that thought?

Guy: Well what happened was that my friend called me and left a voicemail asking to call him back. But I didn’t reply quickly enough. Then I found out that he committed suicide the next day.

Friend: You said “quickly enough”. So you blame yourself for not calling him back?

Guy: Yes.

Friend: And if you had called him back, would that have prevented him from committing suicide?

Guy: Maybe.

Friend: Maybe means also maybe not. Right?

Guy: Ya.

Friend: Could you have known in advance that he would commit suicide?

Guy: No.

Friend: So you’re blaming yourself for something that you couldn’t have known in advance. Isn’t that just like saying “hind-sight 20-20… yadda yadda yadda”?

Guy: You’re right, it’s not my fault for not knowing.

Friend: And even if you did know, and even if you called him, he may still have committed suicide. I expect that he had major psychological problems. He could have been hopped up on psychiatric medicine that made things worse instead of better. Since you don't know about what he's taking, how could you help him with something like that?

Guy: You're right. There’s no way I could have prevented his suicide.

Friend: And even if you were his brother and spoke to him everyday, you could make a mistake and not realize that he was in the condition he was in because well you've never dealt with that stuff. You don't know what to look for. You aren't in his mind to know what he’s thinking.

Guy: Ya.

Friend: Everyone makes mistakes. Should we all blame ourselves for all our mistakes?

Guy: Well no, but when something bad happens…

Friend: But you can't know in advance if something bad is going to happen so how can you blame yourself? We all make mistakes. And sure some of those mistakes cause major bad shit. But so what? That’s life. You can't prevent all mistakes. It’s impossible to prevent all mistakes, so why blame yourself for something that is impossible to do?

Guy: You’re right.

(a few months went by)

Guy: I've been meaning to talk to you. I don’t have anxiety anymore about my friend that committed suicide. I can listen to that song again and nothing happens. You know that song was one that all my friends and I listened to and when I’d be in a car with them, the song would come on and my anxiety would start. It was rough because my friends would put that song on a lot and I couldn't enjoy it with them. And now I can enjoy it again.

So here the psychological problem was about blaming himself for something he couldn’t possibly be responsible for. In psychology they give this a fancy name, “personalization”; it’s one of the so-called cognitive biases. Anyway, he solved that problem. Note that this thinking error can have more reach like in the first example. If he solves all the thinking errors related to incorrectly assigning responsibility, then he’ll have solved this whole class of psychological problems (“personalization”). Now I’m not suggesting that this is easy. The idea of responsibility is not so straight forward. It requires a lot of knowledge to understand it well.

Getting back to the field of psychology, there is new research being done about what psychologists call cognitive dissonance. The theory explains that when people are presented with a conflict of ideas between a new idea and their worldview, they experience a bad feeling, and so they (subconsciously) attempt to relieve that bad feeling by rejecting the new idea, thus resolving the conflict. Sometimes that rejection comes in the form of rationalizing (which means writing off an idea uncritically).

The implication is that *all* people experience this bad feeling, meaning that it is part of human nature. But that is false. It’s a parochial mistake to generalize to the entire human population. Not all people have this bad feeling when they have a conflict of ideas. So this raises the question: What is the difference between people that do and people that don’t feel bad when they experience a conflict of ideas between a new idea and their worldview?

To answer that question, consider that cognitive dissonance is fundamentally no different than any other psychological problem. It’s about thinking errors. And how are they solved?  In the case of cognitive dissonance, the error is related to how one thinks about mistakes and exposing one’s mistakes. The people that experience cognitive dissonance think that mistakes are bad and shameful -- and the people that don’t experience it don’t think that way.

The reality is that exposing one’s mistakes is good. These are opportunities to correct one’s mistaken ideas. And by correcting one’s mistaken ideas, he gets smarter, becomes a better person, a better worker, a better parent. A person who knows this feels great about finding his mistakes, whether he found it or someone else did. So he doesn't subconsciously try to reject new ideas that conflict with his worldview.


Other topics related to psychology:

- Love at first sight

- Why the gender gap on physics assessments?


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