Through the Prism

After passing through the prism, each refraction contains some pure essence of the light, but only an incomplete part. We will always experience some aspect of reality, of the Truth, but only from our perspectives as they are colored by who and where we are. Others will know a different color and none will see the whole, complete light. These are my musings from my particular refraction.


Perception: The Interplay of Habit and Attitude

Reading this David Brooks books is an interesting experience.  As you likely know, he's a conservative columnist and I'm a liberal.  Nevertheless, I've actually noted and quoted him a number of times through the years, and noted the themes he'd present in this book around a year ago in post Heard It Here First.  The book is called The Social Animal.

There's a ton of excellent information in the book that corresponds with things I've been reading, thinking, and believing for years.  I'm familiar with much of his source material, in fact, having previously encountered it in other sources; and I hadn't realized this vein of thinking had become so ubiquitous and prevalent, which is nice since I've been blogging about it in various ways for a while now.  I'm just not sure Brooks is the best vehicle to be delivering the information.  As we come from different starting points, he takes the same information and comes to somewhat different conclusions, ramifications, and applications than I do.

But seeing a different perspective on the information is a good thing because it makes me think and broadens mine.  What's given me greater pause is his device for delivering the information.  He's sharing it as a narrative, the life story of two fictional people.  This makes the book highly readable and enjoyable, but it makes it hard to distinguish between the research and Brooks.  His method of citation compounds the issue, because he doesn't note anything in the text itself.  Each entry in his "Notes" section at the back of the book begins by quoting the first five words of the relevant section of his writing so you can go back and track it down later, but it's not marked in any way during the actual reading.

And some of it seems disconnected from anything, either the research or the story; just bits of opinions he's throwing out without much relevance or context.  For instance, the chapter titled "Learning" begins with this:

Popular, good-looking, and athletic children are the subjects of relentless abuse.  While still young and impressionable, they are force-fed a diet of ugly duckling fables to which they cannot possibly relate.  They are compelled to endure endless Disney movies that tell them that true beauty lies inside.  In high school, the most interesting teachers favor the brainy students who are rendered ambitious by social resentments and who have time on Saturday nights to sit at home and develop adult-pleasing interests in Miles Davis or Lou Reed.  After Graduation the popular and good-looking have few role models save for local weathermen and game-show hosts, while the nerds can emulate any number of modern moguls, from Bill Gates to Sergey Brin.  For as it is written, the last shall be first and the geek shall inherit the Earth.

Huh?  Not only is this not cited in the "Notes" in any way, it seems largely unrelated to what follows in his story and out of line with the general research and themes he's sharing, not to mention reality itself.  So it makes me a bit more skeptical about his perspective's ability to convey the information in a helpful way.  Still, I'm getting a lot out of it.

Which leads me to today's thought, what I got out of some of my recent reading.  It was on the topic of self-control, and he draws from some of the same research as the sources I highlighted in the post Thinking About Thinking: A Tip for Success; specifically, the idea of delayed gratification and self regulation.  Brooks writes:

Human decision making has three basic steps.  First, we perceive a situation.  Second, we use the power of reason to calculate whether taking this or that action is in our long-term interest.  Third, we use the power of will to execute our decision.

He then describes how Victorian moralists focused on willpower as the way to resist temptation and make good decisions, which wasn't very effective, and twentieth century character-building models focused on reason, information, and eduction, which also wasn't all that effective.  Focusing on either step two or three of the decision making process will lead to only limited success; far more effective than relying on reason or willpower is starting at the very beginning phase, with how we actually perceive things.

Perception is not a neutral, passive, objective activity, after all.  Who we are and how we are feeling always colors the way we perceive our surroundings and experiences.  A simple example is how when we're happy the world seems a wonderful, vibrant, colorful place full of other happy people and when we're sad it seems grey, dreary, and gloomy.  The example Brooks uses is students are more or less likely to undermine themselves with bad behavior in class based on what baseline assumptions they have when they walk into a classroom for the first time ever, before they learn anything particular about the individual teacher--do they assume teachers should be respected simply because of their positions or do they reserve that respect until they feel it's been earned?  Those who walk in without the assumption of respect are much more likely to perceive teachers negatively and act out in rebellion.

Having learned to see a teacher in a certain way, they would never even consider punching one in the face, except in the realm of faraway fantasy, which they know they will never enact.

Similarly, upright people learn to see other people's property in a way that reduces the temptation to steal.  They learn to see a gun in a way that reduces their temptation to misuse it.  They learn to see young girls in a way that reduces the temptation to abuse them.  They learn to see the truth in a way that reduces the temptation to lie.

As you're probably picking up on, Brooks is considering this under the heading of character education, but the principle can be widely applied to many situations.  One of the research studies was about helping kids resist the temptation to eat a marshmallow by trying to think of it as a picture instead of as a reality.  I also relate it to the post I wrote a few weeks back titled My Philosophy, in which I wrote, "What you choose to see in others is what you project for others to see in you. . . . If you want to be a good person, you must learn to find the goodness in others."

So how do we learn to perceive things in ways that will lead us to the decisions we want?  As I said, I just read this and wanted to capture it before I moved on, but that means I haven't had time to really dwell on it yet and consider if fully.  But here's some of what's rattling around in my brain.

"First we make our habits, then our habits make us."
--Charles C. Noble

"We are what we repeatedly do.  Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit."

"Fake it until you make it."
--Alcoholics Anonymous

"One of the most enduring lessons of social psychology is that behavior change often precedes changes in attitude and feelings."
--Timothy Wilson (page 129 of Brooks's book)

"For where your treasure is, there your heart will also be."
--Jesus (Luke 12:34)

I don't have a source, but in one of my seminary classes on social ethics--one in which the professor emphasized how we are "social animals"--the professor told of a study on marriage and what makes one successful.  The thing that correlated most highly with long-lasting marriages was not education or class or values or attitudes, but the act of sharing a quick goodbye and hello kiss each time the couple parted and came back together.  Even if it was a rushed peck, even if it was unrelated to any thoughts or moods, that simple act seemed to be significant.

In all of these, the point is that our actions--our behaviors and habits--shape the way we think and feel and perceive.  Jesus didn't say your heart will guide where you spend your money; he said what you do will guide your heart.  So, if we want to have self-control and make decisions we are happy with, we must control the way we perceive things, and if we want to control the way we perceive things we must develop habits of action that direct our perceptions.

At the end of recent post Do I Think Any True Thoughts, I shared the idea of Ego Depletion.  Actively engaging our brains, whether to make decisions or exercise willpower or anything else, requires a lot of fuel that gets quickly depleted.  When our fuel is depleted, we go into passive mode and do things that don't require us to think or exercise control.  It can lead to overeating or staring brainlessly at the TV or playing Angry Birds or anything else that doesn't require us to control ourselves.

CDL wrote a post in response on the idea of habits.  Because habits are things we do automatically--without thought or effort--they are what we slip into when in depleted passive mode.  But passive habits don't have to be sitting around overeating while watching TV.  They can also be running or working in the garden or reading or just about anything else we want them to be, so long as we take the time to train ourselves enough that they become automatic and thoughtless.

In the same way, we can train ourselves to carry certain attitudes and reactions with us at all times that will shape how we perceive things.  This is the idea that hasn't completely gelled yet, the one I'll have to wait until later to expand.  But Brooks considers it in terms of a particular school his fictional character attends and how it helped her build character:

Life at the Academy meant following a thousand small rules.  Don't start eating until everybody at the cafeteria table is seated.  Always put your paper napkin on your lap first.  Always stand up when a teacher enters the room.  Never chew gum when you are in uniform, even if you're just walking home. . . . 

These thousand little rules became second nature to Erica, as to almost all the students. . . . 

These little routines were almost always about self-discipline in one way or another.  They were about delaying gratification or exercising some small act of self-control.  She didn't really think about them this way.  The rules were just the normal structure of life for a student such as herself.  But they had a pervasive effect on how she lived at school, eventually at home, and even on the tennis court. . . . 

She was using what you might call the Doctrine of Indirect Self-Control.  She was manipulating small things in order to trigger the right responses about the big things.


At 4/28/2012 12:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"So, if we want to have self-control and make decisions we are happy with, we must control the way we perceive things, and if we want to control the way we perceive things we must develop habits of action that direct our perceptions."

I think it's the exact opposite. I think you have to control your thoughts (perceptions) first. I know CS Lewis said something similar when he said that if you act like you love your neighbor, it will change your perception of him so you at least no longer hate him, and I've found that to be true. But you also can't fundamentally change yourself just by your actions, you have to address your thought habits first. You would have to decide to act as if you didn't hate your neighbor... And in some cases such as certain kinds of careers, acting a certain way even when it becomes a habit does not change the fact that they are the certain kind of person who chose that career, which might inherently demand some traits that are reprehensible to some acting like a "nice" person because they have to doesn't change the fact that they might be power-hungry, controlling, or something worse.
Sorry, it's too late at night for me to be either reading carefully or writing at all :)

At 5/01/2012 6:57 AM, Blogger Degolar said...

I think there's definitely an interplay between thought and action, a mutual influence back and forth, and sometimes it can be like the chicken and the egg. But the thing I found fascinating in this section is the idea of three steps to the decision making process and focusing on the first, that it's more effective to work to control our perception than reason or willpower.


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