Misunderstanding feelings

Over the past few days, several thoughts occurred to me, which I believe might be really helpful–if I can remember the gist of them–in future situations in which I feel less good than I wish. And I would like to share these thoughts with anyone who might be interested. So, if after reading this post and thinking about it a bit, or maybe after trying it out you actually get a sense of, “hey, this might actually work”, please feel free to share it, in any form or shape you believe could be helpful for the people around you.

The gist I myself want to remember is this: feelings or emotions are like a map together with a compass, and not like an arrow–which is what I guess a lot of people might make of their feelings, even if they wouldn’t necessarily put it this way. For myself this now makes perfect sense. Still, I appreciate that using this very short idiom, it might make no sense at all for you at the moment. If that is the case, or at least you remain curious enough as to what I mean by it, and how I came to this tentative insight, please stay with me.

If possible, take a deep breath, close your eyes for a moment, and, as much as you can, put yourself into a somewhat relaxed and neutral-feeling state with maybe a hint of positive anticipation of learning, which I believe will make it somewhat easier and enjoyable to follow my line of thoughts below.

First, imagine that you are in a situation with someone you know well, and the person has done something you don’t like, which you also have some clear notion of the person already knows you don’t like. In my case, I might imagine that while I talk to a friend, explaining something, the person cuts me off in the middle of a sentence and tries to jump ahead, saying, “yeah, yeah, and what’s the outcome?”

So, if I imagine myself in that situation (and I hope you image yourself in a situation in which, for you, a person does something you don’t like), I feel annoyed and if I had to put that into words I might say to myself, “this person knows that I don’t like what they just did, they shouldn’t be doing that!” And in that case the feeling of annoyance might then seem to me (at first) like some sort of “push into a certain direction”, like an arrow, nudging me like someone saying, “you need to correct that person for what they did!” or “I really don’t like it when that happens, that’s so rude, and I don’t want to talk to them any more, let them figure it out by themselves, that’ll teach them a lesson!” That is, I imagine that people generally think of emotions more as an instruction or a set of directions, a sign of “what to do next”.

If so far you are “with me”, I’ve at least done a decent enough job of not getting us lost yet. Whew. If you are a bit lost, maybe the next scenario will make more sense… Either way, just briefly close your eyes, and take another deep breath, and try to get out of the weeds again for the moment.

Imagine you get stuck in a forest, with a kind of dense thicket of brambles undergrowth with lots of thorns, where every additional step might also lead further in, rather than out. And you feel around in your pocket and find a compass. You take it out and put it on the palm of your hand, and then you can remember the following, “my house is to the west of the forest”–which is in essence a map of the landscape with where you are and where you want to be. If you then would like to get out of the forest and back home, it would be fairly easy to do that with the help of the compass. However, you wouldn’t just follow the red arrow (that would be following the instruction “my house is where the arrow points”), but rather you would know, OK, the arrow points north, so I need to walk in a direction such that the arrow points to the right.

If you have never used a compass, I now realize this image is totally useless to make my point. Put into a different image, if you think of feelings as (a set of) directions, it then would indeed seem most plausible and reasonable to follow them, but if you think of feelings more like an indicator about your state in relation to a landscape or map, then it isn’t necessarily true that you need to “follow” your feelings, but rather that you can use them as an indicator that you are not “in a place you like to be” and “the place I’d like to be in relation to where I am now is this way”.

So, coming back to the example with the person who has done something I don’t like, I could ask myself: instead of feeling the way I do–annoyed, frustrated, ticked off, misunderstood, distrustful, etc., in other words, in a specific thicket of brambles–how would I like to feel, in relationship to this person? In other words, taking the feelings as a sign or indicator that I’m not in the place I would like to be, that is, emotionally speaking, as an indicator that within some kind of emotional map or landscape, I am in a place I find myself “getting tangled up in”, I can then use my feelings as a guide to get home, but not by “following them”, but by taking them as an indicator of how I’m doing with respect to finding my way out of the brambles.

How would that look like in practice? Well, in the case of my imagined situation, I could think something like, “I would really like to feel understood, and I would want to feel respect for my colleague, but also respected by my colleague, and I enjoy feeling calm and relaxed when I explain things, not rushed and anxious”. Once I have a clear enough description of where I want to be on the landscape, I can use that information and imagine different actions, and instead of using feelings as an arrow, I can ask myself, which of the actions I am imagining is taking getting me any closer (if not closest) to where I want to be on the emotional landscape?

Practically speaking, I could, as I said in the initial description, think along the lines of “I need to correct this person for cutting me off,” or “That’s so rude, I don’t want to talk to this person any more.” OK, so let’s imagine doing either of these things. Will I then feel closer to how I would like to feel in relationship to that person? I would say, “not really…”

Maybe you might say, “not immediately, but if they learn their lesson, they will treat me better next time!” That’s a really important point… Learning lessons through negative emotions… It seems that a lot of people have the belief that punishing others will give them the information they need to “correct the error of their ways”. Unfortunately, it is my experience that this approach rarely works the way people believe it does or they intend it to work. Instead, what happens is that someone who is punished (experiencing bad feelings on their part, as a result of their actions) may be able to understand they did something “wrong”, but since they are now feeling bad (they themselves experience an arrow that pushes them into a direction), they may just as much get stuck as anyone else “following their feelings”.

So what’s the alternative? Well, my suggestion would be to simply start by telling the other person how you feel and also how you would like to feel. That may sound like this, “hey, what just happened really made me feel annoyed and a bit resentful. I really don’t like feeling that way with you, instead I really enjoy feeling collegial respect for one another, and that I am not rushed and feel like having the time to explain, and then experience being understood. If you’re in a rush right now, maybe we can talk later?”

In other words, I believe that feelings are indeed an incredibly (and awesome!!) tool, if we can understand their utility not so much as an arrow or set of directions, but as a kind of signal of “I’m not where I would like to be on my emotional map.” And together with just a little bit of smarts, I can figure out some action among a large enough set of possible actions that will increase the likelihood of being in the place on the map where I would like to be, rather than blindly following in the direction where feelings “point”, which might even be in just the opposite direction, leading me further into the forest…

Basing action on limited knowledge

Over the past few days, I’ve experienced a sense of “I know so much less than I think about the climate change debate…” And I really want to spend some time over the weekend to look for answers.

I realized that the few things I do know–although knowing is probably not the best term, let’s say things I perceive or believe I know–now seem to me like the result of overestimating the accuracy and detail in visual perception from the clarity perceived at the center of visual attention: I “see” a few (to me, personally) important aspects, and from those aspects then extrapolate and, crucially, generate a sense that “I know what I need to do, and I must do it, to avoid a bad outcome.”

If you don’t know about differences in acuity across the visual field, maybe look at Figure 7 from this article; when you look at the central letter (at the correct level of magnification or distance), you can probably read (correctly perceive) most any other letter. Look at a letter on the periphery however, and many other letters become “illegible”, though you may still see them as letters. And whenever you look at a natural scene, your experience is probably that you see everything equally sharp, crisp, and clear.

How and why does this “acuity illusion” apply to the climate change debate? And why does it matter?

As far as I understand the evolutionary principles of gene selection over time, it would seem incredibly important, whenever there is a potential threat, to select an action in order to save yourself even if you only have a glimpse of any threat. Or rather, to the extent that, among a set of individuals with some variation in their perceptual threshold between being certain enough of having seen a threatening stimulus, say a lion, and acting upon that threat, by running and hiding, it would seem clear that genes that predict lower thresholds leading to certainty will find themselves at an advantage, at least to the extent that the costs–running and hiding means you cannot keep foraging for food during that time, and spend calories for the running and hiding–don’t outweigh the benefits of having one of your conspecifics being eaten by the lion. That is, in an environment “full of threats”, genes that favor hyper-vigilance are probably passed on preferentially, given that those with lower sensitivity end up being eaten.

And to create the necessary motivation (to run away from a lion), you really have to believe the threat is real, not just have the experience of “there is a 0.3 per cent chance I saw a lion.” That would probably not really work. So, your perceptual system is fooling you into believing that what you perceived, at a very low threshold, is real whenever your survival depends on it, because genes that favored this outcome had a higher chance of being passed on.

Now imagine, for instance, what happens when someone comes running into your village and yells, “there’s a lion, there’s a lion coming, everybody: hide!” You haven’t even seen the threat yourself, and yet, so long as you trust a person warning you, it seems absolutely imperative that you scramble up a tree, and get yourself out of harms way. Unless…

What if the person who’s running around the village yelling is a bit “too hyper-sensitive”? Maybe they’re suffering from a too vivid imagination, and every so often they think they saw a lion, but no matter how often they try to warn people, no lion ever shows up? Or, even worse, what if you had several cases in the past where someone came running into your village, yelled something about a lion, people hid in trees, only to find that their huts had been ransacked, and all the food provisions taken. So, clearly, one aspect of this kind of “acting on someone else’s testimony” depends on one crucial factor: trusting that the person isn’t mistaken, let alone lying. In that case, you might simply choose to ignore that person.

Are the people who yell about climate change mistaken (myopic) or lying (ill-intentioned)? It would certainly seem to me that those who oppose the demands being made (“a lion is coming, do something!”) are being dismissive not so much because if the threat were real, those people are willing to wait and see what happens. Rather, it seems more plausible that maybe they have seen some minimal evidence suggesting that the alarm is the result of myopic vision or, worse, a hoax and distraction, and, just as much as the people who believe the evidence that climate change is real, they now focus their attention on another threat: in the worst case that of being made to act, in order to have something taken from them, losing their political liberty.

So, unfortunately, humans have this tendency to “oversell” evidence… I have become much more keenly aware how frequently even I am willing to tell people about things I’ve read or heard with an attitude of certainty when what I really remember is either somewhat vague or, at the very least, much more narrow in scope than my confidence might suggest. And even if I remember it clearly, who knows whether the person who wrote it or told me looked closely enough…?

If you are up for an experiment, try this: the next time you talk to someone about almost any topic on which you are not an expert, monitor yourself how certain you project you are about what you’re saying, and whether or not your certainty is really warranted. What do you know precisely, and where does that knowledge come from? Maybe a lot of it comes from sources where the people who collected that knowledge themselves were a bit “myopic”? How can you make sure that you’re not missing some crucial evidence that would speak against what you believe to be true? Would it be important to know? Are you willing to act without finding out? And if you want to convince someone who believes that you are mistaken, might it not be most important to find out what keeps them from trusting that whatever you could tell them is “true”? What are they afraid of losing if they believed what you believe?

In other words, I’m looking for ways of having a conversation about the mutual distrust, because without starting there, I believe that no evidence could ever penetrate this wall.