Posted by admin on February 11, 2010
The human mind delights in finding pattern—so much so that we often mistake coincidence or forced analogy for profound meaning. No other habit of thought lies so deeply within the soul of a small creature trying to make sense of a complex world not constructed for it.
– Stephen Jay Gould
In the previous post, we toyed with ambiguity. The observable facts were that the customer service representative said “no;” left briefly, taking a yellow sticky; returned; and said “yes.” We do not know what transpired during her brief absence that caused her to change her mind. It is fun to play with the possibilities. And, perhaps, the explanation that the magic word “francis” on a yellow sticky caused the change is as realistic as any alternative construal.
The human mind is marvelously adapted to pattern-finding. This capability, being instantly able to distinguish a branch from a snake, a bush from a tiger, served well to ensure the survival of our primordial forbearers. However, it is inherently problematic in our modern, ambiguous world in that it leads us to reach conclusions too quickly, to see patterns where there is ambiguity or merely randomness. We need to consciously question our patterns, our prejudices, and to deliberately maintain openness to differing interpretations of events. Recognizing this, when we do choose to hold a paradigm or worldview, we should hold it lightly, allowing for the chance that it may be misleading. As we must question the patterns we form, we must also question our worldviews, for these have far-reaching consequences in our lives.
Sociologist Diane Vaughan studied the events leading to NASA’s ill-fated Challenger launch decision. She determined that a perceptual bias had evolved within NASA. Managers perceived a pattern of success and thus discounted accumulating evidence that the O-rings were prone to failure. The perceptual bias, the innate tendency to see pattern even when there is none, led to the Challenger tragedy. Per Vaughan:1
How is this variety possible? Each person – the butcher, the parent, the child – occupies a different position in the world, which leads to a unique set of experiences, assumptions, and expectations about the situations and objects she or he encounters. From integrated sets of assumptions, expectations, and experience, individuals construct a worldview, or frame of reference, that shapes their interpretations of objects and experiences. Everything is perceived, chosen, or rejected on the basis of this framework. The framework becomes self-confirming because, whenever they can, people tend to impose it on experiences and events, creating incidents and relationships that conform to it. And they tend to ignore, misperceive, or deny events that do not fit. As a consequence, this frame of reference generally leads people to what they expect to find. Worldview is not easily altered or dismantled because individuals tend ultimately to disavow knowledge that contradicts it. They ward off information in order to preserve the status quo, avoid a difficult choice, or avoid a threatening situation. They may puzzle over contradictory evidence but usually succeed in pushing it aside – until they come across a piece of evidence too fascinating to ignore, too clear to misperceive, too painful to deny, which makes vivid still other signals they do not want to see, forcing them to alter and surrender the worldview they have so meticulously constructed.
I liken creating a worldview to building a house of cards. We take an event, observe it through a perceptual filter, find that it fits – even though the fit may require stretching reality or ignoring other plausible explanations – and place it in our worldview, the construal of the new event both propping up and being propped up by the construals of other events in the worldview. Over time, we accumulate many such events offering evidence confirming the validity of our worldview. But in the end, we have a dysfunctional worldview, one that does not validly interpret real events, one built on ambiguous evidence and dubious inferences, an imposing belief network but underlying it only a house of cards. Employing our unsound worldview, we respond inappropriately to signals from our environment. When our actions become too incongruent from reality, a crisis occurs, our house of cards collapses. We suddenly are forced to view the world through a different, more realistic filter. These life-altering experiences, or epiphanies, are the manifestations of the collapses of our houses of cards.
In Uncoupling , Vaughan finds that couples going through divorce follow this same house-of-cards process. One partner, and eventually the other, chooses to interpret aspects of the relationship negatively and gradually redefines the history of the relationship in terms of this frame of reference. Again, Vaughan:2
The partner’s frame of reference affects interpretation of the initiator’s signals. The partner fits the initiator’s behavior in with personal expectations about the duration of the relationship, and within the range of signals that he or she has learned to expect from the initiator. When a new signal does not fit – “I packed your lunch.” “Did you pack a gun in it?” – the partner will not take it seriously since it falls outside the frame of reference.
Once a partner chooses to construe events in the relationship negatively, it becomes difficult or impossible to salvage the relationship. In order to do so, both partners must choose to construe the relationship in positive terms.
This is true not only in relationships with others, but in our relationship with the world. If we choose to perceive events in our lives through a filter of anger, then we will perceive ourselves to be victims of events. Life changing events are events that allow us to grow by causing us to examine our perceptual houses of cards, and to choose new worldviews. We can help this process of growth by being conscious of our worldview. Do we choose to view our partner’s unique characteristics as endearing or annoying? If we choose to interpret our partner’s actions in negative terms, why? How do we interpret events in our lives? Do we regard ourselves as victims of external events or as the authors of our own life stories?
Recognizing that the human mind is highly evolved to find patterns, so much so that it wants to find patterns even when events are random or interpretations are ambiguous, gives us the powerful insight that it is possible for us to choose our paradigms and by so doing, to change our lives. When faced with ambiguity, we can choose to accept the ambiguity or can choose to interpret it within a framework that we choose on the basis of its ability to help us reach our goals. In this way, changing our attitudes and beliefs, gives us the power to change our lives.
What paradigms are you choosing? Are you gaining confidence in your ability to use math as a problem-solving tool or do you discourage yourself, thinking “I’m not good at math?” Do you allow and expect that you will make mistakes when facing a new challenge or do you expect that you will be perfect then give up quickly in frustration when you are not? Do you tolerate ambiguity or do you force newly perceived events into an existing framework of belief? Do you view the actions of people in your life with love or with criticism?
Future articles will show you how to use the math and science facts you learned in school in new ways to critically understand everyday events and solve everyday problems. Before we start, though, you need to choose to believe that you can and will succeed. If you are not there yet, can you let go of the beliefs that are holding you back and replace them with a willingness to learn? If you can, will you? And, if you will, when would be the best time to let those beliefs go?
Okay! You said, “Now!” Right? Then we’re ready! Let’s take our math hammers, our willingness to try new things, our openness to ambiguity, and our belief that we will succeed and get started!
Have you experienced a breakup? Was it preceded by one partner increasingly interpreting the actions of the other negatively as suggested by Vaughan? Have you had a life changing experience? Did it cause you to view the world in a different way? I’d love to hear your comments!
1 Vaughan, D. (1996), The Challenger Launch Decision: Risky Technology, Culture, and Deviance at NASA, University Of Chicago Press, Chicago.
2 Vaughan, D. (1986), Uncoupling: Turning Points in Intimate Relationships, Oxford University Press, USA.
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