Lee Roy Beach: Blog, Art, and Publications about The Psychology of Narrative Thought
Welcome to my web site. It has three parts: my blog, my theory, and my art. (1) My blog consists of periodic essays that expand upon my book, The Psychology of Narrative Thought. (2) My theory consists of a guide to the contents of the narrative thought book as well as manuscript copies of my recent and pending publications on the theory. (3) My art consists of examples of both larger paintings and miniature landscapes.
(1) The blog is below on this page.
(2) Following the pages containing my academic record is the table of contents for my book "The Psychology of Narrative Thought: How the Stories We Tell Ourselves Shape Our Lives (2010). The book is a highly revised version of the monograph, "Narrative Thinking and Decision Making" that previously was available for download from this site. It is available from Amazon, Barns and Noble, and Xlibris in hardcover, paperback, or e-book. To purchase a copy, go to Contact Me. Following the table of contents are manuscripts that are either pre-publication versions of articles I'm working on or manuscript versions of articles that have been published. The two there now are "Cognitive Errors and the Nature of Epistemic Thought" and "When a Difference Makes a Difference in the Screening of Decision Options."
(3) My paintings represent work that is now in my posession, in galleries, or in private collections. If you are interested in knowing more about a painting, or if you wish to order an available painting, go to Contact Me.
I have one paper in press, the topic of which is how to build a science of psychology based on laws (American Journal of Psychology, January 2014) and have submitted another (same journal) in which I account for some of the more notable cognitive errors as the by-product of narrative thinking. If you are interested in seeing the ms. for either, please e-mail me. Because the journal will hold the copyright, I cannot post the papers on the web.
Thanks, Lee Beach
INTRODUCTION TO MY BLOG
The purpose of this blog will be to expand upon ideas that space limitations prevented me from exploring in The Psychology of Narrative Thought (Beach, 2010)---hereafter known as "The Book" and "The Theory" that it contains. In addition, new ideas occur to me from time to time, sometimes because colleagues ask questions or dispute various of my assertions in the book, and sometimes because I am stimulated by current events or things I have read to expand the scope of the theory.
As I explain in the book, as well as in the article on the narrative nature of epistemic thought (see manuscripts on this site), the theory owes its existence to my dissatisfaction with an earlier theory, called Image Theory. The latter was a cognitive theory of decision making proposed as a counter to theories based on economic models and probability theory. Because so much research shows that people don't think like Economic Man and have little understanding of formal probability, it seemed silly to persist in (1) using formal models as criteria against which to measure human cognitive abilities and (2) slandering those abilities when they deviate from those criteria.
Although Image Theory was a success, in that it prompted discussion and research, it actually wasn't well understood. I cringed when reading that this or that hypothesis was a test of the theory when it was clear to me that the researcher's view of the theory was decidedly different from what the theory said--or at least what I thought it said. As a result, I began to think about how to make it all clearer and a bit more commonsensical. However, in the attempt to do this, the theory shifted and took on a decidedly different shape; and I liked the new shape much better than the old one. The result was the Theory of Narrative Thought (TNT) and its decision component, Narrative-Based Decision Making (N-BDM). Many of the concepts in the new theory have direct links to concepts in the old theory.
I want it to be absolutely clear that the foundation of the theory is not my own. It is the work of Walter Fisher, who is a well-known communications theorist. I started with his ideas, elaborated them--primarily in light of views developed while working on Image Theory--and added N-BDM, which also is from Image Theory. The result was a far broader theory than Fisher's or Image Theory. To avoid undue repetition, all of the blogs I will write will assume that the reader is familiar with the book and the theory.
Two nights ago, my wife and I were having dinner with another couple, Ruth and Sam, whom we have known for years. In the course of the conversation, Ruth reacted to something Sam said with a mixture of hurt and disbelief, as though he had betrayed some implicit agreement between them. My first thought was that her reaction was both uncharacteristic and unwarranted. But, as I watched her lash out at Sam and then sulkily withdraw into herself, I realized that I had seen her react this way before but had never given it much thought. At that moment I experienced that familiar rush of feeling that signals a new insight; I suddenly realized that I knew more about Ruth than I had previously thought I did and that her behavior revealed even more. This accompanied an immediate and substantial revision of what I thought was happening at the dinner table as well as what I thought about Ruth. Startled by my experience, I spent the remainder of the dinner half listening to the table talk and half musing on how The Theory could account for my insight and insights in general.
In this instance it was clear that Ruth’s reaction, and my recollection of similar reactions, prompted revision of narratives about what was going on at the table and about how I viewed Ruth in general. Further thought over the past couple of days has resulted in the following….in terms of The Theory: Recall that The Theory posits two kinds of narratives, chronicular and paradigmatic and that it further posits two kinds of paradigmatic narratives, explanatory and procedural. The current narrative, what is currently happening, is a chronicular narrative. But, my private theory about someone’s personality is a private explanatory paradigm—it tells me how the subject of the paradigm relates to other actors and, therefore, what to expect them to do. My dinner table insight was the simultaneous revision of my current narrative about the evening and my private narrative about Ruth.
First, my current narrative: Ruth’s reaction to what her husband said caused me to revise my interpretation about what was going on at the moment. I sensed an undercurrent of tension between Ruth and her husband that had escaped me before. This resulted in a new narrative that possessed an acidic quality that my wife later told me she too had sensed. We both came away with the impression that we had been involuntary participants in something unpleasant and that Ruth, not her husband (well, maybe not so obviously her husband) was the source of the problem. The reason for this conclusion was that we both had seen her react this way before to anything he or anyone said that she could interpret as criticism, and she was adept at interpreting things as criticism. She seemed to think that anything less than full endorsement of her opinions or actions demeaned her, and she reacted with aggression and then withdrawal. Second, my explanatory paradigmatic narrative about Ruth: In addition to prompting revision of my current narrative, Ruth’s reaction and my recollections of previous instances provided new information for my private theory of her personality. I already knew her background, how she had had to overcome considerable hardship to arrive at the security and status she now enjoyed. I also knew that she was regarded by many as overly sensitive and controlling. Too, she had divorced her first husband because she thought he was unambitious and boring. She apparently loved her second husband, but she was both dependent on him and resentful about his greater status and verbal facility. My insight was that she was considerably less certain that she had attained the security and status than her public persona suggested and that she was far more sensitive to her husband’s supposed superiority than perhaps was realistic—he certainly didn’t appear to see the disparity she saw. Warranted or not, the result was that criticism from any quarter, but especially from her husband, fed her insecurity and resulted in immediate aggression followed by withdrawal.
My new explanatory paradigm for Ruth made me more sympathetic to her behavior while making me more uncomfortable around her; it is so easy to inadvertently make her angry and sulky. But this isn’t the end of the story. Because the function of explanatory paradigms is to inform chronicular paradigms, after Ruth’s outburst my revised current narrative about the evening was also influenced by my revised explanatory paradigm about her. As a result, my revised current narrative was somewhat less negative than it might have been because the explanatory paradigm provided sympathetic reasons for Ruth’s behavior. What at first appeared to be startling unwarranted aggressiveness and petulant pouting withdrawal could now be seen as defensiveness and uncertainty about her husband’s regard for her. This didn’t make the evening more enjoyable, but it made it less uncomfortable. It didn’t make Ruth an agreeable person to be around, but it made her a bit more tolerable.
Even if we agree that insight occurs when information prompts revision of a chronicular or paradigmatic narrative, there is still the issue of why some information results in revision and other information doesn’t. Recall that a narrative is regarded as valid insofar as it is plausible and coherent. Revision is called for when a narrative is confronted with new information that is so incompatible with it that the two cannot be conveniently acknowledged as both being valid. However, whether or not the incompatible new information prompts revision depends upon both how incompatible it is and how plausible and coherent the narrative is perceived to be. If plausibility and coherence are low, even mildly incompatible information will prompt revision with little accompanying emotion. If plausibility and coherence are high—the narrative is perceived to be highly valid as it is—it takes extremely incompatible information to prompt revision, with the strong accompanying emotion that we call insight.
The Desired Future (4/11)
Our topic today is an aspect of The Theory that many people seem to find a bit mysterious, the desired future. Recall that the desired future is the criterion for deciding whether the forecasted future is good enough, either an extrapolated future is good enough to let things proceed without an effort to change them or an action forecasts is good enough to implement a plan to secure it. “Good enough” is determined by how closely your forecasted future meets your primary and secondary values; primary being enduring standards about how things should be and secondary being more transient and less important standards—primarily your preferences.
There four sources for the desired future. One is when the future is imposed on you, usually by someone who has some sort of power over you. You may find it violates your personal values, but you are not in a position to reject it and therefore end up working toward it because you must. For example, if your boss tells you to cut corners on some aspect of product production, you pretty much have to do it or suffer the consequences; that’s what “boss” means. Or, if a teacher tells you there is to be an exam, you may not want to take it, but you must if you are to pass the course. The process involved in an imposed future is fairly straightforward. First, your instructions often prescribe particular actions and required outcomes. Together this information allows you to generate an action forecast that you can evaluate in terms of your values. If the discrepancy between the forecast and your values is small, there is no problem; you happily do as you are told. On the other hand, if the discrepancy is large, you probably would look for another job. If you can’t quit, you may begin to hedge—the infamous “I was just following orders”—to mitigate the stress of violating your values.
A second source for a desired future is an envisioning, which results from your ability to imagine alternative futures (we’ll discuss imagination, fantasy, and reality in a future blog). For example, envisioning being a circus clown involves imagining the life you’d have if you strived to be one and the life you’d have if you were a success. If what you imagine (an action forecast) fits your values you may adopt being a clown as your desired future. Then, when you compare your extrapolated forecast with your envisioned future as a clown, the discrepancies between them leads you to intervene in ways that, hopefully, will lead you increasingly closer to your goal of being a clown. On a more mundane level, if your envisioned future is to advance in your job, the discrepancy between what will happen if you continue doing what you presently are doing and what you want to happen will trigger action to move you closer to the latter. A third source for a desired future is suggestion by someone else. For example, if your physician says you are verging on having diabetes and suggests that you lose weight and avoid “white food,” the suggested future is pretty clearly laid out for you. It isn’t an imposed future because you have a choice about pursuing it. When you to compare the extrapolated forecast of what you can anticipate if you don’t do anything with the suggested future of being healthy, presuming you believe your physician and that you understand the implications of developing diabetes, you will be prompted to adopt a plan that will move you toward the suggested future.
The fourth source for a desired future is the most common one—the one that keeps us moving from moment to moment and that usually results in only minor, corrective changes in our behavior. This is called the repaired future, and it’s primary role is as a feedback mechanism that allows us to keep things on track in the face of failed efforts, minor miscalculations, and unanticipated changes in the environment. The basis for the repaired future is the extrapolated forecast itself. When there are significant disparities between the features of the forecast and your relevant values, you can imagine what the future would look like if the discrepancies were repaired. To the degree that your actions can reduce disparities, you adjust your behavior (intervene) to do so. Presuming that your values are reasonably stable, this mechanism keeps you on the straight and narrow—keeps you behaving in a way that keeps your life congruent with your values. Of course, there is no assurance that what you value would be endorsed by other people, so your version of the straight and narrow may differ substantially from someone else’s version. But, pursuit of the repaired future results in a high degree of consistency in how you act over time—in what you do to make yourself happy (congruent with your values). This consistency is what other people think of as your personality (see endnote 1).
A curious side effect of creating the desired future from the extrapolated forecast is that it results in a tendency to stick close to the status quo. Call it risk aversion or a status quo bias or whatever you want, the fastest and easiest path is to avoid envisioning a wholly new future or adopting someone’s radical suggestion and sticking with the ongoing flow of events, making small adjustments to keep things comfortable. This isn’t very adventurous, but adventurous can be wearing; calm is more palatable for daily fare. Moreover, when the mainstream of our lives can be dealt with calmly and incrementally it requires less careful monitoring, leaving spare mental capacity for dealing with other areas of our lives for which calm and incrementalism aren’t options. In my other life, I am a professional artist and a co-owner of an art gallery. Today a man who came to the gallery told me that he is now retired and trying to learn about art, particularly modern art, which he had never understood. He said that all the years he worked he ran large parts of his private life by rote—the same kind of car each time he bought, the same restaurants, the same way of dressing and getting his hair cut, etc.—so that he could concentrate on the demands of his job and dealing with his children as they grew up. Now that his children are gone and he is retired, he has the spare capacity (not his words) to focus on new things and to have a few adventures, which has made his life much richer. (But, he didn’t buy a painting.)
(1) I cannot overemphasize how central and compelling our values are to our behavior, to both the mundane things we do as well as the big things. Social scientists tend to give lip service to values, perhaps because they don’t seem particularly scientific. Certainly there are individual differences, but I think they are less pronounced than it might at first appear. Insofar as one buys into the cultures of the groups of which one is a member, one’s values are pretty much prescribed. We all have idiosyncrasies, but they are minor when compared to the similarities between our own values and those of the people with whom we share our lives.
Narratives as Emergent Systems (4/11)
In The Book, I explained how meaning accrues to cognitive narratives by using an analogy with language. In language, sentences are composed of words but have an emergent meaning that goes beyond the specific meanings of those component words. In turn, paragraphs are composed of sentences and have emergent meaning that goes beyond the meanings of the component sentences. And, the stories (narratives, texts) that are composed of those paragraphs have even more emergent meaning. The analogy is not completely apt because narratives are enriched by emotions, memories, and visual, auditory, olfactory and other cognitive images in addition to language, but the point is that narratives’ emergent meaning is far more than the mere sum of their individual components. In short, narratives are emergent systems.
A system is said to be weakly emergent if its properties are directly traceable (e.g., the sum) to its component’s properties because the components operate independently of one another so there are no interactions to cloud the picture. Conversely, a system is called strongly emergent when few or none of its properties are directly traceable to its component’s properties due to interactions. Attempts to impose reductionist, weak emergence, research methods, models, and theories on strong systems can never be more than partially successful (see endnotes 1, 2). On the continuum from weak to strong, I would argue that narratives are strongly emergent systems.
Strong emergence means more than that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. First of all, knowledge about a strongly emergent system isn’t reflexive—that is, you may be able to identify the system’s components, and their properties, but because of the complexity of the interactions you could not reliably use this knowledge to predict the system’s properties. That is, you could not start with what you know about the component’s properties to deduce the system’s properties. Second, a strongly emergent system isn’t closed—that is, the system’s properties result from more than its components’ properties, they also reflect the properties of the internal and external environments in which the system functions. Even if these latter properties exert their influence through the functioning of the system’s components, which would usually be the case, the result is not straightforward because the same environmental properties may uniquely influence the interactions of those components’ functions on each encounter. This is because the system has a history such that the environmental properties and their impacts are never quite the same on successive encounters (3),
The understanding of emergence has led to replacement of reductionist, mechanistic models of complex systems throughout science and philosophy. Although this may not have realized it at the time, cognitive scientists’ adoption of the computer as a metaphor for cognitive function in the 1960’s was a step in this direction. Many areas of cognitive research and theory have now become sophisticated enough to abandon dependency on the rather limiting computer metaphor. But other areas have been rather slow to understand the implications of emergence, especially strong emergence. In decision making, for example, the idea that decisions are determined solely by the balance between potential gains and losses, sometimes referred to as the economic view of decision making, while strongly under assault, retains its appeal. If it had no other faults, which it does (the gamble analogy, for example), the economic view fails to adequately address the question of what determines the desirability of outcomes and thus defines gains and losses—resorting to the concept of utility simply finesses. The only way to answer the question is by recourse to the decision maker’s values, which surely reflect strong emergence (4).
Let’s take a moment to wonder at human narrative ability (5). Calling narrative a strongly emergent system merely says that the narrative process is subtle and complex. But that isn’t the wonder, at least not the most significant one. The big wonder is the proficiency that humans exhibit in the use of this complex system. Every elaborated internal dialogue, every statement—whether uttered or written, every conversation reveals proficiency in the use of a complex system. Internal dialogue is perhaps the richest, because it allows inclusion of emotions and images and all the things that are so hard to express to others. But, statements to others routinely employ nuance and shading that reflects, and attests to, the emergent quality of what is being expressed. And, conversations quite frequently are exercises in cooperative narrative construction—and the fact that much that goes unsaid but is mutually understood emerges from merging the proficiencies of the participants.
This brings us to the celebrated “bottom line.” Identifying narrative and narrative production as a strongly emergent system bestows no particular merit on it. Rather, it tells us that the research methods required to study it must be suited to its complexity. We cannot expect to understand it, even imperfectly, if we insist on using methods that are appropriate to weakly emergent systems. Heisenberg aside, our methods are intrusive and reductive. In the interests of control, we overly constrict that which we would study and trivialize it when we try to build theories on the results such research provides. I am not suggesting that research not be done, but perhaps it is past time to give up much of our agricultural heritage, to look anew at how we investigate psychological phenomena and what we mean by theory testing and empiricism. I weaken my argument, I know, when I admit that I lack the capacity to prescribe new methods, but that doesn’t invalidate my point. Strongly emergent systems require different research methods and different evidentiary criteria than weak systems require. It is high time we stop trying to investigate the former with techniques that are only appropriate to the latter.
(1) This is one reason for the relative underdevelopment of much of social science—lots of factoids, few robust theories. Social science research with a claim to scientific respectability relies on rather outmoded experimental and statistical methods. These methods can comfortably cope with first, second, and sometimes third order interactions, but not the multiplicity and subtlety of the interactions involved in even the medium and strong emergence that characterizes behavior. To a large degree, this incapacity to deal with complexity results from a reliance on a superannuated experimental methodology which (as Egon Brunswik tried to tell us 70 years ago) relies on manipulation of an artificially small number of relevant independent variables, measurement of a limited number of dependent variables, and averages data in an effort to increase statistical power. These methods were originally adopted to promote objectivity, as a way of removing experimenter bias, in a belief that a viable science can be constructed from a multitude of small experimental results. The past 50 years has seen a gradual evolution toward more complex modeling and more sophisticated research, from simple correlations to analysis of variance to structural analysis and beyond, but they don’t address the underlying flaw, the belief in a bottom up construction of science. The result of this flawed belief has been a multitude of experimental factoids, of simplistic theories for small phenomena, and an abandonment of the search for broader unifying theories that are the hallmark of more advanced sciences. I will expand on this point in a future blog.
(2) Psychologists of my generation (old) may recognize Behaviorist, S→R, psychology as a weak emergent system. Behaviorism dominated psychology in the English speaking academic world for the first half of the 20th century. It was an attempt to account for behavior without recourse to the soul, the psyche, or “the little voice in your head,” using instead only two mechanisms, classical and operant conditioning. It ultimately failed because it assumed that all behavior could, in principle, be broken down into its component conditioned reflexes, a weak emergent system, when, in fact, behavior is a strong emergent system. The failure of the Behaviorist experiment dates from the moment researchers tried to account for conscious experience and social behavior in terms of S→R conditioning. The elaborate circumlocutions this required exposed the implausibility of the entire effort, but it was not without value. As misguided as Behaviorism seemed to its critics, it taught psychologists that they could study cognition without recourse or deference to mystical concepts of mind, which set the stage for the development of modern cognitive science.
(3) This doesn’t necessarily mean that the system learns, in any intentional sense. It merely means that the system is changed by its reactions to the environmental properties it encounters so that it is not precisely the same on each encounter. This learning by evolution may look like learning by intention, but it is more mechanical than is implied by intention.
(4) This also dooms the idea of optimal decision aids, no reductionist system for decomposing decisions into components, evaluating each component separately, and then recomposing the whole in order to derive the best decision can hope to capture the richness of unaided decision making—with the result that decision makers are uncomfortable with and distrust the aids. This is why I insist that the decision aids in the latter chapters of The Book are merely approximations—merely advisory to the decision maker’s own decision processes, something to get things started in the right direction but soon to be overwhelmed by events that may lead in other directions. It is the search for a weak emergence system for decision making that led both economics and behavioral decision research into the thicket instead of to the Promised Land. The focus on computational models, which usually requires weak emergence to make them tractable, led to an underappreciation and deprecation of human decision processes and, for that matter, of human cognition in general.
(5) I really think that we’d all be better scientists if we more greatly admired—and were more humbled by—the phenomena we attempt to understand. Perhaps we should begin by rejecting the arrogant assumption that they are necessarily understandable, acknowledging instead that even our best efforts will yield only pale approximations to the phenomena themselves.
Culture and Paradigm Availability (4/11)
Recall that narrative thinking serves well for much moment to moment, day to day thinking, but it doesn’t do well when complex, detailed thinking is required. Over the eons, humans have devised cognitive tools, called paradigms, for overcoming these limits. Some paradigms are trivial; how to flush a toilet or tie your shoes. Some are intimidatingly complicated; subatomic physics or musicology. Most require instruction and practice in order to be used effectively.
It is reasonable to assume that each of these paradigms had its origins in the efforts of one person trying to solve a problem or just observing something that led him or her to think about things in a new way. It may have resulted from need; perhaps for ways to more effectively kill dangerous prey, eventuating in techniques for making spear points, in the course of time others built upon this to produce arrows, eventuating in all manner of weapons. It may have resulted from curiosity; perhaps from following the movement of celestial bodies night after night, eventuating in theories about the heavens and celestial navigation. It may have resulted from a happy accident; perhaps inadvertent drooling into a bowl of cactus juice and discovering the joys of fermentation, eventuating in tequila and Scotch whiskey. Similarly, accidentally dropping a hunk of newly killed prey into the fire and discovering the benefits of cooked meat eventuated in haut cuisine and pre-game barbeques.
Those primordial personal paradigms may have solved the individual’s immediate problem, but their development usually began in earnest when they were taken up by others, thus becoming public paradigms. Even then the course of their development has often been slow and sporadic; the classic cases took centuries to evolve into the paradigms that constitute the curricula of modern schools. Of course, not all public paradigms ended up in textbooks, usually only the most general and more broadly applicable are included—like algebra or anatomy or sociology. The greater number by far, like how to open an oyster or pluck a chicken or tie a bow, are passed on from one person to another and are available to everyone.
The paradigms that make the textbooks are frequently too esoteric for everyday use and are in some sense “owned” by specialists. Mathematicians own algebra, biologists own anatomy, social scientists own sociology; students may use them but they can’t tamper with them. Some non-curricular paradigms, and paradigms that derive from those in the curriculum, are quite literally the property of specialists. Even before the advent of patent and copyright laws, people have struggled to maintain hegemony over paradigms. Like medieval guilds before them, modern professions require lengthy apprenticeships and some form of licensing before one can legitimately use their paradigms. Hegemony is financially and socially beneficial to the initiates, but it isn’t necessarily sinister; you wouldn’t want just anyone claiming to be a surgeon or a civil engineer. Perhaps the oldest and most ubiquitous of such guilds/professions is the priesthood—the professionals, in any religion, who control paradigms for appeasing the gods and ensuring a comfortable afterlife.
My friend, Earl Hunt (University of Washington, Seattle) studies human cognitive abilities, primarily intelligence. The thesis of his recent work is that societies differ in the access to training and knowledge that they provide (or permit) their members and that this reflects itself in both the average measured intelligence of the members of that society and the quality of life for the society as a whole. In Narrative Theory terms, societies differ in the access they provide (or permit) to paradigms. For example, in many societies, women are not educated or, if they are, they are only taught paradigms that are useful for maintaining a house and raising children. Even for men in these societies, education may consist primarily of religious paradigms; occupational paradigms are learned through apprenticeships and informal means.
Societies that hobble themselves in this way can be viewed as wasting the potential of their members, although they would, no doubt, cite other values that justify such practices and argue that those values are being fulfilled. Nonetheless, from our Western viewpoint, the waste seems wrong because it clearly thwarts economic development. Lest we condemn ourselves for our materialistic viewpoint, we should note that many members of the societies of which we speak, particularly the young, share our conclusion, if not our premise. Unrest about joblessness and economic stagnation is common in second and third world countries, and many of these countries are examples of restricted access to paradigms, intentional or otherwise.
Erosion of restrictions is unlikely to be as rapid as popular unrest would suggest. This is because many people fail to see the connection between the benefits that they want and the paradigms required to achieve them. Many, perhaps most, of the benefits they crave result from application of technologies based upon modern physical and social science. Learning and applying these technologies requires a scientific way of thinking that has come to permeate Western culture but that is foreign to many other cultures’ ways of thinking. Even in the Western world, scientific thinking hits snags when it is at odds with traditional culture. For example, Darwinian evolutionary theory is the foundation of modern biology. But, even in the English speaking countries (Darwin’s own culture) there is widespread rejection of the theory because it is perceived to contradict the traditional theological paradigm.
The power of easing restrictions on paradigm access is attested to by the recent economic fortunes of India, China, and, on the down-side, Egypt. In an attempt to move forward economically, these countries expanded their basic educational systems and built universities and technical training programs—often with help from Western institutions. The result has been both good and bad. Good in that among young Indians and Chinese the level of education is increasingly high and economic development has followed. Bad in that in both countries economic development has lagged behind education and there are fewer jobs than people who are qualified to fill them. The over-supply of educated young people is particularly a problem in Egypt and other Middle Eastern countries that have expanded education, however little, without providing ways for its graduates to contribute to economic development. The discontent of these unemployed/underemployed young people has resulted in riots that have temporarily, one hopes, endangered what economic development there is by frightening off foreign investment and tourism.
In The Book I cite universities as the Western world’s major repositories of and developers of culturally valued paradigms. Currently, universities are undergoing a huge and important shift in how they define their responsibilities, and I am afraid it isn’t altogether good. Universities have long advocated education as a key to economic competitiveness for individuals, and they have provided instruction in their store of paradigms for a mostly nominal tuition charge. Moreover, as the culture’s designated developers of the paradigms that are in their care, they have made their new developments freely available through publicly accessible publications. Of late, however, austerity and a dawning appreciation of the latent value of their paradigms have caused a shift in mission. In the past, economic use of their paradigms by their graduates was regarded as a good thing but not the university’s main concern. Now they want a cut of the action.
Excellence is increasingly defined as profitability, either in student credit hours (tuition) or patents or business spin-offs, with the university as a partner in the patents and businesses. This generates pressure on faculty to think of education and paradigm development (research) in terms of productivity and dollars. They no longer can engage in wholly disinterested, unfettered intellectual inquiry; it isn’t forbidden but it isn’t valued as much as economic productivity. The result is that universities increasingly resemble industry—which they see themselves as being anyway. Well intended efforts are made to protect the arts, but even they have to bring in money through admission fees for performances and galleries. Few speak for the classic disciplines that archive the culture’s heritage--classics, literature, poetry, history—because they don’t make money. In my view, this trend strikes directly at the core of universities as trustees for a culture’s paradigms. Together with the splintering of the elementary system into special interest charter schools, the subversion of the great public universities and the astronomic increases in their tuition may signal the end of America’s greatest and most successful experiment, free universal public education. Perhaps the splintering of the elementary school system was inevitable; we overburdened it will responsibilities for curing too many social ills. But, when public schools are gone, when the classics have largely fled the universities, what will provide the culturally unifying education that public education provided? And, can a society as diverse as ours survive without it?
The Unconscious (4/27/11)
My friend, Earl Hunt, was in town last week to give a talk to the cognition seminar at the university—the topic of which prompted the previous entry in this blog. In the course of things, he remarked that it seemed to him to that in The Book I wrote as though narratives were primarily conscious constructions, which overlooked the influence of unconscious processes and knowledge. He gave as an example the unjustified security concerns people often develop when they’ve read numerous newspaper accounts of terrorism. He interpreted the news accounts as information coded in the nervous system that may not itself be accessible but the gist of which informs narrative creation. I thought I’d been reasonably clear about the unconscious in The Book, but perhaps not. So, let me clarify.
Let’s begin by considering the various uses of the term “unconscious.” First, there is the Freudian use, which is largely motivational. The bubbling id impulses threaten the standards set by the superego, requiring the ego to referee and find resolution—resolution that itself may cause problems that require therapy. The id impulses are unconscious largely because they so threaten the superego that they must be repressed. This view has a lot of mileage on it and remains useful to therapists of a Freudian bent.
A second use of the term is the popular one; a sort of shadow mental realm that parallels conscious thought, into which it sometimes intrudes in the form of intuition. In this view, the unconscious realm is credited with greater wisdom and insight than conscious thought, although it also can have a dark side.
A third use of unconscious, the one to which Hunt referred, is common to cognitive scientists. This is nonverbalized knowledge that accrues as a result of experience. Reference is commonly made to neuronal activity prompted by or accompanying such experience and the neural traces that subsequently influence perception and thought. [I often think that the neuronal references are primarily a way of adding the patina of scientific legitimacy to the more basic definition (nonverbalized accrued knowledge), but I may be misinformed.]
My use of “unconscious” is most similar to the one in the previous paragraph: accrued knowledge is retained in the nervous system--but then all knowledge is retained in the nervous system—and it influences narrative creation. The unique part of my view is that the word “unconscious” refers to when we retrieve only the emotional components of our accrued knowledge rather than substantive details. That is, episodic memories can be accessed (called remembering) for their substantive detail to help us clearly identify the present situation as one we have experienced before; indeed, every situation has ties to past experience or you wouldn’t be able to interpret what is going on. Or, episodic memories can be “harvested” of their emotional detail to help us identify how we feel about the present situation (wonderful, neutral, scared). (Endnote 1.)
Further, I think that emotion is more easily accessed than substance and, in fact, is usually the key to accessing substance. That is, emotional tone is accessed first and then used to access (remember) the details of an episode. Of course, it is a good thing that you don’t access the substantive detail of every epistemic memory that is in any way related to the present situation, you’d be overwhelmed. It is far better to access only the emotional tone that is common to them, which reduces both processing time and the intrusion of memories that are only tangential and unproductively diverting. Then, if the detail is pertinent to narrative construction or decision making, you can trace back, using emotion, to access the episode itself (or at least the stored version of the episode). (Endnote 2)
The unconscious also has a role in decision making. Recall that level 1 decisions are largely unconscious, in that they are based almost entirely on emotion. The idea is that features of the extrapolated forecast that violate one’s primary or secondary values (the desired future) arouse emotions, derived from past experience (including instruction) that you experience as dissatisfaction or fear or similarly negative feelings about what the future will bring if you don’t do something about it. The preponderance of decisions at Level 1 are automatic and seemingly unimportant in themselves but they cumulatively determine your ability to get through the day. They are “automatic” because they turn solely on emotions deriving from your accrued knowledge, rather than the detail, so you don’t have to “think” about them, you just “feel” them. Emotions provide a vector—good, indifferent, bad—which minimizes processing so you can quickly move on to the next level 1 decision and the next and the next. This is how you get your socks on in the morning, and how you walk down the hallway to the kitchen, and how you keep from dropping a plate when you’re doing the breakfast dishes, and so on. It also is how you know when some scheme you’re considering is a bad idea—the emotion tells you before you can think of solid reasons. Even if you haven’t looked at all the details yet; you just know this is a bad plan because things like this have resulted in woe in the past or because some of the details violate the values you’ve come to hold as desirable. Even if you can think of reasons favoring the plan, if your emotions are against it, it usually is vetoed. In conflicts between reason and emotions, reason hardly ever wins.”
So, unconsciousness has a big role in The Theory, but not in the way that Freud described, nor in the way that the fans of intuitiveness presume, nor even in the way that some cognitive scientists think of it. For The Theory, unconscious refers to the easier and more economical accessing of the emotional tone of past experiences (episodic memories), thereby paring down what must be extracted from memory and speeding up its use in the construction of narratives and in decisions about what to do to keep things on track toward a desirable state of affairs.
(1) Note that in this definition, unconscious episodes aren’t necessarily repressed—they merely aren’t accessible, which, depending on the reason for inaccessibility, may amount to much the same thing.
(2) If you’ve ever tried to hold a conversation with a person who seemingly has access to every episodic memory related to the topic at hand, you’ll know what a disability this actually is. They can’t seem to focus on anything because other memories intrude and off they go, this way and that, and you’re dragged along behind. I find such conversations both tiring and confusing, and I feel very sorry for those who lack the access selectivity that makes life easier for the rest of us.