Archive for the 'Evolutionary Psychology Related' Category

Intensity Does Not Equal Aggression

Sometimes people tell me that I come off as a little aggressive. When I ask them what they mean, they say that I seem to be feeling a lot of emotion when I engage them about stuff. I’ve heard that I’m engaging and passionate, but to be described as aggressive seems a little unfair. Rachel told me it that it isn’t aggression, it’s intensity. I have a lot of energy that I direct towards everything I do. This makes for great conversations, and impassioned debates and whatever they may be, they are not aggressive.

When I mentioned it to Des he suggested that human beings have evolved to pick up on signs of aggression because it would have helped them in conflict situations. If you know when an animal is about to attack, you can get a head start on running away so it would give the individual a survival advantage. With a sense like this, you do not want a false negative because your chances of dying increase dramatically. The trigger point is going to be set pretty low to ensure that no behavioral predictors of aggression are missed.

When I think how this may apply to me, it does explain some peoples reaction. There is something about my behavior that is causing this sense to be triggered. It doesn’t happen so much with people I know well or interact with frequently because they have learned to ignore this sense when talking to me. When I’m talking to new acquaintances, their threshold for predicting aggression is lower so it may be triggered by the intensity of a conversation; be it by the increase in voice volume, the amount of body movement, a change in the size of the pupils, etc….

It is good information to know that until they get to know me, some people are going to interpret my intensity as a sign of aggression.

Breaking-Up - The Fundamental Attribution Error

A friend recently broke up with her boy friend of a couple of years. It had been obvious to all those who knew them that the split was inevitable but when it came, he seemed to take it a little harder than she did. He’s a really dedicated and hard worker and directed a lot of his energies into his career. As a consequence, he hadn’t taken the time to deal with the impending break-up as she did - while it didn’t take him completely by surprise, he was a little annoyed that she didn’t seem to be hurting as much about it as he did. In truth, she had been morning the loss in her own way for a long time before the actual break-up.

In his pain he lashed out at her with some hurtful words, stormed out, and drove away. When I talked to her about it, she said that while it was a little out of character, she wasn’t going to hold it against him because the situation is one that is completely out of the norm. Their relationship had been good, it had run its course and it was time to move on. His behavior at the end struck her as being completely different that she concluded it had to have more to do with the situation than the individual thus avoiding the fundamental attribution error..

We make the fundamental attribution error anytime we assume that dispositional or personality traits play a great role in determining someones behavior than situational factors do. There are many examples of this, but one of my favorite deals with two basketball players shooting free throws. With one of them, the lights are on high allowing them to make more baskets and with the other one, the lights are much dimmer which prevents them from making as many. When people are asked which player is better, they almost always say that the one who made the most hoops, IRRELEVANT of the obvious disadvantage that having less light creates.

There are many reason why human being would be prone to commit the fundamental attribution error, all of which stem from our desire to predict others behavior because this will give us a survival advantage. As a tendency, however, it may have run its course in being evolutionary advantageous given that diversity of the modern world.

Regardless, when someone is thrust into a completely new situation EXPECT to see them acting out of character because behavior can be very dependent on environmental or situational factors. Keeping this in mind can help prevent the fundamental attribution error and allow you to stay closer to the truth of the matter.

Taking The Good From Leaving Chatham Ontario

My life over the last few months has been tremendously different. I’d have to say since I quit my last real job at Chatham in January 2006 things began to take a turn that makes a lot of things possible. Below are 6 important lessons I have taken out of the experience over the last 18 months:

1) Sometimes you need to follow advice, particularly if the giver never tells you what to do.

Des told me to “get the heck out of Chatham” around 2:30 am boxing day. We had been drinking and he came right out and told me to do it. Des doesn’t tell me what to do. He suggests alternative ways of looking at things and supports me when I make silly choices, but he NEVER tells me what to do. Except this one time, so I listened.

A few months ago Tony made a comment to me that I was like a venues fly trap when it came to dating because I would grab hold of whoever was around me instead of taking the time to look for someone who I was more compatible with. It was one of those comments that cut pretty deep because it was true and because it meant that I was either lazy and didn’t want to take the time to find a suitable partner or that I didn’t believe that I deserved the happiness that true partnership affords us. He was right about me, only so far as it concerned my past because I had taken a couple of years off of dating because I had noticed the same thing. His was a warning comment not to go back to my old ways. It is advice that I don’t think I’ll need to take again, but when a friend who is usually silent tells you what to do, just make sure you listen.

2) There are consequences to things but they are not what you think they will be.

I had wanted to leave Chatham for a few months before I actually gave my notice that I was stepping down because I was pretty unhappy and felt that I wasn’t going to be able to do the job I was hired to do. I had wanted to leave right after Suzanne moved to BC about three weeks after I took the job but stuck it out because I felt I owed it to the person I was when I made the decision to take the job. I tried as hard as I could for 6 months until I realized that I wasn’t going to be successful and Des told me to leave.

There was no fallout worth mentioning. Okay, I’ll never get the chance to manage another GoodLife Fitness club and I don’t get to see a lot of people I met while I lived in Chatham, but the world didn’t stop spinning and no one hated me for leaving - my friends there understood that I had to go because I wasn’t happy. After a couple of days back in Milton, I felt fantastic because I was back to living the life I liked.

3) I am a reflector and am almost incapable of spontaneous displays of a mood.

I’m generally happy, but if someone around me is miserable I will be come miserable almost immediately - I socially reference to a fault. It makes me very engaging if you are engaging, very bitter if you are bitter and one of my clients if you believe that I know what I’m talking about.

Des pointed this out to me the day before my 33rd birthday. As soon as he did, I saw what he was talking about and realized that I had always been that way. A few days later, I stopped hanging around people who tend to put off a negative vibe and I noticed that my level of happiness improved dramatically. Then I cleaned house and stopped spending time doing things that made me unhappy or created negative feelings within me.

This quality is a mixed blessing. It allows me to be very engaging with others and it helps me connect to people in a way that many cannot. But it can also see me feeling very poorly about a lot of stuff and, in many ways, I’m kind of lost. When I’m with someone who is the same way, my general level of happiness tends to come out and shape the interaction as positive, the same thing happens when I’m with someone who is happy or when I’m alone. But when I’m with a dark force (a black hole as I tend to call them) things do downhill very quickly. Des telling me that I am a reflector was a huge step forward in my self awareness and it liberated me from these black holes because I was finally able to see them for what they were to me.

4) What you are looking for is an understanding and not a thing that exists anywhere other than in your own head.

When I quit my PT job, one of my clients Kim gave me a card saying “… I hope you find what you are looking for on your travels and when you don’t, I hope you realize that it has been within you all along.”

She was right. I found a lot of things during my trip to the east coast but what I was looking for was not one of them. There were moments when I almost stumbled upon it - I took a wrong turn down a trail in Fundy National park and had to hike with my bike for about 2 hours down and up some valley - it was the hardest I have ever had to work and there were times when I thought I’d have to put the bike down so I could crawl out just to save my life but I got through it without finding what I was looking for. I already knew I was strong and had a poor sense of direction.

I found what I was looking for about 5 months later when I got sick and thought I was going to spend the rest of my life relying on kidney dialysis. I’m still not sure what I found but on a conscious level I’m acting like my life is ending soon and I’m making the most out of each moment. I think that was what Kim was getting at when she gave me the card. When I asked her want she meant she said that I’d know when I found it. I’ve always feared that I was going to die one day, but now I realize that I am going to so today I must live because it’s all going to end eventually.

5) I am going to be horrible at most things the first time I do them.

I did the RPM training the first weekend of February 2007 and I almost didn’t go back for the second day. I still think the only reason why I did go back was because I was car pooling with Rachel. I got rather sick after the first day - I over did it and was physically exhausted. I got sick a couple of times on the way home from Waterloo. I had the worst head ache I have ever had that Saturday evening so I didn’t get to practice. However, I got through it. I wasn’t very good at instructing the tracks I had been assigned as homework, but I had an intensity that Rick and Carole (the national trainers) felt could make me a good instructor once I learned how to do it. They were right. Many of my participants like my classes because it’s clear that I’m working really hard and have a passion for it.

The same thing is true for blogging, learning power lifting exercises and learning how to play guitar - until I know how to do it, I’m just trying to do it and I’m not very good at it. Everything takes practice but if you do it enough times, you will get better at it and eventually you will become it (an instructor, blogger, power lifter, whatever). The key thing is to accept that you’re going to be dreadful the first few times and that this is something that you share with almost everyone else on the planet.

6) People know more than they give themselves credit for but may not listen to themselves because they do not believe that they have a right to be great or happy.

It serves an evolutionary function to feel this way. Smug people tend to be alienating and we regard their arrogance as a negative thing because it is dangerous - listening to them in our evolutionary past would more likely lead to our death than ignoring them given that they don’t know what they are talking about.

People who know themselves are confident and NOT smug or arrogant. They are aware of how the world is and exist within it in a calm and peaceful way. They are attempting to shape their own opinion of the world through learning and not trying to shape others opinion of them.

It’s important to keep this in mind when considering your own place in the world because there is nothing wrong with being confident IF you have a clear understanding of what is going on. If it is based on reality, it isn’t smug or arrogant and you SHOULD listen to yourself. Only a fool would continue to make a mistake after they have learned that it is a mistake. Unfortunately, many people keep doing the same thing over and over again in spite of knowing how it will work out.

Some Interesting Nutrition Findings

Experimental Biology 2007 by Mike Roussell of talks about some of the findings presented at this years Experimental Biology conference in Washington, DC.

Of particular interest was the review of Dr. Barbara Rolls talk:

1) People given either 500 grams or 1000 grams of macaroni and cheese. The ones who received the larger portion ate 33% more calories and reported the same levels of satiety and hunger compared to the people given the smaller portion. These findings did not differ between lean and obese people.

I found it very interesting that people will eat more if more food is made available to them but will tend to report feeling just as full as they would if they ate less. It is also unusual that soup or salad before a meal lowers over all calorie consumption but water alone does not - I wonder if it has something to do with flavor?

I didn’t find it surprising that people will tend to NOT over eat fruits and vegetables. I don’t believe that these foods serve a survival function, at least not from an evolutionary point of view. They do improve the quality of life but animal flesh and sugar rule the day when dealing with energy storage. The antioxidant qualities of green leafy vegetables are of no significance to a creature that is about to enter the food scarcity phase that winter tends to facilitate.

We’re All Equally Alive And Aware, And The Same

I am constantly forgetting that everyone has a unique experience of consciousness. What exactly that is may be the same, but each individual feels as alive and aware as I do. It’s so easy to forget because I’m the only perspective of my conscious experience. It’s hard to believe sometimes but the other people I interact with are not part of the movie I’m watching. They have the same potential for pretty much everything that I do - joy, sadness, learning, injury, cognitive distortions, hunger, dreaming, etc…

Each one of them is as real as I am and they feel too.

When I’m not forgetting that they are real, I am forgetting that they are very similar to me. One of my university professors claimed that all human beings are almost genetically identical to each other, that any diversity we see is the result of differences in a very small percentage of the genetic code, he said less than one percent. That means there’s a very good chance that many people will respond to certain stimuli the same way I do, that we’ll think in similar terms and that we’ll have similar abilities. Why then is it that when someone bumps into me with their shopping card I concluded that they are probably stupid but when I bump into them it’s because I wasn’t able to navigate through the tight aisles? Because of the fundamental attribution error.

The fundamental attribution error is the tendency for us to explain behavior in terms of internal disposition, such as personality traits, abilities, motives, etc. as opposed to external environmental factors that may have impacted the individual. We don’t judge ourselves like this because we have an understanding of our external environment which clearly explains our behavior. But this understanding doesn’t help us explain someone else behaviour and since we don’t have their understanding we manufacture one that usually has them being a sub par human being.

It works both ways though. Sometimes people will be so taken by another that they are unable to see their internal traits in a negative light and blame the environment for all negative outcomes. The experience of first love can be like this as it is all consuming and often at odds with reality. Another example is the person you know who is just really unlucky and has all the bad things happen to them. At some point it becomes evident that they are making some poor decisions that are leading to very predictable outcomes that they attribute to bad luck. In this case, the fundamental attribution error would not be an error.

Why would it be our tendency to make guesses about others character based on their behaviour instead of the environment, as we do with ourselves? Obviously this tendency kept our ancestors alive through out history. I think it has something to do with magical thinking and our desire to gain an advantage over others. Attributing other’s behavior to their underlying character allows us to determine the motives of others that will help us make predictions about them, these predictions with help us save energy by eliminating the need to think.

I make this claim because it works with both negative and positive behaviours - we will assume someone who does nice things is a good person regardless of any environmental influence. For example, how many times have you heard someone play down their heroic actions by saying “I did what anyone would do in that situation”? Maybe they are right, maybe they are wrong, but the sheer number of people who act like selflessly in crisis situations does tend to lend support to their notion that people act with kindness and caring when they are faced with difficult environmental conditions.

It would seem that in our quest to stay alive, we conserve energy in whatever ways we can. One of these ways is to compartmentalize our understanding of people by eliminating the potential role the environment plays in their behaviour. And this makes sense because the environment is ever changing, creating an understanding of others that is static makes interacting with the world that much easier. But, it doesn’t change the fact that others are exactly as we are, alive, aware and full of humanity.

Consequences Of The Brain Treating Reality And Thought As The Same

Brain scans can show us exactly which part of our brain is active. One thing that these test have uncovered is that the brain will be almost as active when someone thinks about doing a task as it is when they are doing the task. The motor cortex that controls movement is not active but the rest of the brain appears to be as engaged in the activity as it would be if you WERE engaged in the activity.

Now take a second to think about that. The brain doesn’t know the difference between what is real and what is thought. What is the difference between doing something and thinking about doing it? I think only the movement portion, and the motor cortex is the only portion of the brain that shows a decrease in activity when we only think about something.

Have you ever had a dream that impacted the rest of your day? No matter what you do you’re left with a lagging feeling that started with the dream. Would having that same experience in real life have create a similar impact, maybe not the same but one as equally profound? I’ve had dreams that stayed with me because they felt so real - it was as though I had actually had to run for my life or jump from a building. That’s because my brain DID response as though I was running for my life or jumping from a building. Technology shows us that this is how the brain works.

I’m sure you’ve had the experience of thinking about something that makes you angry and gets your blood boiling. The response is exactly the same as the real thing, you get an adrenalin spike as you charge up for action. You’re having a real physiological response to a mental stimulus. You can create whatever emotional response that you like by thinking about things that evoke that response.

It really is a stimulus response world. No matter what it is, it you are old enough to read and comprehend what I’m saying here, you probably have had enough experience to create 10000’s of response / stimulus pairings. Very rarely will you be faced with a situation for which you do not have a response.

If this is how the brain works, how do we put it to work for us?

Start changing your thought patterns. Stop thinking thoughts that create negative emotional reactions. Think of kittens, or stake, or something that causes you to respond in a positive way. Start thinking thoughts that foster the emotional state that you need to perform at your best at every moment. I do my best blog writing when I think of things that give me hope and optimism. My best song writing comes out when I’m feeling down or heart broken. When I’m at the gym trying to lift heavy I need to manufacture feelings of personal injustice to give me something to rise against. When I’m engaging someone in a discussion, I’ll picture myself being open and receiving their knowledge. Whatever it is, if I can perform better in a different state of mind I’ll work to find that state.

It only makes sense to do this. Find what makes your performance better and hack your brain to manufacture the emotional state that will allow you to tap into it.

I Hear Voices, They Tell Me It Is Called Thinking

One of the worst things I ever heard happened during my last year at university when I was 24. I was living with Tony and Beth, a couple, in a two-bedroom apartment and had fallen asleep on the couch. The lights were off and the sleep function of the TV had turned it off so I was in almost complete darkness. Tony has a great sense of humor. He will say almost anything and make it funny.

Initially I thought he was playing a joke on me because I was woken up to hear someone saying “you are a loser, you will never make anything out of your life, you’re worthless.” It was dark, so when I sat up and turned around to tell him to piss off, it took me a while to notice that I was alone. In fact, I could still hear the voice telling me that I was a failure as it dawned on me that there wasn’t anyone else in the room. I was completely alone and all I could hear was this voice reminding me of my shortcomings as a human being and my complete lack of worth as a person.

It was rather disturbing to realize that the voice was coming from inside my head. First off, what it was saying bothered me because I felt that it was probably true. Secondly, why am I hearing voices and finally, why is the voice telling me that I am so pathetic? I sat their scared and angry until I was fully awake. Once I calmed down I went to bed and hoped I would sleep it off.

The next morning was very different. The voice was still there but it wasn’t telling me that I was useless. Instead it was telling me that I needed to get up, that I needed to go to school, that last night I had woken up last night hearing a weird voice dictating negativity at me, that I needed to do laundry, etc…. It seemed to be saying all the things that I was thinking. I dressed, ate breakfast and left to catch a bus to school. I recall feeling kind of weird, that I was out of place somehow. It wasn’t a bad feeling other than making me feel a little uneasy, but things weren’t wrong.

Looking back now I know exactly what was happening. I had an experience that would lead to an epiphany and one that created an awareness of who I was and why I was the way I was. The voice had been there for a long time. I’m not entirely sure just how long, but it years, probably since 12 or 13. That night was the first time that I became aware that it existed. Up until them it would do its thing without me even being aware that it was there. Becoming aware of the voice was the experience.

The voice is an internal monolog that is the literal representation of my immediate emotional state. It allows you to think literally about an emotional experience. In many ways it allows you to engage your emotions in a logical way because it makes them something that you can think about in tangible terms - it’s hard to capture the essence of grief on paper unless you have the vocabulary to describe what the experience is like, once you do, you can reference the feelings with words that will allow you some access to the emotion itself.

I say that the voice had been there since I was 12 or 13 because that was the first time I started to feel shame. In order to manufacture shame, you need to have some understanding that you are an individual within a community of other individuals. This type of abstract thought does not develop until 12 or 13 years of age. I may be wrong with this, but so far no one I’ve talked to about this recalls hearing the voice before their mid to late teens and most become aware of it in their early twenties.

Leading up to that night when I heard the voice, I had been playing around with mediation. I had never been very good at it because my mind was always very active and all over the place. Any time I felt that I was getting close to having a meditative experience I would be drawn away from it by some thought. It never made sense to me how I could think something when my eyes were closed and it was quiet. Up until that point I believed that I thought in images and not in words - it’s weird to write this now because of course I can think in words, but back then I didn’t realize it was the case. After I heard the voice, the source of my distraction was obvious, random words or phrase would pop into my head or I would begin to narrate my immediate emotional state e.g. “I want to go to a rave” or “oh, this is starting to feel like I’m mediating” or “I want to have sex with my girlfriend.” You can’t achieve nirvana with all that stuff floating around in your head.

Anyway, that day at school was interesting. I noticed that the voice would paint a darker picture of what was really going on. It would put a negative spin on stuff that happened, particularly when it dealt with other people; it seemed to come alive when I was interacting with other people. Usually making guess about what people thought about my actions or about me. It threw out a lot of judgment and hearing it made me think that maybe this was why I felt lousy around people most of the time. In fact, it didn’t seem to ever say anything that was positive, at best it was neutral, but mostly it was just negative.

Over the next few weeks, while the experience was still fresh in my mind, I paid a lot of attention to what it said and how it made me feel. The strangest part was how easily I would accept the conclusions or observations that it drew. To not do so felt completely pointless because the voice was coming from me. If I didn’t accept what it said, it would mean that I was wrong or that there was some part of me that was trying to sabotage my fortune. There was definitely a relationship between what the voice said and how I felt, but the relationship was a two way interaction - sometimes the voice would say something that would make me feel bad, other times I would feel bad and the voice would say something about it. It seemed that it would either dictate how I should feel or it would observe what I was feeling.

The experience faded and after a while I stopped thinking about it. I accepted that the voice was there and that there wasn’t very much that I could do to stop it. In time, however, I learned to talk back to it and to question it. After a lot of work it became easy to discredit it. I realized that since it came from me, it knew exactly as much as I did, so it didn’t have any special powers. Once it became evident to me that it was a reflection of my immediate emotional state and that that was within my control, what the voice said must also be under my control, if not completely, at least in terms of tone. For a while, it became something that was there that I tired to ignore and not let affect me. I think it took about 5 or 6 years before it stopped making me feel anything.

About 2 years ago, I was having pho with my brother and he started talking to me about sociobiology / evolutionary psychology. When I mentioned the voice and the experience that I had years before it was cause for us to stop and reflect on the reason for the voice. The part of evolutionary psychology I like is the fact that if a trait exists within an individual, there is a survival reason for it. The challenge was for us to come up with the survival reason for it. It turned out that he has the voice as well and that it does basically the same thing for him that it does for me. He gained power over it the same way I did, by challenging it and the observations it comes up with.

Not that there are any hard and true answers with things like this, but we came to the conclusion that the natural tendency towards the negative interpretation of others perceptions of us makes us work harder to gain their approval because if we have the approval of others in our social group, we will be able to remain part of that group and will have an improved chance of surviving. It’s an antiquated approach because all you need to survive in today’s society is money, but with millions of years of evolution behind it, getting rid of this trait isn’t going to happen any time soon. If you are able to isolate the voice and observe it without reacting to what it is saying, you will find that it does alert you to a lot of odd things. When something isn’t right, this is usually the first way you’ll realize it. It will say something that lets you know that something is going on or that you feel a particular way about something.

At worst you are not aware of the voice as it dictates negative observation and social pessimism un-molested into your conscious awareness making you feel guilt and shame. Maybe it isn’t that bad. Maybe you realize that it is there and that you have learned to ignore it, remaining more or less unaffected by it. Or maybe you are lucky and you have challenged the voice and found out that it is full of crap most of the time. Maybe you have found out what it is good for and are able to use it as a perceptive tool to help you uncover the truth of the world. I’m somewhere between ignoring it and knowing what it’s good for but every now and then I still have to tell myself to wise up and stop reacting to what the voices inside my head are saying.