What experimental psychology has to say about personal development.
“With a shiver in my bones just thinking about the weather. A quiver in my voice as I cry: ‘what a cold and a rainy day. Where on earth is the sun hid away?’” — Natalie Merchant
Weathering the social climate of 2020 has taken its toll on our collective and individual conscience. Yet here we are.
Some are tired, while others inspired. Some are sad, and some are mad. But as the Sioux knew — our sunshine is not hidden inside a new social or political order. It’s inside us, which is the last place we’d think to look. And as we look within, we might actually find a way out.
At the risk of exercising my privilege, I simply want to say that, as a social being, I no longer care about your values. I no longer care about your political affiliation. Political loyalty is forged upon an inherited belief system, which in essence is nothing but a framework built of thought.
As a psychological being, however, I recognize that attachment to my thoughts does the real damage — and not the beliefs themselves. Attachment to beliefs can lead to an angry, urgent defense that motivates a spectrum of behavior ranging from social media insults to armed civil conflict.
The Intersection of Thoughts, Feelings, and Actions
Personality psychology, a branch of general psychology, through its endless number of categorical checklists (are you an INTP or an ENFJ?), has led the public to believe that traits are fixed and that behavior is stable over time.
An unfortunate outcome of personality-driven psychology is the belief that people do not change — that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, that liberals will always be like this, and conservatives will always be like that.
If people are stable and do not change, then of course force is necessary. This may be the key to understanding the no good, horrible year of 2020.
Compared to personality psychology, experimental psychology tells a different story. Summarizing close to a century of research, cognitive scientist Dan Dennett demonstrated how neural circuitry in brain centers responsible for thought are subject to “constant editorial revision” as a result of experience. Dennett and other scientists have also shown how negative emotions like fear, disgust, and anger can disrupt the revision process and result in retaining rather than changing beliefs.
What is 2020 if not a year of angrily clashing ideologies? How will we ever learn to cooperate if we don’t learn how change truly occurs?
To effectively progress toward an ideal society that celebrates vitality in its most fundamental form — the right of a soul to express itself — we need to examine our predicament through a bottom-up, inside-out psychological framework because the social thought on display in 2020 has proven to be insufficient.
Not unimportant. Just insufficient.
Instead, we may benefit from looking more closely at the origins and intersections of the thoughts, feelings, and actions that form our psyche—with special attention given to thought.
Thought has no physical form, yet it animates our personal experience, bringing the world around us into focus. Try to experience something internal (e.g., sadness) or external (e.g., an opera) without thinking about it. Now try to think about something without an associated feeling.
Humans can only experience events via thought, or what visionary poet William Blake (and later the philosopher Aldous Huxley) called the “doors of perception.” In a nutshell, what we know (or believe) at any given point in time shapes how our world appears to us.
To see jealousy in another is to know, or to have experienced envy. To sense love in another is to have known love. To see anything in the world requires perception, or the process of making meaning out of experience.
Without a psychological model of change to propel both individual and collective evolution, we risk getting stuck on the idea that society as a whole must be the mover of change, or that a president or political party is responsible for change—a task that instead falls on each of us.
When thinking about 2020 leads to anxiety, it is important to practice observing the thoughts that comprise our beliefs rather than the all-too-common instinct of attaching ourselves to them.
The Problem of Attachment to Thought
Do people believe that black lives matter? Yes. Do people believe that blue, white, and green lives matter? Yes. Might these messages differ in terms of their implications? Most certainly, yes.
What the “life matters” sentiments share (as do all beliefs), is that both reflect an individual and pseudo-collective framework (the term pseudo recognizes as false the idea that others can share most or all of our beliefs. Individual thought, like a fingerprint, is unique).
The reality of whether life matters or not, however, is a completely different issue than the belief that certain lives matter. In plain sight, attachment to an inherited sociopolitical belief system pits universal human ethics against ideological debate — as if the latter is more important than the former. In this sense, it is easy to see how attachment to belief leads to a great deal of confusion, notable in those who feel it necessary to counter black lives matter with “all lives matter.”
If we turn inward, then we are more likely to find the answers we hope to get from out there. Look around — or better yet, look in the mirror. There is your savior. You’re the hero that society needs.
We each have beautiful and horrible things inside us. But watch children play and within minutes it becomes clear that beauty came first, and that the horrible things came later, and from experience. Carried through time, the memories of difficult experiences (or any experience for that matter) can weigh heavily on our current beliefs, emotions, and behaviors.
Regardless of a total objective reality, which (I’m sorry, science) we will never find, the world will always appear as simple or as complicated as we believe it to be. This does not mean that we can “believe” away racism and hatred. What it means is that racism and hatred, and a thousand other social constructs, originate in the primordial soup of human perception.
Sadly, all human thought is subject to bias — in all cases, without exception — as species-specific survival machinery. We stereotype and harbor prejudice because it helped homo sapiens survive. We discriminate because it helped homo sapiens survive in times of scarcity.
Therefore, it is our beliefs that need examination. Not our collective beliefs, but those personal frameworks that emanate from social conditioning (i.e., the things you learned throughout your development).
This is not a chicken-or-egg problem. Individual psychology trumps, and therefore creates, our shared social reality. Like a million little pixels, human beings combine to create an unending amount of social programming.
The Change That 2020 Truly Needs
Each individual who has affected a large-scale change had done so in the interest of their own conscious evolution — forces strong enough to compel the actor without regard to their survival.
Biographies of activists like John Lewis, Martin Luther King, Abbie Hoffman, and Malcolm X (to name a conspicuous few) are filled with evidence that the catalyst for change was their rejection of presiding collectivist thought and the movement of their souls to action.
As we sit here awash in clichés about 2020, our souls can move us toward similar actions, but only if we listen for the signal through the noise of instinct— those lower-brain functions that tell us to fight or flee from those we were trained to see as different. Different flags. Different combinations of melanin. But nothing truly important to justify the premeditated division of a species that evolved, cooperatively, over hundreds of thousands of years.
With impunity, our beliefs justify a range of nasty behavior —from victimized liberals who mock the intelligence of conservatives to the proud libertarians who reach for their AR-15 rifles. In the throes of political thought wars, we rarely stop to ask, where did I get these ideas? What if they’re wrong?
When our coaches called us names to motivate our performance, and when our fathers scolded displays of emotion — not once did we give our consent. As such, their beliefs slowly crept into our minds like a Trojan Horse responsible for a fatal coup d’etat on our psyche.
From a basic developmental perspective, our beliefs came first from our caregivers and families and then from the influential few leading our schools and communities. Next, they came from Oprah and Netflix and your college buddy Mike. They came from Matthew McConaughey, Cher, Scott Baio, Charlton Heston, and Billie Eilish. And the list of teachers continues, like a hall of mirrors extending infinitely through time. No one is immune to outside influence, yet only a small few recognize their responsibility to question beliefs — an instinct of the soul.
To make profound change, we must not deny an important fact: that without exception, other people passed to us their values in the hopes that their beliefs become ours. And as we embrace the immutable psychological principles that explain the origin of beliefs, then we might see — so obviously in plain sight — that we suffer only to the extent that we fail to question our teachers, and we suffer further when we fail to grow curious about what we think we know.
Our mind weakens further as we, the people — the unwitting targets of someone else’s lessons — so desperately attach ourselves to beliefs. Yet when we question our learning, we raise our consciousness and the mind grows larger, more expansive, and most certainly more in control.
And we evolve together.
Let us care not of beliefs, but of souls — that bright light of consciousness that is immune to conditioning and immune to hate.
In the words of Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī: “Out beyond ideas of right-doing and wrong-doing, there is a field. I’ll meet you there.”
I will strive to see the world through, and despite, my beliefs. I’d love it if you would, too.
Mind Cafe’s Reset Your Mind: A Free 10-Day Email Course
We’re offering a free course to all of our new subscribers as a thank you for your continued support. When you sign up using this link, we’ll send you tips on how to boost mental clarity and focus every two days.