The foundations of personal change

How do we change as people? Why do we change as people? This work is intended to be an earnest discussion of the realities of personal change. As examples I have included some of my personal experiences of change.

I start off with a  look at cognitive dissonance, and then move on to personal change through: trust, choice, experience, statistics, and motivation. Along the way I touch on a number of factors that can hamper change, including the important discrepancy between personal experience and statistics.

Dissonance

I think my use of the term dissonance is slightly different from its common use. I define dissonance as the emotional/intellectual state that comes about because of a difference between different cognitive entities. These entities include personal experience, belief systems, and choices. Two kinds of dissonance are discussed here: action dissonance and experience dissonance.

Action Dissonance

One type of dissonance occurs when your actions are not in alignment with your beliefs. This sort of dissonance often makes a person wish to avoid doing or thinking about the action or inaction around which the dissonance is centered. For change to occur, the person must have the courage to face the disconnect and remedy it. Either by modifying behavior to bring it into alignment with beliefs, or bringing beliefs into alignment with behavior.

I have personally experienced this dissonance at many points in my life. My main example will be when I struggled with the life choice of education vs job. I have struggled with this choice at several points in my life. I believed that I needed to be practical, so I should get a job. This would allow me to help myself as well as my family and friends. On the other hand, I really wanted to learn more and invest in myself as a person.

The most serious dissonance I experienced on this subject was in 2007 shortly after I graduated with my computer science and mathematics degrees. I looked for a job for most of a summer before deciding that I would definitely go back to school to pursue the knowledge that I really wanted. During my job search I constantly struggled to reshape myself so that I would literally “want to work”. These efforts didn’t work, and thanks to a lot of introspection, I eventually turned my back on the workforce and threw myself into school. I am very happy that I did so, and have continued to pursue school and knowledge over money. Thanks to student loans and help from others, I have avoided being destitute so far in my scholarly career.

Experience Dissonance

Another concept that I tend to refer to as ‘dissonance’ is the state of disconnect between a person’s beliefs about the way the world is, and what their experiences tell them about the way the world is. I claim that there is a state that people can end up in where they are clinging to a belief in the face of substantial experiential evidence that refutes that belief. I believe that this state makes it more difficult to live with happiness and without stress. I believe an elastic band is a good metaphor for this, because I believe that a person can be stretched painfully by their attempt to hold beliefs that are very different from what their experience has taught them.

Later on, I get into more specific ways that people maintain a belief system that is out of sync with the real world. If you want a head start on the topic, you can skim the wiki on confirmation bias. The gist is that people may be relatively unaware of the fact that their beliefs are not congruent with reality. Humans are very good at seeing the patterns that we want to, and rationalizing away the experiences/data that don’t agree with our preconceptions.

I personally have experienced this type of dissonance in my life several times. I have found that the best starting point is being honest with myself. I have found that honesty and courage have led me to understanding the disconnects between my beliefs and experience, and in so doing learn how to bring them into alignment. Alignment can be achieved either by a modification of beliefs, a re-interpretation of experience, or a more general perspective that includes the former beliefs as a subset of a larger, more complete and inclusive picture of how the world works.

One of my professors in university taught a concept called the supra-ordinate frame of reference. This is a frame of reference that includes all of the knowledge that you have available to you. For instance, if I were studying psychology, I would not just study what Freud, Jung, and Rogers say in their scientific works. I would read about their lives and the contexts in which they lived. All of this information would be included in the over-arching perspective you are trying to build. This is a perspective that is constantly being refined. When you learn something that goes against your current theory of how things work, you change your theory to include the new facts.  The supra-ordinate frame of reference does not exclude knowledge, it considers all knowledge in context. This means understanding how the knowledge was created as well as how it matches up with the rest of the knowledge accumulated. I have found this to be a very useful cognitive tool when used hand-in-hand with a healthy dose of skepticism. Skepticism is still necessary so that I attempt distinguish the high-quality information from all the rest.

Trust

I feel that trust deserves a special mention of its own with regards to personal change. Humans seem to be naturally trusting. Parents can indoctrinate children with almost any beliefs if they are persistent and begin early in the child’s life. Later in life, the experiences of a trusted person can be passed on to us through language and empathy. In such circumstances it is possible for these second-hand experiences to be as powerful to us as our own. I can personally attest to the fact that life experiences passed on to me from friends and relatives of mine have changed my life enormously.

On the intellectual side of things, I have found that my respect and trust of another person causes me to consider their perspectives and beliefs much more carefully than I normally consider those of another person. In the case of a disagreement between my beliefs and theirs, I often run both of our beliefs through a gauntlet of reality-checking as well as my own ethical evaluation. When I say ‘ethical evaluation’ I mean analyzing whether I think the belief is good/true/correct based on what my foundational principles are. In the past this has caused me to realize an unwanted outcome of a belief I held, leading me to reorganize my belief system according to more universal, yet often more flexible, ideals.

The developments of my belief system has consistently led me towards beliefs that I am more happy with, and more confident in. Interestingly, despite my contentment with my beliefs, the practice of scrutinizing them has helped me develop the ability to continuously refine my conception of the world as my experiences (and the experiences of others) teach me more every day.

Choice

When presented with a choice, sometimes the normal heuristics that a person uses for their decisions are not exact enough to lead to a quick answer. I have found that when people face such difficult choices, there are different tendencies depending on the habits they have built up in their lives. Some people prefer to change things as little as possible, having learned that not ‘rocking the boat’ has kept them happy, or at least free from disaster, in the past. Some people will base decisions like these on principles such as social desirability. In a society based on prosociality, making their choice in accordance with what they perceive to be societal norms will usually lead people in a direction they see as safe and rewarding.

A third possibility is embraced by a person who realizes that they need to dig down and discover the answer within themselves. I have found that people begin this process often with questions such as “What do I want?”, which quickly leads to the oft-repeated “What do I want to do with my life?” or “What is the life that I want to live?”. I argue that this last method is the best way to approach such choices because it has the greatest opportunity for personal growth as well as increased feelings of self-worth based on internal conditions of worth. An internal condition of worth refers to a source of self-respect based on beliefs and memories held within oneself. This can be contrasted with external conditions of worth, where your opinion of yourself is determined by external factors, such as the opinion of others.

Statistics vs. Anecdotes

There is a fundamental disconnect between science and experience when it comes to exceptional experiences. The primary language of scientific inquiry and discoveries is that of statistics. The average person is not well versed in the language of statistics. They must generally rely on the interpretation given to them by experts.

Humans have a fundamental inclination to put much more stock in our own personal experience than in statistics or the opinion of an expert. This is rooted in the immediacy and relevance of personal experience. When on the topic of one’s life, the number one authority in terms of knowledge and insight is oneself. No one else experiences my life as directly as I do and has the perspective that I have. Other people can provide extremely valuable perspective, knowledge and commentary based on their own experiences, but their knowledge of who I am and what I have experienced is necessarily incomplete.

A person is more likely to form an opinion based on personal experience rather than on scientific findings. This means that in the world of the individual, the out-of-the-ordinary experiences reign supreme. In science, the knowledge of events such as these are referred to as anecdotes. Anecdotes are stories about experiences. The only thing scientific inquiry can do with anecdotes is use them as a knowledge base for formulating theories or experiments. Scientists can learn from anecdotes information that may be useful in deciding where they should start taking data, and how to do it. Anecdotes do not contribute to statistical significance because they are generally not regarded as scientific data. Anecdotes are more important than statistics to the people who experience them. However, anecdotes do not contribute to the statistical significance of scientific results.

This is related to the fallacy of misleading vividness, where a few dramatic events are argued to outweigh statistical evidence. This is a logical fallacy because the vividness of an event has nothing to do with how statistically significant it is, or how likely it is to occur again.

Presented with data that does not agree with their beliefs, people believe it is not as credible as the data that supports their beliefs. They attempt to explain away the data presented to them, and even to the point of doubting the ability of the scientific method to answer questions.1 This is a dangerous state of affairs in a world that is growing progressively more complex and advanced due to science. Science is our primary framework of knowledge for the modern era. If we lose our confidence in it to such an extent that we ignore it altogether, we are heading for a very dark place.2

Commitment to World View

Commitment to one’s current perspective is the basic mechanism that stops change. There are many different ways that such commitment comes about, and many ways that it is reinforced. Belief systems are the filters through which we see the world. The power of belief systems, for good and ill, has been well demonstrated3 . Interestingly, on the other end of the spectrum, a strong commitment to one’s own world view is also the foundation of a personal attempt to change society in some way.

I have noticed a few cultural tendencies that reinforce belief system stagnation. Parents tend to indoctrinate children with their own belief systems. The problem with indoctrination is that it usually leads to disconnects with the real world. As discussed above under ‘dissonance’, unless children happen to be taught things that exactly match up with the real world, they will be fighting dissonance even at a young age. I believe that practiced dissonance like this can lead to avoidance or denial of experiences and thoughts later in life, on the grounds that they may threaten one’s belief system. I believe this can lead to people denying their own experiences, a habit I believe can be very dangerous.

The mind also develops specific techniques to hide or live with the dissonance without solving it. These techniques can come in many forms. A person may develop a desire to not discuss matters of belief, and rationalize their position with a ‘live and let live‘ argument implying that they don’t want to bother other people about their beliefs. Assuming that this tendency seems to be harming this person in some way, I have found the best direction to go in addressing this is with genuine face-to-face communication with the intent of making them comfortable with broaching any topic. Eventually questions about the quality of their life will lead either directly or indirectly to dissonances of this kind. From this point, helping the person walk the route to facing their dissonance is all that remains. This path requires that the person trying to help embraces a perspective similar to that of Rogers’ unconditional positive regard.

Another method for avoiding dissonance can arise when people are devotees to an institutionalized belief system. When a topic is pursued far enough, the person’s knowledge might be incapable of rationalizing their position. What they tend to do at this point is make general references to the doctrine of their belief system with an implication that the doctrine has the answer, even if they don’t. I personally believe that if a person is going to hold to a belief, their reasons for doing so should be internalized and well understood. When people give up their trust in their own reasoning faculties and experience, they wall themselves off from change. These people bar themselves from contemplating the ramifications and sources of their beliefs.

Cognitive dissonance requires thought. People who refuse to think introspectively can live disconnected from reality until a crisis happens. As with the case above, leading them gently to understand the disconnects they are perpetuating with their belief system seems to be the most effective method for helping them face the issue directly. The problem with this class of dissonance is that specifically in the case of early childhood indoctrination, these beliefs can be so deeply ingrained that the person has no other conception of the world to operate under. The best that I know how to do in such a case is to use our common ground, the physical world, as a basis for a world concept. This is, after all, where our experiences overlap and where our communication takes place. If the person is willing to acknowledge reality, I believe it is possible for them to deliver themselves from their indoctrination with persistence and courage.

Unwavering Beliefs = Respectable Trait?

Our society has a general tendency of respecting people who stick to their beliefs, and disdain for people who change their beliefs. People who change their beliefs are generally referred to as less stable and less honest than those who remain unchanged. This is a rather spectacular distortion of reality because the definition of intellectual honesty includes admitting that you are wrong if you are wrong. People who are able and willing to change their minds are capable of progress in their beliefs while their counterparts are not. We are an intelligent and adaptable species, capable of learning from our past without re-living it. Living requires change, so a refusal to change belief systems in the face of experiential change is nothing less than a refusal to accept reality.4

Belief systems are habits. They come into being when a set of ideas or concepts serve us well during some part of our lives. As small children for example, we are extremely susceptible to indoctrination on the basis of what we are taught and told. Behaviour that is desirable in children is rewarded. Undesirable behaviour is punished. We also gain, or believe we gain, the approval of our parents for absorbing their beliefs.

In order for our habits to be maximally useful to us, they require refinement once they are applied to circumstances beyond those in which they were created. It is our wish to live well and effectively that leads us to refine our habits and create new ones as our experience expands. Belief systems must also change and adapt to new experiences. If there is no adaptation of beliefs in a person, they will be less able to live effectively in the world they find themselves in than a person who does adapt. They are also likely to suffer from the dissonances mentioned earlier.

It is interesting to note that it is only because some people hold onto their beliefs in the face of the current reality that human-driven social change exists. In this regard, commitment to world view has been a driving force of social change. The commitment of relatively few individuals can have strong long-term effects on their society. Generally though, progressive social change has been driven by distinctly different beliefs about the way the world should be, rather than the way the world is. We can certainly disagree as conscious beings about the way the world should be. It can be much more dangerous to disagree about the facts of our current existence.

Due to the power and exclusivity of belief systems, it is in the best interests of all people and groups to be careful about what they believe, and why they believe it. However, the tendency of people to attach their sense of identity to their beliefs can make inquiries into this subject seem extremely personal. Inquiry about the root of someone’s belief system is considered invasive by some people. Belief systems have defense mechanisms. Belief systems that consider such inquiries as attacks can label the questions as insulting, harmful, or simply not worthy of response or thought.

Even the perception of inquiry as invasion should not stop genuine self-reflection. It is my hope that people can look within themselves earnestly. It is my belief that self-knowledge leads individuals to a greater knowledge of the foundations of their beliefs. I believe that knowledge of this kind is good for us as humans since it helps each individual towards a more conscious and conscientious existence.

Motivation

I have been asking myself what my fundamental beliefs are for long time. Only in the last few years have I understood enough of my upbringing to see where many of my tendencies came from. Once these sources were understood, I was free to analyze them critically and decide how I wanted to live. I have simplified my philosophy of life to two fundamental principles on which all others are based.

  • I am interested in my own existence, consciousness and capacity to learn about my universe as well interact with the consciousnesses of others.
  • Hope. Hope to me is the emotion and idea that there is a chance that the future holds, or likely holds, some reason to live.

With these two principles I have a fundamental reason for existing and the belief that my reason will still exist in the future. From these two principles I derive my beliefs and motivation.

My principle motivation in a worldly sense is a maximization of consciousness. Consciousness is fundamentally the most interesting thing to me, and thus also the thing that I value most highly. Raising consciousness through learning, experiencing and interacting is one method of embracing what I want. To this end, I try to raise my own consciousness a great deal. This is the source of my wish to experience broadly the world which I am blessed to live in, and to learn all that I can about it. I also enjoy immensely the process of helping other consciousnesses raise themselves as well. It gives me a feeling of connection with these others, as we are both searching for a deeper understanding of our mutual universe.

Footnotes
  1. When the scientific evidence is unwelcome, people try to reason it away. Ben Goldacre. The Guardian, Saturday 3 July 2010. Accessed October 19th, 2010. []
  2. Michael Specter: The danger of science denial. TED talk February 2010. Accessed October 19th, 2010. []
  3. An incredible commentary on the power of our belief systems, the book Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl comes highly recommended by us. []
  4. Wikipedia: Flip-flop: Non-political use of flip-flop. Accessed October 20th, 2010. []

Ben Harack

I’m an aspiring omnologist who is fascinated by humanity’s potential.

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