I miss writing. i don’t know why I ever stopped. In elementary school I had a diary. In middle school I was temporarily vapid. In high school I wrote emo poetry AND had a livejournal. In undergrad I had a livejournal AND wrote for the school paper AND was a philosophy major, so, I guess that made up for the next 5 years (I refuse to believe I went temporarily vapid though this was probably true for at least a year or two).
There are a bunch of different topics I want to write about without being accountable for regular updates on said topics and yet still have some kind of readership that is not just the people I gchat with daily. I loved livejournal when my friends still used it because I could broadcast semi-private things and still feel engaged. Now it feels like it has to be facebook friendly or I have to keep it to myself. Pro-tip: keeping things to yourself mean the ideas just don’t really materialize.
And so I often ramble about things I have barely even thought about in conversation with people, as if I have given it great thought, because I just want to run with it, see what comes of it, see what reactions I elicit. Writing for me is about giving real thought to things. Larry King has said “I never learned anything while I was talking” and I think this is true, but he’s contrasting it to listening. I’d say it’s true in contrast to writing, too. In fact, I often learn more writing than I do reading. It’s just so easy to glaze over things and be a passive consumer. This is what I fight constantly in our digital age.
Writing is putting yourself out there. It’s one thing to retweet or reshare or like or favorite or recommend or whatever-is-not-your-own-content something. And how easy it is — during your lunch break you might have ‘read’ and shared 12 different articles, all of which have been instantly reshared and are generating some kind of buzz, some kind of conversation. And perhaps it’s a deep conversation, but many times it’s just as shallow as the title itself, and no one’s willing to stand behind a point because, well, we’re multifaceted and so the author made this point that is interesting (don’t you love that word?) but you know, you might have some different ideas.
But what are your ideas? I’d love to hear them. Because as much as I love professional idea-givers, at least the good ones, I miss dialogue. And frankly, I don’t need to be web-hip to have a conversation. So I am tumbling this shit and I hope you will join me.
As soon as I was old enough to meaningfully think about death, it freaked me out. I tried to imagine what “nothingness” is. I imagined pitch black infinity. I imagined the past infinity before I was born, and the future infinity that would ensue after I died. It was an existential crisis, but it was more than that. It came to define how I approached everything I cared about, and that was: to work hard enough at things so I didn’t lose them. To borrow an idea from Milan Kundera, the ‘lightness’ of life terrified me, and I required the ‘weight’ of relationships to keep me grounded.
The idea of humans living forever is categorically rejected by society. By definition, it seems. We’re mere mortals. Our death, as much as our life, has come to define us. Every one of us has an expiration date, and with this, we believe, comes the motivation to accomplish what we can in the short period of time we have here on earth.
The inevitability of death has permeated our culture so deeply that if you tell the average person “Hey! We might be able to live forever” their response isn’t one of curiosity, or of wonder. No, the response is “Now why would I want to do that?”
What strikes me as odd about this general response is that it seems to reflect this idea that we already live long enough, and people want to get it over with. In a sense, it’s as if people’s lives aren’t fulfilling enough or happy enough to keep them going indefinitely, or infinitely. Given the option to continue living, or to die, many people seem to want to peace out.
Wait, but isn’t that, like, suicide?
I think the larger sociological and psychological implications of something like the singularity is to think long and hard about the quality of life. The very fact that society isn’t embracing the possibility of living forever, or at least, much, much longer, with open arms, appears to be symptomatic of a kind of depression.
Aubrey de Grey also has an interesting TED talk regarding this, and why all y’all are crazy: http://www.ted.com/talks/aubrey_de_grey_says_we_can_avoid_aging.html
“We remain unknown to ourselves, we seekers after knowledge, even to ourselves: and with good reason.” — Friedrich Nietzsche
This quotation from Nietzsche gets at three ideas: 1) that we remain unknown to ourselves 2) this occurs despite our attempts at introspection and self-knowledge, and 3) this occurs for good reason. In other words, humans seek self-knowledge, fail in their attempts, and this failure is probably a good thing.
This verbalizes an apparent tension within the psychological literature about human attempts at accurate self-knowledge versus self-serving ‘illusions.’ I believe this tension is a result of a person’s innate tendency to want to see him or herself in a positive light, in addition to the fact that this is only meaningful if the person also believes his or her self-perceptions are accurate. Thus, I believe that seeking self-knowledge actually aims to give meaning and support to already held (mostly positive) beliefs about one’s self. I believe that the desire to see one’s self favorably overrides the desire for self-knowledge, but that in general these two are in fact compatible. For example, self-serving biases are born that are resistant to negative feedback, such that the ‘real’ world is generally consistent with illusions we have about ourselves. Basically, I am in complete agreement with Nietzsche, taking ‘good reason’ to mean that some level of self-deception is necessary for mental health and happiness. Whether this is ‘good’ or not is of course a philosophical question that I will not take up here, but from a practical standpoint, it seems that some self-deception is desirable. I will first provide support for 1) and 2) by citing literature on automaticity, self-knowledge and self-presentation, and then I will argue for 3) primarily on the basis of health.
To demonstrate 1), I will talk about research that demonstrates how little people really know about themselves. An indirect consequence of the automaticity of human behavior is that we tend not to have conscious access to many of our beliefs and reasons for why we do things. This is for ‘good reason’ not just for the sake of positive illusions, as I will talk about later, but for the simple fact that we do not have the cognitive resources to be processing the world and making decisions in a controlled, conscious manner. Some examples of this automatic behavior are described by priming effects (Bargh, Chen & Burrows, 1996; Cooper & Cooper, 2002) such that people will actually respond to social cues, such as stereotypes of elderly people, by behaving in a manner consistent with them (walking slower) and people will actually become thirstier in response to subliminal stimuli depicting a Coca Cola can. Participants are probably not aware that they are walking slower than usual, let alone their reasons for it, and participants are not even aware of the stimuli that produced a thirst response. So much of our behavior is automatic, requiring little reflection, that it is no wonder why we may remain unknown to ourselves. Research using the IAT attempts to tap into beliefs that may be unavailable to people, such as automatic racial or gender preferences, that may be created over time in response to various social stimuli and cues. The fact that these attitudes can be formed unconsciously, and operate unconsciously, show that we do not have as much control over and access to our beliefs and behavior as we think.
Very generally speaking, Daryl Bem’s self-perception theory suggests that individuals attempt self-knowledge partially by making inferences from their own observable behavior, especially when internal cues are ambiguous and weak. The consequence is that humans actually have very little ‘direct’ access to their inner states, making self-knowledge a very difficult enterprise, and arbitrary in a lot of cases. Wilson & Kraft (1993) expand on how introspection might be arbitrary, not actually getting at true reasons for things, but what happens to be available at the time. The results of their study suggest that introspection about a relationship creates attitude change in a positive or negative direction depending on the available, accessible reasons. These data could be interpreted as challenging my thesis, because the attitude change is not always positive. It goes against intuition that people would actually modify their attitudes in a negative direction even when their initial affect was positive, and would then continue to hold these negative attitudes. But it makes sense if we take seriously the idea that people want to believe they have access to their true feelings about people and their true reasons for their behavior, and so if the most available and easy to verbalize reason suggests that their partner is unreliable, then they will moderate their attitudes in an effort to be consistent with what they perceive to be the truth.
This suggests that humans do have a real desire to get at the truth, to get at self-knowledge, but that they often fail due to cognitive heuristics and limitations. In addition, research indicates that people often (unknowingly) create conditions and process information in a way that distorts information in a self-serving manner. One example of this comes from research on self-handicapping. People are resistant to negative feedback, and this idea directed Berglas & Jones’ (1978) research. Basically, they hypothesized that people, in an effort to avoid negative feedback, would actually create conditions for themselves in which they were guaranteed to fail, such that any feedback would not be diagnostic of their true ability. This was observed in their male participants when they felt they were unlikely to succeed in a problem-solving task: they chose a performance-inhibiting drug rather than a performance-enhancing drug. This gives support to the idea that people actually avoid self-diagnostic information, which is in tension with the idea that people seek out self-knowledge. But they avoid it only when they fear it will indicate failure – and so it is consistent with my thesis that people want to view themselves favorably so long as they can also believe their views are relatively accurate. Test results that are believed to provide accurate feedback are threatening if the likelihood is that they will be negative, so the only way one has to avoid the implications of it are to believe the test is not diagnostic after all. And this can easily be done by self-handicapping strategies.
But Tucker, Vuchinich & Sobell (1981) provide data that may challenge Berglas & Jones findings. They found the self-handicapping strategy was only used when there was no performance-enhancing option available, and that when a performance-enhancing option was available, participants actually preferred that. Thus, it depends on the situation whether or not people are going to self-handicap. Even if studying increases diagnosticity of feedback, and thus the risk of failure that is indicative of a person’s true ability, people of course want to create situations that allow them to receive positive feedback. Even though it is unlikely that participants will do well on an insolvable intellectual test, if they receive positive feedback initially, they may feel that if they study materials then performance is something in their control. On the other hand, Berglas & Jones initial study did not provide this same kind of opportunity. Taking a performance-enhancing drug says nothing about the person’s ability, and so even if participants anticipated doing well on the task, that would provide little to no ego-boost. On the other hand, studying materials and then doing well might actually provide a sense of accomplishment.
Though Berglas & Jones’ findings indicate that desire for a positive self-image might actually lead to counterproductive behavior, distortion of information is not necessarily a bad thing. For example, Jansen, Smeets, Martijn and Nederkoorn (2006) suggest that when it comes to body-image, females with eating disorders may be more ‘accurate’ in their view of themselves, whereas females without eating disorders tend to show a body-image bias. Thus, it might be practically desirable to distort information about one’s self, guarding against possible psychological disorders.
There is plenty of empirical support for the presence of positive illusions. Studies done on mental health demonstrate the prevalence of positive illusions, detailing the positive effects they can have for mental health and physical health. For example, Murray, Holmes & Griffin (1996) have found that positive illusions in a romantic relationship can actually have a self-fulfilling effect – actually changing the reality of the situation rather than merely being at odds with it. In this case, then, it might be better to have positively distorted views about one’s partner than an accurate view, because this might actually help create the idealized image you have of them. Similarly, Taylor, Lerner, Sherman, Sage & McDowell (2003) have found that positive illusions about one’s self also is associated with healthier biological profiles, as measured by physiological assessments such as stress responses and cortisol levels.
However, illusions may not always be beneficial. Robins & Beer (2001) found that illusory beliefs about academic ability may prove beneficial in the short-term, but fail to predict higher academic performance or higher graduation rates. So even though the self-fulfilling nature of positive illusions has been demonstrated in romantic relationships (Murray, Holmes & Griffin, 1996), this is not always the case. Of course, access to one’s true academic ability (that is, no positive illusion) does not appear to have any positive long term effects either, so the usefulness of accurate self-knowledge is not supported.
Overall, findings in psychology provide support for the idea that we seek self-knowledge but are not so good at it. But if we seek self-knowledge, then why are we so bad at it, and why does it appear that we are actually trying to distort information? I hope I have answered these questions – that we are bad at it because of the automaticity of much of our attitudes and behavior, and that we distort information (unconsciously) because it is more important to maintain a positive view about one’s self than to maintain an accurate view about one’s self. Thus, the way we seek self-knowledge is already biased (unknowingly) such that introspection generally yields favorable results, but of course dooms the process of true self-knowledge. And this may be a good thing, to the extent that we care about things like happiness, self-esteem and longevity.
Unmodified essay written for my Advanced Social Psychology course in December 2006.