Existential Psychology

Body Of Evidence

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Most people agree that the first Matrix movie was awesome, the second was okay, and the third was a piece of garbage. Where things get interesting psychologically is that for many, the first movie is retroactively ruined or at least diminished in value because of the failures of the subsequent two. After looking at the body of evidence, they change their opinion about the first movie so that it can fit their overall perception.

We are not very good at holding simultaneous, contradictory information about something. The solution is to disregard one side and highlight the other in order to make a global judgment. This tendency has evolutionary value. The practical reason to have an opinion or belief about anything is to know how to act in a given situation. For example, viewing a potential predator as dangerous and not dangerous doesn’t do anything for us. Our global judgments help us navigate the world because they let us be decisive, doing away with uncertainty and ambiguity.

But our world is much more complex than it was for our ancestors. People, events, and ideas are multifaceted and they change based on the data points we use to manufacture our perspectives. One of my mentors once showed me a visual aid he often used with clients to help them see how narrow labels influenced the way others viewed them and how they viewed themselves. On one page he would draw a circle and then fill it in. On another page he would draw hundreds of tiny points. Then he would explain that one of those tiny points had become so enlarged in their narrative that it had become the large circle from the first page. None of the other equally valid points were seen or recognized anymore. The task of therapy was to stop focusing on that one point and begin to build a narrative that more accurately recognized all of their experiences, traits, and actions, doing away with the narrow focus that was largely responsible for the creation and maintenance of their mental health issues.

It is liberating to realize that the way people perceive and treat us is usually based on limited data and biased points of view. One of the ways that our machinery tends to break down most spectacularly is in the vein of our Matrix example from the beginning of this article. We overweight things that happen last in a chain of events, and then retroactively remember the whole experience differently.

There is a clever psychological experiment that proves this fact. Groups of people agree to endure the pain of putting their hands in freezing cold ice water. The first round is sixty seconds at the frigid temperature. The second time is ninety seconds, but for the last thirty seconds warmer water is pumped in to the tank to raise the temperature slightly. It is still uncomfortable but not quite as bad. Then people are asked which of the two they will choose on the next round, believing there will be a third trial. The vast majority go with the second option. They take ninety seconds of pain over sixty seconds of pain, because what they remember last is a little less pain, and this factors into their overall memory of the event more than how much time has actually passed.

We can’t always control how others perceive us, but we can still move towards improved psychological health by recognizing that these perceptions are often flawed in important ways. We can recognize the power of labels and how biased they usually are. We can decide to accept more ambiguity into our own lives and relationships, searching for those data points that contradict our dominant narratives, incorporating them into our global perceptions to see a more richly textured world.