Motivation, perception and memory

We rely on our perception – our senses – to keep us aware of what’s going on around us. What we perceive through our senses is the raw data for our cognition, which is the sense we make of that raw data. Cognition is an individual thing. Two or more people may witness the same event and come away with different versions of what happened.

Memory isn’t like a tape recorder that accurately records all the events we witness or experience. It’s affected by many factors, one of which is your motivations (if any) regarding the event.  When I studied perceptual psychology in grad school, I learned the principle “motivation affects perception.” What you want – if only at that moment – affects what you see and hear. What we’re motivated to think or believe, for whatever reasons, unconsciously affects our perceptions. This determines what we subsequently think or believe about the event or situation, shaping our memory of it. For example, if a foul is called on your team at a sporting event, you’re more likely to perceive that it was a bad call than if you were rooting for the other team. If you witnessed a car crash in which friends were injured or killed, you’re more likely to perceive – and recall – that the driver of the other car was at fault. It’s human nature.

In grad school I audited a perceptual psychology course taught by a husband and wife team (Dr.s Fred and Anne Richards) who had co-authored with another psychologist an authoritative textbook on the subject. They were excellent teachers, but free expression by students was encouraged in the psychology department, and some of the students took exception to our professors’ habit of responding to questions about perceptual phenomena with “according to the book _____.” Fred and Anne didn’t seem to “get” the objection, and continued to refer to their book in response to questions.

So, one day before class a student I’ll call Steve asked if he could have the last fifteen minutes of the session, and Fred and Anne graciously agreed. At the appointed time, Steve led us outside, where a friend had been tending a hibachi grill filled with burning charcoal. Steve asked for silence until we returned to the classroom, and proceeded to burn a copy of the textbook before our startled  eyes. I recall a wide variety of reactions, from shocked looks and gasps, to laughter. We returned to the classroom and had the best discussion I remember in the whole course. What we learned was that no two of us who’d witnessed the book-burning had had the same experience! Some had responded viscerally (“I can’t believe I’m WATCHING A BOOK-BURNING!”), some had appreciated Steve’s statement in different ways, and others felt concerned about Fred and Anne’s feelings, as they conjectured about what those might be. I think it’s fair to say that our teachers were stunned, but they handled the event with grace, and we all learned something from it.

Motivation affects both our cognitions and our subsequent recall. Juries in criminal courts tend to be impressed by eye-witness testimony, but trial  lawyers know well how unreliable it can be. Whether one’s motivations come from underlying attitudes, beliefs, and personal values relevant to the issues at hand, or conscious bias, or personal relationships involved, they affect perception and all that follows. The emotions that may be attached to events and situations also affect our memories at an unconscious level. Jerzy Kosinski put it this way: “What we remember lacks the hard edge of fact. To help us along, we create little fictions, highly subtle and elaborate scenarios which clarify and shape our experience. The remembered event becomes a fiction, a structure made to accommodate certain feelings.”

In prior posts I’ve written about cognitive and cognitive behavioral therapy, and will be writing more as I continue to review theories and therapies. Our cognitions aggregate into beliefs, whether or not those  cognitions were logical or rational. These therapies help people to become more aware of their thoughts and beliefs, and to distinguish between those that are rational and those that aren’t. To understand human behavior, it’s important to grasp that what we see and hear is affected by what we want. I submit that a baker, a painter, and a starving man, seeing the same loaf of bread, see different things. What we bring to a situation partly determines what we take from it.

James Taylor wrote: “Painters use their eyes to show us what they see/ But when that canvas dries, we all see it differently.”

Trains of thought

In my last post I said I’d explore how an initial irrational thought can lead to a train of connected irrational thoughts, expanding from incident-specific to generalized irrational thoughts. Thinking this way doesn’t help you to feel the way you’d like to feel, or to act wisely.

I used to lead a psychoeducational group (as opposed to a process group) called Skills for Recovery at South Carolina’s largest psychiatric hospital. When I taught my module on rational thinking and irrational trains of thought, I’d draw a crude train on the whiteboard as I taught the concepts. I started by drawing a rectangle on “wheels” on the right-hand side of the board, adding a smokestack and a triangular cowcatcher to distinguish it as the locomotive. Then (right-to-left) I’d draw several more rectangles on wheels – boxcars – behind the locomotive. Inside the locomotive rectangle I’d write Activating Event, then I’d write Thought 1, Thought 2, Thought 3, etc. in the boxcars (right-to-left). My standard rap on trains of thought went something like this:

Trains can take you places, hopefully places you want to go. Trains of thought can also take you places. If your thoughts remain rational, your trains of thought  will take you in positive directions. If they’re irrational, they’re likely to take you places you don’t want to go. Take Luke for example. He’s between girlfriends and looking for a new one. He fancies himself a pretty good dancer, and likes to hang out at dance bars and clubs. He’s attracted to Lucy and has seen her out on the dance floor with different men. He works up the courage to approach her at the bar, introduces himself, and asks her if she’d like to dance. She says “No thanks,” gives no qualifiers or explanations, and walks away. Luke isn’t sure how to read her Mona Lisa smile.

Luke’s first thought is rational. “I’m disappointed that she doesn’t want to dance with me.” If he remains rational, he might think “I don’t know why she turned me down. I probably never will, and that’s okay. It may not have anything to do with me, personally. I’ll find someone who wants to dance with me before the evening’s over. And even if I don’t, it’s not the end of the world.” If, instead, Luke has a gut reaction and starts thinking irrationally, his thinking might go in either of two directions: what’s wrong with her, or what’s wrong with me? If he boards the former irrational train, he might conclude that (T1) she’s either a lesbian, or that (T2) she’s stuck-up and thinks she’s too good for him. After another drink, he might start to generalize that (T3) all women are like that, thinking they’re better than us, and that (T4) they’re all stuck-up bitches who don’t know a real man when they see one. Luke’s behavioral response to these angry thoughts is to get hammered.

Luke may instead think of his rejection by Lucy as proof that there’s something wrong with him. He might jump to the conclusion that (T1) she turned him down because she doesn’t find him attractive – which may or may not be the case. He’ll probably never find out, but irrational thinkers with low self-esteem tend not to give themselves the benefit of the doubt on such self-judgments. Luke may think that (T2) he was foolish to ask Lucy to dance in the first place; he should have known she’d turn him down. He may convince himself that (T3) there’s no point in asking any other woman to dance, because she’d just turn him down like Lucy did. Riding that irrational train of thought, he might generalize that (T4) he’s just not attractive to women. From there he might label himself (T5) a pitiful Loser who will never find love, and leaving the club thinking suicidal thoughts.

Suicide is a mood-specific behavior; people never try to kill themselves because they’re elated. Some impulsive suicide attempts are triggered by a train of irrational thoughts, culminating in the irrational belief that suicide is the “solution” to the present conflict or problem. This kind of irrational thinking can be fatal. Suicide hotlines have saved innumerable lives by engaging people who are in crisis in compassionate dialogue until the suicidal mood passes.

Trains of irrational thought are perpetuated when we don’t recognize them as such, and ruminate on them. Situational depressions can be drawn out by dwelling on negative thoughts. If you should catch yourself ruminating on negative thoughts, learn to identify and challenge them. Luke might challenge his persistent thoughts that he’s a pitiful Loser in this manner: “Is it a fact or do I just feel that way? If it’s a fact, what’s the proof? Some pretty women have been attracted to me, and I don’t even know if Lucy turned me down because she doesn’t find me attractive. I have friends who believe in me and don’t think I’m a Loser. Loser is just a word, anyway. I’m not a Loser! Like everyone else, sometimes I win and sometimes I lose. Anyway, sitting here staring at the floor and feeling sorry for myself isn’t helping anything. I need to go for a run.”

Negative, irrational thinking and ruminations can be a “rehearsal for failure,” while riding rational trains of thought can be a “rehearsal for success.” People  who become mindful students of their own thinking can eventually become experts on their own thinking and where it typically takes them. They can avoid the traps of irrational thinking and ride trains of thought that take them to chosen destinations. Cognitive and cognitive behavioral therapies resonate with the buddhist teaching that all suffering arises from our attachment to things – in this case to irrational thoughts and expectations. Irrational thoughts often lead to irrational decisions and behaviors, based on false assumptions. Becoming a rational thinker means learning to spot and challenge your irrational thoughts before you act on them. It gets easier with practice.

 

Rational thinking

My therapeutic orientation was existential and I was trained in a humanistic psychology program, but as I told both clients and colleagues, if I had a Gospel to preach in my clinical practice it was the Gospel of Rational Thinking. It’s a learnable skill and I wish it was a standard part of the public school curriculum; but the corporate state wants the public education system to turn out conditioned consumers, not independent thinkers. Independent thinkers are as hard to herd as cats. I’ve practiced and taught rational thinking for decades. Being able to spot my irrational thoughts before acting on  them has kept me from making innumerable mistakes and spared me a lot of unnecessary pain over the years. (I actually met Dr. Albert Ellis, creator of Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy, at a professional conference. I’ll tell you more about him in a later post.) Rational thinking is an important component of cognitive and cognitive behavioral therapies, whether irrational thoughts are labeled as thinking errors or as irrational self-talk. The wisdom of rational thinking correlates to the teachings of buddhism and to the Serenity Prayer. It’s a learning program that teaches people how to think rationally, without telling you what to think. It’s the opposite of  – and the antidote to – indoctrination.

We all engage in self-talk, our constant mental monologue, judging and labeling and making choices throughout our waking hours. Some self-talk is innocuous, but other self-talk carries a lot of weight and guides our subsequent behavior. Some of it is rational, but some is irrational – for all of us, even psychologists. In my experience most people can’t always tell the difference between their rational and irrational thoughts, and sometimes suffer painful or destructive consequences from their irrational thinking. Rational self-talk helps us to feel the way we want to feel and accomplish what we want to accomplish. Irrational self-talk leads to avoidable negative emotional states (anxiety, depression, anger) and undermines our ability to function at our best.

Many irrational thoughts are characterized by the words “always” and “never,” “should/shouldn’t” and “must.” Some examples: “I should always make a good impression on people.” “Things never go my way.” “I’ll never succeed in life.” “I shouldn’t ever let down my guard around people. They always take advantage of you.” “Life should be fair.” “I must get this promotion!” When people think irrationally, they set themselves up for disappointment, or worse, when things don’t go as they’d hoped.

At times we all wish the world was fair. But it isn’t, and thinking that it “should be” doesn’t help anyone. You might not always succeed at things you really want to succeed at, but that doesn’t make you a “failure” or a “loser.” If we tell ourselves that we’ll “never” get over a loss, we’re programming ourselves to suffer endlessly. If we expect to “always” perform optimally in interpersonal situations, we’re not allowing for the fact that we’re all flawed human beings. To err is human, and to expect perfection, or to always succeed at everything we do, is to court disappointment. Great expectations can lead to great disappointment, and moderate expectations to moderate disappointment. But if you engage in an enterprise because you feel it’s the right thing to do, with no specific expectations pinned to the outcome, you can’t be disappointed.

Here are some categories of typical irrational thoughts: Catastrophizing is imagining that worst-case scenarios are likely outcomes. Minimization is wearing blinders that don’t let you see your own strengths, or the positive potentials in a situation. Grandiosity is feeling superior, having an exaggerated sense of self-importance or ability. Personalization is when someone thinks “It’s all about me.” Thinking you’re the center of the universe. Magical thinking is characterized by acting ritualistically, as if a ritual behavior will bring about a desired outcome. Leaps in logic have to do with jumping to conclusions not based on evidence. Mindreading means attributing motives for a person’s behavior without evidence. “I know why he did that!” All-or-nothing thinking is the inability to see any shades of gray between poles of black and white. Paranoia is characterized by unjustified suspiciousness and feelings of persecution.

I’ll be writing more about mindfulness over time but, suffice it to say for now, one kind of mindfulness is paying close attention to your self-talk and where it takes you, emotionally and behaviorally. With practice, you can learn to immediately distinguish your irrational thoughts from your rational thoughts. In cognitive therapy, when you identify an irrational thought, you learn to frame a challenge to that thought. An example: “I may have lost out on that promotion, but that doesn’t mean I’m a loser.”

I used to teach clients a method called a “4-Step Check” to help them learn to spot and counter their irrational thoughts. After an upsetting event, you analyze it in writing. (1) Event. Describe what happened. (2) How I felt. This might include multiple emotions. (3) What I did.  What would a videocam have recorded? (4) What was/were my irrational thought(s). With enough practice writing 4-Step Checks, spotting irrational thoughts eventually becomes automatic, and you don’t have to do them on paper anymore.

Here’s an example of a 4-Step Check by Charles, an alcoholic in early recovery: (1) Jim, my new AA sponsor, promised to pick me up at 7:30 sharp for an 8:00 meeting across town that he knew was important for me. When he hadn’t shown up by 7:45, I hailed a cab. (2) I felt desperate and alone in the world. I got angrier every minute Jim was late. (3) I kept looking at my watch, sometimes several times a minute.  I paced back and forth on the sidewalk, cursing. I kicked a dog. (4) I should never have asked Jim to be my sponsor. He’s doesn’t really care what happens to me. He’s a selfish, unreliable bastard! You just can’t rely on anyone. I should just go to a bar instead of paying for a taxi to get to the meeting.

As it turned out, Jim showed up late to the meeting and afterwards apologized sincerely, explaining why his tardiness had been unavoidable. So Jim did his 4-Step and was able to spot his irrational thoughts and how they were related to his emotions of the moment. You may have noticed that Charles’ initial irrational thoughts were specifically related to Jim’s failure to show up when he said he would. But then he starts to generalize, telling himself that people aren’t reliable and that working on recovery is useless – a rationalization for relapse. This is an example of how an irrational thought can lead to a progressively irrational train of thoughts, going from specific to generalized irrational thinking. None of these thoughts can help Charles to feel the way he’d like to feel or to help him achieve his goals.

Any irrational self-talk statement can be challenged by asking, “How do I know that to be true? What is my proof?” In my decades as a therapist I urged many clients to “become a student of your own thinking.” Every day holds new opportunities to learn about yourself, if you pay attention. In time you start to see the patterns of your own irrational self-talk, and you internalize the 4-Step Check. Spotting irrational thoughts becomes a learned reflex and voila!, you’re a rational thinker. In my next post I’ll get into “trains of thought” that take people to places they don’t need to go.

 

My psychology grad school reunion

I’ve already written about humanistic psychology as the “third force” in twentieth century psychology, after Freudian psychodynamic theory and behaviorism. I recently attended a reunion of my psychology graduate program at the University of West Georgia (West Georgia College when I attended), and I’d like to share with you some of the reasons I’m so thankful for my preparation as a psychotherapist in this particular program.

Dr. Chris Aanstoos, a faculty member for over two decades, wrote that the graduates of the program have gone on to be “not only psychologists and professors, but also city commissioners, college presidents, U.S. congressmen, computer wizards and millionaires, as well as poets, magicians, mystics, theologians and farmers. Essentially they have gone on to become themselves.” To which list I’ll add corporate consultants, business entrepreneurs, and all sorts of holistic healers.

Part of the lyric of the Crosby, Stills, and Nash song Teach Your Children is “. . . and so become yourself/ because the past is just a goodbye.” Their are forces in our society that conspire to make us conform, to be “normal.” Becoming your authentic self and living up to your unique potentials was what the West Georgia psychology department was all about. The program wasn’t organized so much to train you for a specific profession as to help you discover and realize your potentials, and to find your vocation – your calling. Since the inception of the humanistic program in 1967, it’s always been a program freed from the conventional stereotypes of the day, and in it I learned that no scientific or therapeutic model has all the answers for everybody. I learned about holistic health long before it caught on.

The WG psychology program is characterized by cultural diversity (i.e. both Eastern and Western psychologies) and innovation, and was ahead of its time in many respects. Carl Rogers’ client-centered therapy is being re-discovered in the corporate world as person-centered management. Yoga and meditation were validated as ancient transformative psychotechnologies – ways of re-wiring the brain – long before they went mainstream. There was an emphasis on wellness, and the holistic unity of body and mind.

While I received an excellent preparation for a career as a psychotherapist dealing with (for the most part) chronically mentally ill persons, psychopathology wasn’t the primary focus. We also studied creativity, and barriers to achieving one’s highest potentials. We questioned the notion of “adjustment therapy,” asking, “adjustment to what?” (See my prior post, “Who is normal?”) Behavioral psychology was the dominant force in psychology at that time, and the medical model was the unquestioned basis for determining diagnosis and treatment.

No faculty member ever told me what model I should follow or recommended which therapeutic techniques I should use. Although behavioral psychology wasn’t popular in the program, over the years I became a practitioner of cognitive and cognitive behavioral therapies, along with Rogerian,  gestalt, and other therapeutic modalities. My faculty advisor never advised me; he dialogued with me about goals, choices, opportunities. My love of learning caught fire as never before, because I was encouraged to think for myself and choose my own path.

The man who made the WGC psychology department into a humanistic program was Dr. Mike Aarons, and at the reunion I finally heard the full story that I’d heard pieces of over the years. As a child in public school, he was labeled “unteachable/retarded,” and wasn’t expected to be able to complete high school. But he earned a high school diploma and went on to college. Working as a cab driver, he found a book someone had left on the back seat of his taxi. It was Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, and it changed his life. (See my post, “Freedom of attitude.”) It introduced him to existentialist  psychology, and he found a French mentor in existentialism who encouraged him to apply to the psychology PhD program at the Sorbonne University, in Paris. Mike had no bankroll and spoke no French, but that didn’t stop him. Long story short, he returned from Paris a few years later with a French wife and a PhD from the Sorbonne. His dissertation was on the topic of creativity. He went on to post-graduate studies with Abraham Maslow, at Brandeis University.

Dr. Jim Thomas, a behaviorist in the WG psychology department, had read Carl Rogers and Abraham Maslow, and had a vision of  establishing a humanistic program in the department. He won over some of the other faculty members, then wrote Maslow, asking if he could recommend someone to start a humanistic psychology program. To everyone’s surprise, Maslow answered, recommending Mike Aarons without  reservation.  Mike was hired and set about recruiting a faculty on the cutting edge of the humanistic psychology revolution. The rest is history.

Not only has the UWG psychology department continued to offer an exceptional education in psychology, it has continued to grow. While a Master of Arts (MA) degree remains the only masters degree available for now, the department now offers a Bachelor of Science (BS) degree program. What used to be a Doctor of Psychology (PsyD) degree program is now a PhD program.

The department has drawn students from all over the country – as well as many international students – to the Georgia town of Carrollton. The question I heard most often at the reunion was “What brought you to the program?” I heard story after story about so-called coincidences, “accidental” meetings, and things (usually books) found – like Mike Aarons finding the copy of Man’s Search for Meaning – that pointed people in the direction of the program. What I also heard a lot over the weekend was expressions of gratitude by alumni for having had the good fortune to study in this unique psychology department.

Anger management

I’ve taught anger management to groups of police officers, incarcerated felons, Marine drill instructors, and school teachers, as well as to many individuals – some of them referred by the Family Court. A lot of people with anger problems are highly resistant to attending anger management classes or counseling sessions, so I’ve had to learn how to get past people’s defenses if I was going to help them.

My definition of anger management took a lot of people by surprise. “Anger management,” I’d say, “doesn’t mean that you don’t get angry anymore, or that you can control when you get angry. Everybody gets angry, and sometimes anger can be a good thing. Anger management simply means that no matter how angry you feel, you can still make good decisions and you don’t do things you’ll have reasons to regret later. It means that you don’t let your anger control you.”

Nobody has absolute control over their emotions. Sometimes we feel carried away by them; it’s part of the human condition. People aren’t accountable for what they think  and feel, but for what they do. In certain situations, like combat, anger may help you to survive. But if your anger creates problems in your life, you can learn to stay in control of your behavior when angry. In order to do this you first need to understand some things about how your anger affects you: your personal triggers and cues, and your choices.

The roots of anger in childhood. You’re less likely to have anger problems if you grew up in an environment where your primary role models practiced anger management. Some parents know the right words to say to their kids: “Just because you’re angry at your brother, that doesn’t give you permission to hit him.” But role modeling works better than lecturing, and if adults can’t practice what they preach, their children learn more from what they do than from what they say. If you grew up with physical or emotional or sexual abuse, you’re not necessarily destined to have anger problems, but it’s more likely that you will. Bad tempers aren’t an inherited trait; but if you have one, you probably came by it honestly. If we were taught by our social environment that violence is a solution to interpersonal conflicts, we need to learn that there are better solutions.

Abraham Maslow said that if the only tool you have is a hammer, you’re likely to treat every problem as a nail. Some people learn to rely on anger and physically- or verbally-aggressive behavior, using intimidation tactics and threats to get their way, and resorting to violence when they don’t. Sometimes people take out their anger, not on the person who triggered it, but on those weaker than themselves. Dad yells at Mom, then Mom smacks Junior, who kicks the dog. It’s called displacement.

Triggers. The first step in learning anger management is to be aware when you’re angry. This may sound elementary, but often people who are angry are focused on externals, not on their here-and-now feelings. “I’m not ANGRY, you messed up!” People have different triggers for anger, and awareness of your triggers can help you to own what you’re feeling right now, and take those feelings into account when you choose how to respond to the situation. Sometimes the best thing to say is something like, “Look, I’m just too angry to continue this now. Give me time to chill and we can take up where we left off.” Personal insults, taunts, or sarcasm may or may not be triggers for you. Tone and loudness of voice, and body language, may be triggers if they remind you of someone with similar features. Situations (i.e. traffic jams) can be triggers. We all have identifiable triggers, and it helps to know what they are.

Cues are physical sensations we predictably experience when we’re in a specific emotional state, although a focus on the triggering experience might eclipse our awareness of our subjective state. Common cues for anger are a rapid heartbeat, heavy or rapid breathing, tensed muscles, a flushed face, and an adrenaline rush. Awareness of your cues in the here-and-now can help you to recognize and own your anger, and make good decisions despite it.

Owning your anger means not blaming others, or external circumstance like traffic jams, for what you feel. As a therapist I’ve encountered many people who typically, reflexively blamed others for their feelings, rather than owning them. “You make me so angry when you talk to me that way” is a cop-out, a manipulation. If others are responsible for your anger, then they need to change their behavior to stop “making you mad.” The idea that others will always have the power to make you mad puts you at a disadvantage in relationships. It’s much more rational to think of it as, “When you talk to me that way, I get angry.” If you don’t own your anger, you give away your personal power. If you own your anger, you can learn how to make decisions you can live with, no matter how angry you are at the time.

Physical anger management.  Here are some suggestions for physical things you can do to deal with angry feelings. (1) Vote with your feet. Walk away from the triggering situation, if that’s an option. Stay away until you calm down. (2) Slow your breathing. You don’t have an on/off switch for your anger, but breathing slowly has a physiological calming effect. (3) Physicalize your anger. Once you have the opportunity, release your anger by exerting yourself in harmless ways: do pushups, run, shadowbox, work out on a punching bag, or whale away at your bed with a pillow.

Mental anger management. In teaching anger management, I’ve compared anger to building a campfire. You can’t start one without an initial flame or spark, and once it’s started you need to keep adding fuel, or it will go out. First you ignite twigs from the spark, then you throw branches on the blaze, then logs. Anger is like that. It starts with a spark (trigger) and needs fuel to grow. The fuel that’s required for momentary anger to grow into a rage is angry thoughts. All people engage in self-talk. Some of it helps us to feel compassion for others and to make rational decisions, some of it can lead us to do irrational things that we’ll regret later. Rational self-talk (“She didn’t mean to hurt my feelings.”) can extinguish a blaze of anger, while irrational self-talk (“He needs to get his butt kicked!”) can turn a spark into a bonfire. Rational thinking will be a continuing topic here. It’s a cornerstone of cognitive therapy.