Category Psychology

People Like Themselves


People are interested in people like themselves. Women on eHarmony favour men who are similar not just in obvious ways — age, attractiveness, education, income — but also in less apparent ones, such as creativity. Even when eHarmony includes a quirky data point — like how many pictures are included in a user’s profile — women are more likely to message men similar to themselves. In fact, of the 102 traits in the data set, there was not one for which women were more likely to contact men with opposite traits.”

Do You Want a Meaningful Life or a Happy One?

Happiness is not the same as a sense of meaning. What is this thing we call meaning, and why might we need it so badly?

“The difference between meaningfulness and happiness was the focus of an investigation I worked on with my fellow social psychologists… published in the Journal of Positive Psychology this August. … we found five sets of major differences between happiness and meaningfulness, five areas where different versions of the good life parted company.

The first had to do with getting what you want and need. Not surprisingly, satisfaction of desires was a reliable source of happiness. But it had nothing — maybe even less than nothing ­— to add to a sense of meaning. …

The second set of differences involved time frame. Meaning and happiness are apparently experienced quite differently in time. Happiness is about the present; meaning is about the future, or, more precisely, about linking past, present and future. The more time people spent thinking about the future or the past, the more meaningful, and less happy, their lives were. Time spent imagining the future was linked especially strongly to higher meaningfulness and lower happiness (as was worry, which I’ll come to later). Conversely, the more time people spent thinking about the here and now, the happier they were. …

This begins to suggest a theory for why it is we care so much about meaning. Perhaps the idea is to make happiness last. Happiness seems present-focused and fleeting, whereas meaning extends into the future and the past and looks fairly stable. For this reason, people might think that pursuing a meaningful life helps them to stay happy in the long run. They might even be right — though, in empirical fact, happiness is often fairly consistent over time. Those of us who are happy today are also likely to be happy months or even years from now, and those who are unhappy about something today commonly turn out to be unhappy about other things in the distant future. It feels as though happiness comes from outside, but the weight of evidence suggests that a big part of it comes from inside. …

If happiness is about getting what you want, it appears that meaningfulness is about doing things that express yourself. Even just caring about issues of personal identity and self-definition was associated with more meaning, though it was irrelevant, if not outright detrimental, to happiness. This might seem almost paradoxical: happiness is selfish, in the sense that it is about getting what you want and having other people do things that benefit you, and yet the self is more tied to meaning than happiness. Expressing yourself, defining yourself, building a good reputation and other self-oriented activities are more about meaning than happiness.”

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“[Lying] is both a failure of understanding and an unwillingness to be understood.”

“Ordinary language is an accretion of lies,” Susan Sontag wrote in her diary in 1980. “The language of literature must be, therefore, the language of transgression, a rupture of individual systems, a shattering of psychic oppression.”

Unlike in literature, however, lies in life create rather than shatter “psychic oppression.”

In Lying  neuroscientist Sam Harris explores the nature and conditions of lying — defined, in most basic terms, as “to intentionally mislead others when they expect honest communication” — as a complex psychosocial phenomenon, rather than a simplistic categorical imperative.

The intent to communicate honestly is the measure of truthfulness. And most people do not require a degree in philosophy to distinguish this attitude from its counterfeits.

Harris offers a basic taxonomy of lying:

Ethical transgressions are generally divided into two categories: the bad things we do (acts of commission) and the good things we fail to do (acts of omission). We tend to judge the former far more harshly. The origin of this imbalance remains a mystery, but it surely relates to the value we place on a person’s energy
and intent.

Doing something requires energy, and most morally salient actions require conscious intent. A failure to do something can arise purely by circumstance and requires energy to rectify. The difference is important. It is one thing to reach into the till and steal $100; it is another to neglect to return $100 that one has received by mistake. We might consider both behaviors to be ethically blameworthy — but only the former amounts to a deliberate effort to steal. Needless to say, if it would cost a person more than $100 to return $100 he received by mistake, few of us would judge him for simply keeping the money.

The moral arrow of repercussions, researchers have found, goes both ways:

At least one study suggests that 10 percent of communication between spouses is deceptive. Another has found that 38 percent of encounters among college students contain lies. However, researchers have discovered that even liars rate their deceptive interactions as less pleasant than truthful ones. This is not terribly surprising: We know that trust is deeply rewarding and that deception and suspicion are two sides of the same coin. Research suggests that all forms of lying — including white lies meant to spare the feelings of others — are associated with poorer-quality relationships.

Harris admonishes even against the socially sanctioned “white lies”:

But what could be wrong with truly ‘white’ lies? First, they are still lies. And in telling them, we incur all the problems of being less than straightforward in our dealings with other people. Sincerity, authenticity, integrity, mutual understanding — these and other sources of moral wealth are destroyed the moment we deliberately misrepresent our beliefs, whether or not our lies are ever discovered.

And while we imagine that we tell certain lies out of compassion for others, it is rarely difficult to spot the damage we do in the process. By lying, we deny our friends access to reality — and their resulting ignorance often harms them in ways we did not anticipate. Our friends may act on our falsehoods, or fail to solve problems that could have been solved only on the basis of good information. Rather often, to lie is to infringe upon the freedom of those we care about.


These tiny erosions of trust are especially insidious because they are almost never remedied.

Lying, says Harris, perpetuates itself through a downward spiral of failed “mental accounting”:

One of the greatest problems for the liar is that he must keep track of his lies. Some people are better at this than others. Psychopaths can assume this burden of mental accounting without any obvious distress.


Lies beget other lies. Unlike statements of fact, which require no further work on our part, lies must be continually protected from collisions with reality. When you tell the truth, you have nothing to keep track of. The world itself becomes your memory, and if questions arise, you can always point others back to it. You can even reconsider certain facts and honestly change your views. And you can openly discuss your confusion, conflicts, and doubts with all comers. In this way, a commitment to the truth is naturally purifying of error.

And what about integrity? “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself,” Richard Feynman famously said on the subject in his timeless 1974 Caltech commencement address, and Harris furthers this insight:

What does it mean to have integrity? It means many things, of course, but one criterion is to avoid behavior that readily leads to shame or remorse. The ethical terrain here extends well beyond the question of honesty — but to truly have integrity, we must not feel the need to lie about our personal lives.

To lie is to erect a boundary between the truth we are living and the perception others have of us. The temptation to do this is often born of an understanding that others will disapprove of our behavior. Often, there are good reasons why they would.

Perhaps most dangerous of all, however, is the subconscious attrition of truth that lies, even after corrected, inflict:

Consider the widespread fear of childhood vaccinations. In 1998, the physician Andrew Wakefield published a study inThe Lancet linking the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine to autism. This study has since been judged to be an ‘elaborate fraud,’ and Wakefield’s medical license has been revoked.

The consequences of Wakefield’s dishonesty would have been bad enough. But the legacy effect of other big lies has thus far made it impossible to remedy the damage he has caused. Given the fact that corporations and governments sometimes lie, whether to avoid legal liability or to avert public panic, it has become very difficult to spread the truth about the MMR vaccine. Vaccination rates have plummeted — especially in prosperous, well-educated communities — and children have become sick and even died as a result.

An unhappy truth of human psychology is probably also at work here, which makes it hard to abolish lies once they have escaped into the world: We seem to be predisposed to remember statements as true even after they have been disconfirmed.

Harris concludes with a look at the broader social implications of lying as a violation of both collective conscience and individual autonomy:

As it was in Anna KareninaMadame Bovary, and Othello, so it is in life. Most forms of private vice and public evil are kindled and sustained by lies….

Lying is, almost by definition, a refusal to cooperate with others. It condenses a lack of trust and trustworthiness into a single act. It is both a failure of understanding and an unwillingness to be understood. To lie is to recoil from relationship.

By lying, we deny others a view of the world as it is. Our dishonesty not only influences the choices they make, it often determines the choices they can make — and in ways we cannot always predict. Every lie is a direct assault upon the autonomy of those we lie to.

Slim but potent, Lying is an essential read…

How Love Rewires The Brain

“In a relationship, one mind revises the other; one heart changes its partner. This astounding legacy of our combined status as mammals and neural beings is limbic revision: the power to remodel the emotional parts of the people we love, as our Attractors [coteries of ingrained information patterns] activate certain limbic pathways, and the brain’s inexorable memory mechanism reinforces them.

Who we are and who we become depends, in part, on whom we love…”

A General Theory of Love is one of my favourite books and the kind of work you return to again and again, finding new layers of insight each time.

On Lies, Secrets and Silence – Adrienne Rich

An honourable human relationship – that is, one in which two people have the right to use the word “love” – is a process, delicate, violent, often terrifying to both persons involved, a process of refining the truths they can tell each other.

It is important to do this because it breaks down human self-delusion and isolation.

It is important to do this because in so doing we do justice to our own complexity.

It is important to do this because we can count on so few people to go that hard way with us.

Why do we feel slightly crazy when we realise we have been lied to in a relationship?

We take so much of the universe on trust. You tell me: “In 1950 I lived on the north side of Beacon Street in Somerville”. You tell me: “She and I were lovers, but for months now we have only been good friends”. You tell me: “It is seventy degrees outside and the sun is shining”. Because I love you, because there is not even a question of lying between us, I take these accounts of the universe on trust: your address twenty-five years ago, your relationship with someone I know only on sight, this morning’s weather. I fling unconscious tendrils of belief, like slender green threads, across statements such as these, statements made so unequivocally, which have no tone or shadow of tentativeness. I build them into the mosaic of my world. I allow my universe to change in minute, significant ways, on the basis of things you have said to me, of my trust in you.

I also have faith that you are telling me things it is important I should know; that you do not conceal facts from me in an effort to spare me, or yourself, pain.

Or, at the very least, that you will say, “There are things I am not telling you”.

When we discover that someone we trusted can be trusted no longer, it forces us to reexamine the universe, to question the whole instinct and concept of trust. For awhile, we are thrust back onto some bleak, jutting edge, in a dark pierced by sheets of fire, swept by sheets of rain, in a world before kinship, or naming, or tenderness exist; we are brought close to formlessness.

The liar may resist confrontation, denying that she lied. Or she may use other language: forgetfulness, privacy, the protection of someone else. Or, she may bravely declare herself a coward. This allows her to go on lying, since that is what cowards do. She does not say, I was afraid, since this would open the question of other ways of handling her fear. It would open the question of what is actually feared.

She may say, I didn’t want to cause pain. What she really did not want is to have to deal with the other’s pain. The lie is a short-cut through another’s personality.

Truthfulness, honour, is not something which springs ablaze of itself. It has to be created between people.

The possibilities that exist between two people, or among a group of people, are a kind of alchemy. They are the most interesting thing in life. The liar is someone who keeps losing sight of these possibilities. When relationships are determined by manipulation, by the need for control, they may possess a dreary, bickering kind of drama, but they cease to be interesting. They are repetitious; the shock of human possibilities has ceased to reverberate through them.

When someone tells me a piece of truth which has been withheld from me, and which I needed in order to see my life more clearly, it may bring acute pain, but it can also flood me with a cold, seasharp wash of relief. Often such truths come by accident, or from strangers.

It isn’t that to have an honourable relationship with you, I have to understand everything, or tell you everything at once, or that I can know, beforehand, everything I need to tell you.

It means that most of the time I am eager, longing for the possibility of telling you. That these possibilities may seem frightening, but not destructive, to me. That I feel strong enough to hear your tentative and groping words. That we both know we are trying, all the time, to extend the possibilities of truth between us.

The possibility of life between us…

The Tyranny of Choice

One of my favourite books of last year was Freedom by Jonathan Franzen. I was in a bookshop yesterday and saw the paperback and it brought to mind the central theme of the book, which is beautifully encapsulated in a review by Philips Delves Broughton:

‘…This is the key theme of the book, and the reason for the title. We pampered creatures of the 21st century are ruined by our own freedom. Instead of bringing us happiness, it brings us only uncertainty. Having eschewed the certainties and disciplines of earlier generations, we find ourselves lost and adrift, propelled by the lingering emotions of childhood into futile searches for meaning.’

Questioning choice
Questioning freedom has become quite fashionable of late. But it’s the questioning of choice that interests me: the freedom and number of choices that we have, how we make them and the impact they have upon us. Can you have too much choice? Of course you can. More and more research is illustrating that, far from bringing us happiness and satisfaction, too much choice, too many options, can bring us deep unhappiness and dissatisfaction. It can depress us and even paralyse us. Faced with too many choices – we make none. Or in a panic to make what we think is the “right” one our mind becomes clouded and we choose poorly. When it comes to a spot of retail therapy poor choices no longer have the consequences they once did – you can pretty much return anything you want and make another choice or you can get a refund. The risk is negated. But there are many, many choices that we make in life for which there is no return policy. The paths we take, even though they may seem insignificant at the time, can have an indelible impact upon who we are and what we might become. Pretty obvious stuff really.

We tell ourselves stories
But what part does the culture in which we are brought up play in the choices we make? Or even how we come to approach and view them? Can examining how different cultures and people make their own and collective choices bring us greater wisdom and understanding? Well, yes – of course.

In her essay, The White Album, Joan Didion writes:

‘We tell ourselves stories in order to live. We interpret what we see, select the most workable of the multiple choices. We live entirely by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the ideas with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience’.

This passage forms a core part of a TED talk given by Pyscho-economist, Sheena Lyengar called: The Art of Choosing. It’s an outstanding and insightful  talk about the choices we make – both the trivial and the deeply profound and how we feel about them. Toward the end of the talk she says:

“No matter where we’re from and what your narrative is, we all have a responsibility to open ourselves up to a wider array of what choice can do, and what it can represent. And this does not lead to a paralyzing moral relativism. Rather, it teaches us when and how to act. It brings us that much closer to realizing the full potential of choice, to inspiring the hope and achieving the freedom that choice promises but doesn’t always deliver…”

Unreal expectations
As expectations of ourselves, each other and the world around us get ever higher – often reaching levels that are simply unachievable and unattainable, which leads only to disappointment, disillusion and, in the case of many relationships, to dissolution – it’s worth remembering that the freedom of choice can become a tyranny. Sometimes less really is more…

The Hidden Influence of Our Social Networks

Following on from, and as an addition to, yesterday’s post regarding The Hidden Power of Friends – here is a fascinating talk by the social scientist, Nicholas Christakis at TED 2010.

In the talk Christakis discusses the vast social networks, of which we are all a part, and how they affect us in all kinds of ways. He examines how a wide variety of traits – from happiness to obesity – can spread from person to person and illustrates how our location within these networks might impact our lives.

He also examines emotions and how they spread (emotional contagion!) And posits that, “maybe, in fact, emotions have a collective existence, not just an individual existence”.

I find it compelling that not only our immediate networks but also people we may not even know can have a direct impact upon our lives on all sorts of myriad levels. And how, as a result, not just behaviour but what is the norm changes and morphs and spreads…

It’s well worth watching:

The Hidden Power of Friends

I have often thought about the impact that those whose company we choose (or are sometimes forced) to keep can impact upon us on an emotional and even physical level. Indeed the emotions of others can have such an influence that theirs can seep into our minds; they can become our emotions too. The company we keep is very important in ways that science is only recently beginning to fully explore.

Experiencing the emotions of others is automatic and often unbidden – we just do it intuitively. Our brains seep them up like a sponge. But why? What is it about the way we work that makes us not only share emotions but also intuit what others are feeling and share in it. What creates empathy? And why do some people feel it intently while others have great difficulty understanding how another person feels?

In the late 1980’s and early 90’s scientists discovered mirror-neurons. These are brain cells that spark when an animal moves a part of its body and sees another do exactly the same, hence the term ‘mirror’. In the original experiments monkeys were used but it has since been discovered that we humans have many, many more of these kinds of neurons. Indeed, neuroscientists now believe it is these that are at the root of all kinds of social phenomena and are the building blocks for empathy and indeed morality itself.

So, we not only copy and mirror each other emotionally but physically as well. And this kind of social learning starts to take place from the moment we are born. Pioneering work in the 70’s with infants showed that newborns start to copy the expressions of the faces of the people they see as early as 42 minutes after they’re born. And we continue copying one another all our lives. Anyone in business probably knows about ‘mirroring’ techniques that can be used in meetings and during pitches and presentations. By ‘mirroring’ people you can make them feel more at ease, create a connection with them and start to build rapport and trust. All by simply copying certain aspects of their gestures, the way they are sitting or their behaviour.

But the brain doesn’t just mirror the emotions or physical actions of others it also enables us to share the sensations of the people around us.

There is a vogue at the moment for talking about the importance of individualism. People say that we are individual beings and so should oppose any external influence or pressure on our own interests, whether that influence be from friends, society, family or our partners. I don’t agree. Whilst I am self-reliant and my wellbeing (both physical and mental) is my responsibility, it is an undoubted fact that the behaviour of others toward me and the environment in which I live and work has had an enormous impact upon me on a quite fundamental level. This is not to dodge responsibility – it is to embrace it. Because it allows me to see that not only do others have an impact upon me but also that I have an impact upon others. That what I say and do to others has consequences – both great and small. This doesn’t mean that I walk on eggshells in case of causing displeasure or constantly have to act like a clown for laughs and lightness. It means remaining aware, understanding and respecting that it matters what we do and say to people. Words count. Because we aren’t just individuals – we are social animals. We need each other.

And this fact – that we are social animals, connected and copying and mirroring each other throughout our lives has ramifications far beyond what I can fit in this one post. It affects where ideas come from. Has there ever been a truly original, singular idea or do we actually simply copy and refine other people’s and present them as new? Of course there hasn’t and we do. We copy each other’s ideas all the time. If we didn’t nothing would ever be invented. And yet there is such scorn, such outrage of copying. I don’t mean wholesale cloning of others ideas, which is all too prevalent and I am certainly not an advocate of. I mean that copying and using somebody else’s thinking is hardly a crime against them or society – it’s how ideas flourish and progress is made.

Thinking with others
Not only do we copy other people’s thoughts but we think with others all the time. In fact we think about other people far more than we might imagine. We also talk about them too; according to recent research about one-third of conversation is about things or the weather and the remaining two-thirds is about people, of which half is about people who aren’t even present during the conversation.

This thinking with others has been labeled as humans having a ‘distributed memory’. Who hasn’t gotten together at a party or for drinks with friends and started a conversation with “Do you remember that time when…?” We remember better collectively than we do individually. Some call magnified variations fn this type of distributed-memory the ‘wisdom of crowds’. But after the recent riots in London, I’m not sure how wise crowds are these days…

Our connections
Nevertheless – our connections, our friends and our families – the people we choose to surround ourselves with have impacts upon us far and beyond those that our conscious minds recognise. Surround yourself with miserable, lonely people and the likelihood is you’ll become miserable and lonely yourself without even noticing the change. Work with someone who is a stress-head and even though you might not normally suffer from stress or become so easily – you soon will. All of this sounds obvious I know – when we speak to a friend who is low we often feel the same after having talked to them and similarly when someone sounds happy and chirpy most people perk up.  But I’m not talking about the odd flash or moments which rub off on us momentarily but the long-term effect of our networks (family, friends, work and so on) on some of the most fundamental aspects of our psyche.

Choose wisely
I read a post recently written by another blogger where she examined what qualities connected her and her friends and kept them together over time. She decided that a good friend has “strength of character”. I rather like that.

Whether friends or our networks have such strength or not, perhaps one should try to choose them and the people one surrounds oneself with wisely. They affect who you are and your path in life more than they, and you, probably think.

The Power of Vulerability

“Connection. It’s why we’re here. It’s what gives purpose and meaning to our lives. This is what it’s all about. What we know is that connection, the ability to feel connected, is –neurobiologically that’s how we’re wired — why we’re here…”

Vulnerability isn’t comfortable. It’s just necessary. It’s the willingness to say “I love you” first…the willingness to do something where there are no guarantees…being willing to invest in a relationship that may or may not work out…this is fundamental. This is where courage and strength lies…