Sunday, March 31, 2013

To trust or not to trust?

To trust is to place one's confidence in someone or something.  Trust implies a belief in the truth of what one is told or promised.  It suggests a willingness to place one's faith in another while having no guarantee of a positive outcome. 

With trust comes uncertainty.  The more confident we are that a person or entity will fulfill his/her/its commitment the more willing we are to trust him/her/it.  Still, we can never predict what will happen in the future with complete certainty; thus, there is always some degree of uncertainty associated with trust.  For this reason, we talk about trust in terms of probability.  When deciding to trust (or not to trust), we try to assess the most likely outcome(s) of the situation at hand.

So how do we know who (or what) to trust?  This is a question with important consequences.  If we place trust in the wrong people, we end up getting manipulated, used, or taken advantage of.  If we refuse to trust anyone, we become paranoid and suspicious and we deprive oursleves of meaningful and fulfilling relationships with others.

Unfortunately, there is no magic formula that allows us to make a calculated decision about who we can trust.  There are, however, a few basic guidelines that I have found helpful.

1. Trust is not an allor nothing concept.  Many of us assume that either we can trust a person or we can't; there is no middle ground.  If we can't trust a person completely then we can't trust him at all.  This mindset can create a lot of unncessary problems.  It can cause us to place unconditional trust in the wrong people or to prematurely terminate meaningful relationships in response to even the smallest violation of trust.  It is more helpful to think of trust as varying by category and degree.  From this perspective, you can decide to trust someone in one area but not in another.  For example, I might trust a friend to pick me up from the airport on time but have absolutely no trust in her ability to keep a secret.  We can still have a perfectly healthy relationship; I just know not to tell her anything I don't want anyone else to know. 

2. It is best to trust a person only as much as you know him.  Some of us have the tendency to get ahead of ourselves.  We meet someone new; by the end of the week we've told him our entire life story.  Having just met this person, we have no idea how he will react to or what he will do with this information; we have no information upon which to form an opinion.  Sometimes I talk to my patients about red flags.  For example: if someone you've known for less than a month asks to borrow money, your car, or some other significant item - RUN!  This is a red flag!

3. The best predictor of what a person will do in the future is what you have seen him or her do in the past.  There are, of course, exceptions to this rule.  People can and do change.  It is, however, rare that they do so spontaneously; there is almost always a precipitating factor.  Change requires long term commitment.  Rarely do people invest the time and effort to change unless the negative consequences of their behavior start to pile up.  Some examples.  If a friend is always late and has given no indication that she is committed to changing this behavior, you can trust that she will be late the next time you invite her somewhere (no matter how important the occasion).  If a family member has a history of lying, you can trust that he'll most likely lie to you at some point in the future.  It is in your best interest, then, to investigate whatever he or she tells you before accepting it as truth.  If your spouse has consistently demonstrated that he or she is bad with money, you can trust that he or she will probably continue to make poor financial decisions in the future.  It would be quite foolish to trust him/her to manage the family's finances; such trust would have no basis in reality.

4. If a person is determined to deceive you he will probably succeed.  Let's face it: there are people out there who lie, cheat, steal, and manipulate.  Some people are so good at deception that even the most discerning among us are fooled.  Fortunately, the majority of people are not con artists.  Over the course of a lifetime, almost everyone will be betrayed or deceived at least once.  It is never a pleasant experience.  While it is natural to want to avoid such pain in the future, deciding never to trust anyone ever again is not the best way to do it. 

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Reason vs. Emotion in Decision Making

When it comes to making decisions, Western societies tend to value reason and rational thought.  The assumption is that good decisions are based upon careful consideration of all relevant facts.  Whenever possible, important factors and potential outcomes should be quantified.  The more data-driven the process, the better.

If reason is the foundation of good decision making, emotion is perceived as its enemy.  Emotional decisions are seen as impulsive, reactive, and irrational.  Emotions are thought to interfere with making good decisions by distorting the salience of particular information, thus creating bias in the decision maker.  We are therefore encouraged to set our feelings aside when making decisions, lest they interfere with the process.

Science has started to challenge these assumptions in recent years.  There exists a growing body of evidence suggesting that - far from interfering with the decision making process - emotions are an invaluable source of information. 

According to Seo and Barrett, there are two factors that determine how emotions influence decision making: how people experience their emotions and what they do with them.  The "how" refers to the intensity or strength of a given individual's emotional experiences. "What they do with them" refers to the level of emotional awareness of a given individual and the degree to which his feelings influence his judgment. 

This model acknowledges that emotions have the potential to interfere with one's ability to make good decisions;  they can influence our perceptions and create bias.  As an example: Suppose a person is extremely uncomfortable with risk and uncertainty.  He is presented with an investment opportunity that entails a small level of risk over the short term but a strong likelihood of success over the long term.  He is uncomfortable with uncertainty; whenever he thinks about the risk associated with this opportunity he becomes anxious.  Instead of taking advantage of this opportunity he instead selects a no risk option, even though this selection will earn him less money.  His decision to go with the less favorable (and less rational) option is based entirely on his anxiety. 

On the other hand, when given a proper role emotions can be an essential part of the decision making process.  Research, in fact, suggests that it might be impossible to take emotion out of the equation.  One study included participants with impairment in brain areas associated with perception of emotion.  When presented with several options and given factual information about each, they found it difficult to develop a preference for any one option over another.  As it turns out, preference is, at its core, an emotion.  Without emotional input, one cannot develop preferences; it is quite difficult to make decisions without preferences. 

In summary, emotions can both facilitate and interfere with good decision making.  What do we do with this apparent contradiction?  Fortunately, there is a (relatively) simple solution.  The key is emotional awareness (mindfulness of emotions).  Studies show that the impact of emotional bias on decision making is completely negated when people can recognize their feelings and reflect upon their relevance to the situation at hand. 

Using the earlier example, a person could say, "I'm feeling anxious about taking this risk.  This is probably because I am uncomfortable with uncertainty; taking risks always makes me anxious.  My anxiety is based on habit, not on fact.  I will take the risk because it is the better option."

Here's a link to an article that gives some good tips on using emotion in the decision making process:

Sunday, March 17, 2013

More than happiness...

I recently read an article on by Emily Estafani Smith called, "There's More to Life than Being Happy" (   As a psychotherapist, happiness is definitely a topic of great interest to me.  In fact, most of my patients come to me in pursuit of happiness.  Of course, "happiness" means different things to different people.  For many of my patients, happiness means the absence (or even the lessening) of suffering.  For others, happiness suggests the presence of a particular emotional state (accompanied by whatever else is necessary to achieve that state).

Americans place a great deal of value on individual happiness.  The right of every man to pursue happiness is one of the central tenets upon which the country was founded.  I doubt, however, that this is solely an American phenomenon.  Among the core values of many nations (particular western nations) is the happiness of its citizens.

In some ways, then, Smith's assertion that there are more worthy goals in life than happiness is quite radical.  What other aspiration is worthy of the time and effort we devote to seeking pleasure?

Smith suggests that having a sense of purpose or meaning in life is far more powerful than mere happiness.  According to Smith, our single-minded focus on personal happiness creates a shallow and superficial existence.  There is also evidence to suggest that setting happiness as one's primary aspiration is counter-productive; it actually makes us less happy.

While happiness is characterized by attaining pleasure for oneself, meaning is found in doing things for others.  This explains why the things we find meaningful in life are not necessarily the things we most enjoy doing.

Still, people who say they have a purpose in life tend to report higher levels of overall well being than those who say they lack purpose.  Happiness is dependent upon pleasure.  Could it be that happiness, like pleasure, is fleeting?

In contrast, meaning tends to have a longer-term focus, which could explain its correlation with overall well being.

For me, Smith's article was an apt reminder not to get too consumed by the idea of happiness.  Happiness is, after all, a natural byproduct of living a meaningful life.  As such, it need not be pursued for its own sake.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

What we say without words

Language is the most valuable communication tool we have.  Still, we manage to say a lot without using words, sometimes without even realizing it.  A recent incident really drove this point home for me.

My husband and I had gotten into an argument.  A day or two later, we sat down to talk about what happened and how to prevent such disagreements from getting out of hand in the future.  "I was angry," my husband said.  "I know that when I get angry like that, the best thing for me to do is walk away.  That way, I won't end up saying something I'll regret later."  

Of course this is a good strategy.  In fact, it's exactly what I tell my patients to do.  When you're too angry to think rationally, take a break and come back later.  In this particular instance, however, I had a problem with this technique.  

"You became enraged as soon as I brought up the problem!" I exclaimed.  "How are we ever going to talk about our problems if you get angry the moment I bring it up?" On the day of the argument, I'd carefully chosen my words in an effort to avoid being blaming or confrontational.  I'd spent a lot of time thinking about how to approach my concerns without sounding critical or making him defensive.  Despite my efforts, my husband immediately became angry when I tried to discuss the issue.  

From my perspective, my husband was completely out of line.  He needed to work on not getting so angry.  Otherwise, how were we ever going to resolve conflict in our marriage?  I conveyed my thoughts to my husband.

"I didn't get angry because of what you said," he replied.  

This was certainly unexpected.  "What do you mean?" I asked.

"It was the look on your face!" he explained.  "Your words were fine.  But you looked at me like I was the most disgusting thing on earth."

I had no doubt that what my husband said was true.  I've never been able to hide my emotions; I'm too nonverbally expressive.  I apologized to my husband.  I also made a mental note to pay more attention to my nonverbal communication.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Laws of Emotion

In his 1988 article, Nico Frijda proposed several "laws" that govern human emotion.  Reason, he explained, is not the opposite of emotion.  To the contrary, emotions appear to follow certain "laws," akin to the "laws of nature" that govern various aspects of the physical world. 

Emotions form the very core of my work as a psychotherapist; psychological wounds cannot be healed by rational thought alone.  And yet, emotions can be difficult, distressing, or deeply confusing - for everyone, myself included.  Part of my job is to guide others through a sea of complicated emotions without overwhelming them. 

It helps me to understand how emotions function, which is why I found Frijda's work so interesting.  In all, Frijda identifies twelve laws of emotion; I have no intention of discussing them all, at least not today.  Rather, I thought I'd talk about a few of the laws that seem most relevant to my work (and quite frankly, to my personal life as well). 

The Law of Habituation: Repeated or continued exposure to any given emotion decreases the intensity of that emotion.  Consider the popular adage, "Time heals all wounds."  This truism is not entirely accurate.  It is not time but habituation that causes the pain of loss to abate over time. Unfortunately, it is not only pain that loses its edge with the passage of time; so too does pleasure.  Upon accomplishing a long sought after goal, we initially experience a surge of pride, excitement, and satisfaction.  These feelings fade once the novelty of the situation wears off.  Love, romance, and passion are similarly intoxicating in the early stages of a romantic relationship; over time, however, we habituate to these emotions, causing them to gradually lose their lustre.  The law of habituation also explains why people who repeatedly bear witness to the cruel and inhumane treatment of others eventually become impervious to human suffering.

While there are no constraints on the amount of pleasure to which we can habituate, the same cannot be said for suffering.  Frijda explains this rather eloquently: "There exists, it would seem, misery that one does not get used to."  He calls this phenomenon the law of hedonic asymmetry.  The basic premise is this: we habituate to even the most intense feelings of pleasure, which therefore abate with continued exposure.  Pain, on the ohter hand, will persist unabated in the presence of continued adverse circumstances.  (I'll talk about why this is some other time).

So satisfaction "wears off" but pain never does.  How depressing is that?  But Frijda suggests -- almost as an afterthought -- that the outcomes of these laws are not inevitable.  He goes on to say something very profound, a truth that seems to resurface again and again.  "Adaptation to satisfaction," he explains.  "Can be counteracted by constantly being aware of how fortunate one's condition is and of how it could have been rekindling impact through recollection and imagination."  Frijda is telling us to practice gratitude.  If we make time each day to think about and appreciate the good things in our lives, we can renew and invigorate our feelings of happiness and satisfaction.

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