Would you like to hear a story about Janet and John?
Their relationship had been fine until three months ago when they attended an interdepartmental meeting which even John admits he could have prepared better for. (In truth, John felt acutely embarrassed about his performance.) But in John’s mind that didn’t justify the harsh comments Janet made about his presentation. In fact, the more John had thought about the event over the past few months the more aggressive he felt Janet had been towards him.
Janet was becoming increasingly aware that John was quietly antagonistic towards her. She couldn’t really put her finger on why this should be. She remembered the incident of three months ago but, in her mind, she was just one of a few moderate voices that had commented on John’s performance. Surely it couldn’t be that? In any event, Janet resolved to have as little dealings with John as she could.
Luckily for you, dear reader, there was an actual fly on the wall at the meeting in question, with a photographic memory, so we have a solid witness as to what transpired. Our fly saw John’s less than stellar performance and also the pretty low-keyed observations that Janet, and others, had made about it.
So John’s recollection is flawed – his story of the event doesn’t represent the truth in any substantial way.
However, there is one thing we need to acknowledge before we upfront John with the truth of the matter. He really, truly and absolutely believes his view of what took place. Even when presented with the impeccable evidence of the fly John finds it hard to reconcile this with what he knows, what he believes.
How can we help John understand that his BELIEF is actually closer to a LIE (a lie he told himself)? Let’s turn to neuroscience for some answers …
“Without independent corroboration, we can’t really know for sure if a memory is true or false.” Elizabeth Loftus
We reconstruct our memories every time we remember them. We refine them to support our overall belief (in John’s case that Janet was aggressive toward him). Moreover, if there are any “gaps” in our memory we’ll make up information (again, to support our belief) to fill these gaps. This made up information then becomes as real to us as our non-made up memories (while at the same time further distorting the original event).
The psychologist Professor Ulric Neisser has carried out research on memories. In 1986 the space shuttle Challenger exploded upon take-off. The day after the explosion Neisser asked his students to write down their memories of what had happened: where they were, what they were wearing, what the TV coverage was like, etc. Three years later he asked them to write down their memory of the event again. Over 90% of the later reports differed. Half of them were inaccurate in 66% of the details. Similar research has been conducted on 9/11 memories with similar results.
John has – without being aware of it – reworked his memory of the event to support a belief that bears little resemblance to what actually occurred. As time progresses John will continue to distort these memories.
“But if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.” George Orwell
Our choice of language flavours our memories. Ask a bystander how fast they thought a car was going when it bumped / hit / smashed into the other car and their estimate of the speed will increase based on which of the three words you use.
Once John thought of the word “aggressive” to describe Janet’s behaviour in the interdepartmental meeting he was laying the groundwork to further distort his memory of the event.
“We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are.” Anaïs Nin
There are many cognitive biases that we are subject to. The one that impacted John was Confirmation Bias: the tendency to seek out information that supports our pre-existing beliefs; we form an opinion first and then seek out evidence to back it up rather than basing our opinions on facts.
Since the fateful meeting of three months ago John was ‘looking’ for evidence to support his belief that Janet was out to get him – and it was surprisingly easy to find …
One morning a few weeks after the interdepartmental meeting Janet entered the office and greeted everyone with a series of warm ‘good mornings’, including one directed at John. Clearly, thought John, she was playing to the gallery and pretending to treat John warmly in order to cover her real intent – how duplicitous of her! Accordingly, he acknowledged her greeting in a perfunctory manner.
Over time, as Janet has indicated, she become aware of John’s changing attitude towards her which led her to resolve to have as little dealings with John as she could: she just didn’t understand (and trust) his motives. This cooling in her interactions with John didn’t go unnoticed by him. In fact it further supported his belief that Janet wasn’t to be trusted.
Any other interpretations of what he saw could simply not coexist with John’s belief – only his interpretations supported his beliefs. This was made more so as John felt ‘good’ when new evidence supported his belief. Why ‘good’? Well, brain chemistry research suggests that people (aka John) experience genuine pleasure (caused by a rush of dopamine which helps control the brain’s reward and pleasure centres) when receiving information that supports their beliefs. Something that felt this good helped confirm to John that he was right.
Poor John – who knew his pleasure would contribute to his pain?
This is just some of the neuroscience research that could help John make sense of why his brain holds such an implacable belief which simply isn’t true. Understanding neuroscience allows us to better appreciate how our brain can sometimes let us down badly and how we need to train our brain to guard against the occasions when in trying to protect us (in this case protecting John against Janet’s aggression) it ends up doing us a great disservice. It’s not easy work but it holds great benefits which, briefly are increased performance and decreased stress. Not a bad return.
And what of John? Well, I’m pleased to tell you he was able to see reality by using the neuroscience research in Acceptance, Attitude, Thoughts, Visualization and more besides. But that’s another story …