Holding on to Hope

So coming back to these ideas about decision making and how they apply to me.

I can definitely identify with how short-term emotions can make me slow and timid and reluctant to take action. I think that some of this is the depression sensing danger and imminent defeat and telling me to "go to the back of the cave and hide".

I also really identify with seeing "too much complexity", failing to see the most important factor etc. "When we revel in complexity, we may cycle through our options constantly, changing our minds from day to day. But that kind of mental circling is risky, because it means that our choice may be determined by where we are on the merry-go-round when we’re forced to make a final call.". I've definitely been in that state a lot in my life.

I get stuck in a mindset where I feel compelled to not take the leap but I know that by not making a decision, I'm only making things worse for my self. I'm scared to make a decision but also scared of leaving things the same.

I think that some of the getting lost in the details is driven by the worry, trying to make sure that things don't go wrong.

I also think that confirmation bias comes into this.

"We are all pretty good at digging up disconfirming information to respond to a sales pitch."

"The problem comes, of course, when we sort of want to be sold."

"Sometimes we think we’re gathering information when we’re actually fishing for support."

"When we want something to be true, we gather information that supports our desire. But the confirmation bias doesn’t just affect what information people go looking for; it even affects what they notice in the first place."

All of this seems really important to me. I think my confirmation bias could sometimes be to look for reasons to not do something, driven by fear, rather than reasons to do something, driven by desire. The problem gets worse when every option starts to trigger fear and then I start cycling through options, worrying and over-thinking.

I'm reminded of the ideas from the "Chimp Paradox" about how we think about success and confidence and how these can trigger feelings of calm which help our performance or fear that might hinder our performance. Remembering this and trying to reframe success and confidence might help with some of the fear that gets in the way or me thinking clearly.

I also think there's a lot in "Decisive" that's very related to some of the ideas from psychology that I've been reading about. The ideas from the chapter about honouring our core values seemed particularly relevant. The whole idea of self-image comes into play. Sometimes I get into a mindset where I'm focused on proving something (eg. proving that I'm not stupid) and this gets in the way of me pursuing my most important goals and certainly triggers a lot of fear.

One more thing that I'm struck by is this idea of self-distancing. Imagining what other people would do, imagining the advice that you would give to a friend or that a friend would give to you. Seems very related to the sense of self and ideas like empathy etc. Also, I often imagine people gloating about me making bad decisions rather than advising me and wanting to help me. I think a lot of this goes back to the inner critical parent. "Taking advice" gets reimagined in my head as "do what you're told".

Another thing is this idea of confirmation bias. This idea of arguing against a sales person, becoming more entrenched in your views the more they are challenged and so on. I feel like these become inner dialogues for me. In the book. "The Intelligence Trap", it goes into more detail about the confirmation bias and how it may have evolved along with the desire to justify ourselves as early humans' social groups became more and more complex.

I know that my fear has a way of wanting to justify itself and resisting counter-arguments from myself or others. I think there's also something her about empathising with the fear rather than trying to argue it out of existence. There's some other things I've read that relate to this so I'd like to draw on these ideas as well.

Other ideas that I'd like to think about more are the idea of focusing in on the key factors and how that's often easier when thinking about someone else's situation rather than our own. This idea of how our brain can focus on key factors is one that I've come across before. It is also something that I've struggled with a lot so I'd like to give it more thought.

Another idea that I think is important is the idea of "honouring our core values" and of how this kind of introspection can be highly confusing.

All ideas that I'll have to return to later in the week.
So I thought I'd come back to the ideas from the book "Decisive" about honouring my core values.:

"When you strip away all the rational mechanics of decision making—the generation of options, the weighing of information—what’s left at the core is emotion. What drives you? What kind of person do you aspire to be?"

"Those are emotional questions—speaking to passions and values and beliefs—and when you answer them, there’s no “rational machine” underneath that is generating your perspective. It’s just who you are and what you want. The buck stops with emotion."

I really like this idea. It really brings things to life for me.

I'm reminded of something that I read in the book "Blink" by Malcolm Gladwell. The book is about the role of intuition and who trusting our "gut feeling" can sometimes lead to a better decision than lengthy analysis. There's a chapter in the book titled "The Locked Door: The Secret Life of Snap Decisions". It describes a psychology experiment on people who go speed dating:

"The two professors run their speed-dating nights at the back of the West End Bar on Broadway, across the street from the Columbia campus. They are identical to standard New York speed-dating evenings, with one exception. Their participants don't just date and then check the yes or no box. On four occasions - before the speed-dating starts, after the evening ends, a month later, and then six months after the speed-dating evening - they have to fill out a short questionnaire that asks them to rate what they are looking for in a potential partner on a scale of 1 to 10. The categories are attractiveness, shared interests, sense of humour, sincerity, intelligence, and ambition. In addition, at the end of every "date," they rate the person they've just met, based on the same categories. By the end of one of their evenings, then, Fisman and Iyengar have an incredibly detailed picture of exactly what everyone says they were feeling during the dating process. And it's when you look at that picture that the strangeness starts.

For example, at the Columbia session, I paid particular attention to a young woman with pale skin and blond, curly hair and a tall, energetic man with green eyes and long brown hair. I don't know their names, but let's call them Mary and John. I watched them for the duration of their date, and it was immediately clear that Mary really liked John and John really liked Mary. John sat down at Mary's table. Their eyes locked. She looked down shyly. She seemed a little nervous. She leaned forward in her chair. It seemed, from the outside, like a perfectly straight-forward case of instant attraction. But let's dig below the surface and ask a few simple questions. First of all, did Mary's assessment of John's personality match the personality that she said she wanted in a man before the evening started? In other words, how good is Mary at predicting what she likes in a man? Fisman and Iyengar can answer that question really easily, and what they find when they compare what speed-daters say they want with what they are actually attracted to in the moment is that those two things don't match.

For example, if Mary said at the statt of the evening that she wanted someone intelligent and sincere, that in no way means she'll be attracted only to intelligent and sincere men. It's just as likely that John, whom she likes more than anyone else, could turn out to be attractive and funny but not particularly sincere or smart at all. Second, if all the men Mary ends up liking during the speed-dating are more attractive and funny than they are smart and sincere, on the next day, when she's asked to describe her perfect man, Mary will say that she likes attractive and funny men. But that's just the next day. If you ask her again a month later, she'll be back to saying that she wants intelligent and sincere.

You can be forgiven if you found the previous paragraph confusing. It is confusing: Mary says that she wants a certain kind of person. But then she is given a roomful of choices and she meets someone whom she really likes, and in that instant she completely changes her mind about what kind of person she wants. But then a month passes, and she goes back to what she originally said she wanted.

So what does Mary really want in a man? "I don't know," Iyengar said when I asked her that question. "Is the real me the one that I described beforehand?" She paused, and Fisman spoke up: "No, the real me is the me revealed by my actions. That's what an economist would say.' Iyengar looked puzzled. "I don't know that's what a psychologist would say."

They couldn't agree. But then, that's because there isn't a right answer. Mary has an idea about what she wants in a man, and that idea isn't wrong. It's just incomplete. The description that she starts with is her conscious ideal: what she believes she wants when she sits down and
thinks about it. But what she cannot be as certain about are the criteria she uses to form her preferences in that first instant of meeting someone face-to-face. That information is behind the locked door."
There's a later chapter in the book called "Kenna's Dilemma: The Right - And Wrong - Way to ask people what they want.". It goes into more detail about the difficulties that we face in working out what our preferences are.

The first impressions of experts are different. By that, I don't mean that experts like different things than the rest of us - although that is undeniable. When we become expert in something, our tastes grow more esoteric and complex. What I mean is that it is really only experts who are able to reliably account for their reactions.

Jonathan Schooler - whom I introduced in the previous chapter - once did an experiment with Timothy Wilson that beautifully illustrates this difference. It involved strawberry jam. Consumer Reports put together a panel of food experts and had them rank forty-four different brands of strawberry jam from top to bottom according to very specific measures of texture and taste. Wilson and Schooler took the first-, eleventh-, twenty-fourth-,thirty-second-, and forty-fourth-ranking jams - Knot's Berry Farm, Alpha Beta, Featherweight, Acme, and Sorrell Ridge - and gave them to a group of college students. Their question was, how close would the students' rankings come to the experts? The answer is, pretty close. The students put Knott's Berry Farm second and Alpha Beta first (reversing the order of the first two jams). The experts and the students both agreed that Featherweight was number three. And, like the experts, the students thought that Acme and Sorrell Ridge were markedly inferior to the others, although the experts thought Sorrell Ridge was worse than Acme, while the students had the order the other way around. Scientists use something called a correlation to measure how closely one factor predicts another, and overall, the students' ratings correlated with the experts' ratings by .55, which is quite a high correlation.

What this says, in other words, is that our jam reactions are quite good: even those of us who aren't jam experts know good jam when we taste it. But what would happen if I were to give you a questionnaire and ask you to enumerate your reasons for preferring one jam to another? Disaster. Wilson and Schooler had another group of students provide a written explanation for their rankings, and they put Knott's Berry Farm - the best jam of all, according to the experts -second to last, and Sorrell Ridge, the experts' worst jam, third. The overall correlation was now down to.11, which for all intents and purposes means that the students' evaluions had almost nothing at all to do with the experts evaluations.

This is reminiscent of Schooler's experiments that I described in the Van Riper story, in which introspection destroyed people's ability to solve insight problems. By making people think about jam, Wilson and Schooler turned them into jam idiots.

In the earlier discussion, however, I was referring to things that impair our ability to solve problems. Now I'm talking about the loss of a much more fundamental ability, namely the ability to know our own mind. Furthermore, in this case we have a much more specific explanation for why introspections mess up our reactions. It's that we simply don't have any way of explaining our feelings about jam. We know unconsciously what good jam is: it's Knott's Berry Farm. But suddenly we're asked to stipulate, according to a list of terms, why we think that, and the terms are meaningless to us. Texture, for instance. What does that mean? We may never have thought about the texture of any jam before, and we certainly don't understand what texture means, and texture may be something that we actually, on a deep level, don't particularly care much about. But now the idea of texture has been planted in our mind, and we think about it and decide that, well, the texture does seem a little strange, and in fact maybe we don't like this jam after all.

As Wilson puts it, what happens is that we come up with a plausible-sounding reason for why we might like or dislike something, and then we adjust our true preference to be in line with that plausible-sounding reason.

Jam experts, though, don't have the same problem when it comes to explaining their feelings about jam. Expert food tasters are taught a very specific vocabulary which allows them to describe precisely their reactions to specific foods. ... every product in the supermarket can be analysed along these lines, and after a taster has worked with these scales for years, they become embedded in the taster's unconscious.

Our unconscious reactions come out of a locked room, and we can't look inside that room. But with experience we become expert at using our behaviour and our training to interpret - and decode - what lies behind our snap judgments and first impressions. It's a lot like what people do when they are in psychoanalysis: they spend years analysing their unconscious with the help of a trained therapist until they begin to get a sense of how their mind works. Food experts have done the same thing - only they haven't psychoanalyzed their feelings; they've psychoanalyzed their feelings for mayonnaise and Oreo cookies.

All experts do this, either formally or informally.

What he was building, in those nights in the storerooms, was a kind of database in his unconscious. He was learning how to match the feeling he had about an object with what was formally understood about its style and background and value. Whenever we have something that we are good at - something we care about - that experience and passion fundamentally change the nature of our first impressions.

This does not mean that when we are outside our areas of passion and experience, our reactions are invariably wrong. It just means that they are shallow. They are hard to explain and easily disrupted. They aren't grounded in real understanding.

These are long quotes but I think they get to something really important for me. I think a lot of people are familiar with the idea of confirmation bias. One example of this is where we have an initial reaction to a particular choice and then when we're looking at the pros and cons of going ahead with that choice, our thinking is skewed towards justifying our initial positive reaction.

However, it seems to also work the other way around. Sometimes when we think about the pros and cons of something, it skews our awareness of what we actually want and how we feel about certain choices.

I think that both of these things are really important. To make good decisions, I think I need to be aware of what things are important to me and why before I can start analysing options. And once I start analysing options, I need for this to not disrupt my awareness of what I want and why. But at the same time, I need to learn about what I want and why as I go through the process of analysing my options.

It's remarkably complicated. There are several decisions where I've got stuck in a cycle of doubting my preferences, analysing my options and then creating more doubt an confusion.

I think that what is said in "Blink" about learning to "psychoanalyse" our reactions is important. Learning that ability for self-reflection. The book, "The Intelligence Trap" has something to say about this which I'll make some notes on tomorrow.

I'm not sure the book "Decisive" really has much to say about the psychology of this. The chapter on honouring your core priorities seems to go off on a tangent about corporate mission statements rather than looking at the psychology of working out what's really important to us.


Well-Known Member
I like your thinking here, this is really good. It's so easy in those moments of temptation, to completely forget your values, and forget everything you stand for. Thanks for this.

Keep on keeping on.
Thanks @Blondie

I've come across this idea in a few places now (of how our sense of self is important for recovery).

How it's important to make our identity the person who doesn't want to act out and wants to live a healthy life but at the same time to be aware that we will be tempted and will slip sometimes. To see ourselves as the person who wants what's best for ourselves and not the person who wants to act out and needs to be controlled.

It's interesting that I came across the idea again in the book about how to make better decisions and to be more decisive. Learning to be more decisive is such an important thing for my recovery. Big decisions can mentally cripple me to the point where I find it hard to get out of bed and stop taking care of myself.

I came across this quote yesterday:
"If you deceive, if you lie, then you begin to warp the mechanisms guiding the instinct that orients you.

There is little more terrifying than the possibility that you could come to a crisis point in your life when you need every faculty you possess to make the decision properly, only to find you have pathologized yourself with deceit and can no longer rely on your own judgment."

I think it's a quote from Jordan Peterson. I certainly don't agree with everything that he said but I think this quote is very good. The phrase "you have pathologized yourself with deceit" come across a bit harsh and accusatory to me but I think the idea behind the quote is very good. That we need to do everything we can to make sure that we're in the best physical, mental, emotional and psychological shape to face crises and make big decisions a best we can. The thought of being able to do this is a big motivator for me.
I thought I write one more journal entry about how peoples sense of self relates to decision-making and addictive behaviours.

Coming back to that quote from "The Biology of Desire":
the medial PFC is particularly important for connecting our self-image with our emotional goals. We define ourselves in synch with those goals, and that self-definition gets cemented by the strengthening of synaptic connections between the medial PFC and other regions.

I've come across things about the medial PFC in a few other books. Particularly what happens when this region of the brain is damaged.

From "The Intelligence Trap":
In this case, the area of interest is the ventromedial area of the prefrontal cortex, located just above the nasal cavity – which may be damaged through surgery, stroke, infection, or a congenital defect. Superficially, people with damage to this area appear to emerge from these injuries with their cognition relatively unscathed: they still score well on intelligence tests, and their factual knowledge is preserved. And yet their behaviour is nevertheless extremely bizarre, veering between incessant indecision and rash impulsiveness. They may spend hours deliberating over the exact way to file an office document, for instance, only to then invest all of their savings in a poor business venture or to marry a stranger on a whim. It’s as if they simply can’t calibrate their thinking to the importance of the decision at hand. Worse still, they appear immune to feedback, ignoring criticism when it comes their way, so they are stuck making the same errors again and again.

The Book Blink also talks about damage to the ventromedial PFC.
Damasio studied patients with damage to a small but critical part of the brain called the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, which lies behind the nose. The ventromedial area plays a critical role in decision making. It works out contingencies and relationships and sorts through the mountain of information we get from the outside world, prioritizing it and putting flags on things that demand our immediate attention. People with damage to their ventromedial area are perfectly rational. They can be highly intelligent and functional, but they lack judgment. More precisely, they don't have that mental valet in their unconscious that trees them up to concentrate on what really matters. In his book Descartes Error, Damasio describes trying to set up an appointment with a patient with this kind of brain damage:

I suggested two alternative dates, both in the coming month and just a few days apart from each other. The patient pulled out his appointment book and began consulting the calendar. The behaviour that ensued, which was witnessed by several investigators, was remarkable.

For the better part of a half hour, the patient enumerated reasons for and against each of the two dates: previous engagements, proximity to other engagements, possible meteorological conditions, virtually anything that one could think about concerning a simple date. He was walking us through a tiresome cost-benefit analysis, an endless outlining and fruitless comparison of options and possible consequences. It took enormous discipline to listen to all of this without pounding on the table and telling him to stop.

I can certainly identify with this kind of "analysis paralysis". To some extent this is perhaps due to the fact that I simply don't trust my initial emotional responses to the options that I have. I don't trust my "mental valet" to direct me towards the most important factors. I get stuck in the "tiresome cost-benefit analysis" and "fruitless comparison of options and possible consequences". Some of it is also probably driven by risk aversion coming from depression and anxiety. I feel compelled to consider all the options to make sure that I don't make a mistake. I think these two things are connected. I think a big part of my depression is about loss of faith in myself, inability to trust my feelings etc. I think it's a key part of the lack of confidence that comes with my depression.

I'm also reminded of that idea from "Decisive" about how people are better at focusing on the key factors when giving advice to other people compared to when looking at their own problems. Perhaps t's not surprising that people with damage to an area of the part of the brain that deals with their sense of self makes it more difficult for these people to put themselves outside their immediate circumstances and imagine what some one else would advise?
There's a key experiment that's used to study decision-making called the Iowa gambling task. In particular, it shows the importance of feelings and of the unconscious in making decisions. Participants are asked to choose cards from either a deck of red cards or a deck of blue cards. Each card either awards money or points and takes away money or points. The cards in the red decks offer some large rewards but lots of large losses. The blue decks offer lots of smaller rewards and also some smaller losses. The winning strategy is to choose the blue decks but this can only be discovered by trial and error. The participants need to turn over some cards form each deck to get a feel for what the rewards and losses are like in each deck.

After turning over about 50 cards, most participants get a feel for what's going on. They know they prefer the blue decks but can't articulate why. After about 80 cards, they are able to explain why the blue cards are the winning choice.

The scientists also monitored peoples' stress responses to the cards. They found that people started showing an increased stress response when turning over cards from the red decks. They found that the increased stress response started after turning over only 10 cards and around this time, they started to show a preference for the blue cards. This is interesting because it happens well before people articulate that they even have a hunch that the blue cards are the better bet.

Patients who had suffered damage to the vmPFC never show the increased stress response. They need to wait until they have consciously figured out why one of the decks is a better bet than the other one in order for them to have a hope of changing their decision making.

Interestingly, "Blink" describes that some of the patients never change their choices, even when they have consciously figured out that the red decks are the worse bet.

This is explained as follows:
They knew intellectually what was right, but that knowledge wasn't enough to change the way they played the game. "It's like drug addiction," says Antoine Bechara, one of the researchers on the Iowa team. "Addicts can articulate very well the consequences of their behaviour. But they fail to act accordingly. That's because of a brain problem. That's what we were putting our finger on. Damage in the ventromedial area causes a disconnect between what you know and what you do." What the patients lacked was the valet silently pushing them in the right direction, adding that little emotional extra - the prickling of the palms - to make sure they did the right thing.

I think that this is really important. Studying the extreme case of people with very specific damage to this are of the brain gives scientists some insights into what it going on. However, I think there are all kinds of reasons why this disconnect might develop between what you feel and what you do. I think that denial might be part of it. Facing the emotional consequences of my actions was so painful that I didn't fully acknowledge them and therefore I never learned to listen to that "internal valet".

Also, I think it's important to looks at why I never faced up to the consequences of my actions. It would be easy to simply say that it was because I was selfish or irresponsible. However, I don't think it's that simple. For example, profound sexual shame would understandably muddle up my feelings around my sexual behaviours, even very normal, healthy ones to the extent where I couldn't listen to what my emotions were telling me about whether the sexual behaviours were in line with my values and sense of self. Furthermore, a profound lack of self-forgiveness in general would make it too painful to face up to mistakes of any kind.

I'm also remembering the discussion from "The Biology of Desire" where the author talks about the sense of self being fragmented. In the example that he uses, he talks about someone who had one sense of self who was dutiful but who didn't see her emotional needs as being important. They had another sense of self who took a rebelious sense of pride in meeting her emotional needs secretively through drug use.

It also makes me think of transaction analysis and the Ego States of the inner Parent, the inner Child and the Adult. "That little emotional extra - the prickling of the palms - to make sure they did the right thing" becomes confused - is it the inner Child's excitement at the prospect of acting out, is it fear of the inner Critical Parent. I guess what these emotions ultimately need to tell us is that we're tempted to do something that will not be in our best interests or in line with our values. But it takes time, effort and self-reflection to align our emotions with our goals like this.

I think there is also the potential pitfall where we can go wrong. For example, in attempting to avoid over-eating, I have, in the past made myself feel guilty about wanting to eat at all. Another example I've heard about is recovering sex/porn addicts who become fearful of any sexual urges. There's a balance to be found that makes recovery so tricky.
A few more thoughts came to me when I was out walking.

I remembered another paragraph from "The Intelligence Trap".
It is now well known that human recall is highly fallible, but somatic markers signal the confidence of what you think you know – whether you are certain or simply guessing. And a study from Keio University in Tokyo found they can also act as reminders when you need to remember to do something in the future – a phenomenon known as prospective memory. Imagine, for instance, that you are planning to call your mum in the evening to wish her a happy birthday. If you have more attuned interoception, you might feel a knot of unease in your stomach during the day, or a tingling in your limbs, that tells you there’s something you need to remember, causing you to rack your brain until you recall what it is. Someone who was less aware of those body signals would not notice those physiological reminders and would simply forget all about them.
It made me think again about that idea of connecting our sense of self to our emotional goals. What I picture this to mean is that this is the part of the brain that it is used when we work out what's important to us and it can then trigger emotions that really bring to life how important those things are to us which drives us to make sure that we do things that are in line with these values and avoid doing things which are not in line with these values.

Another thing that came back to me is that idea of identifying with the part of ourselves that wants what is best but being aware that we might be tempted. To see ourselves as someone who wants to change rather than someone who needs to be controlled It's something that I've said before but it's so easy to fall back into that sense of being someone who needs to be controlled. I get it a lot when it comes to looking after my health and managing my weight. I was overweight as a child and my parents tried to deal with the problem in the worse possible way using excessive criticism and shame When I'm overweight and I say no to unhealthy food, I feel incredibly self-conscious like that child again.

This is such a powerful idea for me and I know I keep coming back to it. If I keep this idea in mind, it helps me to stay motivated. I'm not depriving myself to punish myself for past overindulgences. I'm making healthy food choices because that's what's important for me.

I had one childhood "friend" who used to make me feel very uncomfortable about my weight. I knew him into adulthood but I eventually created some distance and we drifted apart. I won't go into detail about exactly what happened. I'm remembering that idea of how people can come across as trying to help but if they're making me feel like that child that needs to be controlled then they're not people who are helpful to my recovery. Sometimes when I think people are doing this I might be being over-sensitive but I'm certain that some people do it as a form of bullying and then act like they were only trying to help.

Anyway, I think the next thing I'll write about is some further thoughts on those ideas from "Blink":
"Our unconscious reactions come out of a locked room, and we can't look inside that room. But with experience we become expert at using our behaviour and our training to interpret - and decode - what lies behind our snap judgments and first impressions. It's a lot like what people do when they are in psychoanalysis: they spend years analysing their unconscious with the help of a trained therapist until they begin to get a sense of how their mind works.

This does not mean that when we are outside our areas of passion and experience, our reactions are invariably wrong. It just means that they are shallow. They are hard to explain and easily disrupted. They aren't grounded in real understanding."

There are chapters from "The Intelligence Trap" that go into the importance of becoming experts on our own reactions, and a process that might help people to get better at reflecting on their emotional responses and why they are having them.