Category Archives: Blog

Naiveté

I’ve heard the word “naive” bandied about fairly often in lofty (or not so lofty) philosophical debates, and thrown it around a time or two myself, though I’ve been trying to stop recently.  I started thinking about the word and how it really applies after witnessing an exchange where both parties on opposite sides of an issue called one-another naive.  They clearly weren’t using it in the most common form of “inexperienced” or “gullible.”

Probably the best functional definition of “naive” I can think of is one who believes overmuch in the simplicity of cause and effect. In my experience most of the important and contentious topics are incredibly complex and multilayered, and naivete isn’t simply believing something others tell you without question so much as believing the easiest/most appealing explanation available, despite lack of empirical support or extensive experience in the matter.

(To stave off an invocation of Occam’s Razor: the law of parsimony is about accepting the explanation that fits all the facts while making the least new and unproven assumptions.  When both arguments are based on unproven philosophical tenets or claims that are not easy to verify, neither can be employing Occam’s Razor.)

As an example, here’s a simplified conversation I’ve heard from many different people and been a part of multiple times:

Person A: “All rich people are selfish.  They can never fix problems, because ultimately they’re looking out for themselves.  All the major problems in the world come from the rich hoarding wealth from everyone else.”

Person B: “I don’t think that’s true. It might be harder for an unselfish person to become rich, but there are plenty of selfish people who aren’t wealthy too, who do exactly the same things as the rich, on smaller scales.  It stands to reason they’d do the same thing if they were rich, so the problems aren’t due to rich people’s character: we just notice it more from them because they have so much more influence, so it’s easier to see.  It would take a lot of poor people doing something selfish to match one selfish act of a rich person, but each act might be just as selfish.”

Person A: “You can’t blame the poor for trying to survive in a world that’s hostile to them.”

Person B: “But that’s a matter of circumstance then, not character. By your argument if the rich person was poor, they would be doing the exact same thing due to their circumstance, so there’s no moral classification or blame you can apply to people based on wealth.”

Person A: “That’s because the system itself forces people to be haves or have-nots.  You can’t gain without someone else losing, so the most selfish and ruthless people are the ones who get to the top.”

Person B: “That’s only true in zero-sum economics, not all commerce.  Maybe people who engage in that kind of business are greedier than people who don’t, but there are plenty of corporations who became rich by positive-sum means.”

Person A: “You’re so naive.  Open your eyes and look around you at all the terrible things the wealthy do!”

Person B: “I am, and I see good and bad people in all walks of life, doing good and bad things to everyone. You’re the one who’s naive by thinking in such absolutes!”

So.  Here we have two people who are using “naive” in very clearly distinct ways.  Person A is calling B naive in the sense of “Thinks the world is a better place than it is.”  While this certainly is related to lack of experience or insight in our culture, where the dominant discourse for children is that the world is a good, fair, just place, it’s not laterally translatable: he’s effectively calling Person B an optimist, which Person B may not actually be.  His stance in this situation is considered optimistic only from Person A’s perspective, who is far in the negative side of the Pessimist/Optimist scale.  From the hypothetical Person C’s far positive side of it, Person B’s contentions that not only rich, but also poor people act selfishly, is what marks him as a pessimist, as Person C would say that ascribing negative emotions to people’s actions is assuming the worst.  If B and C were in a debate, B might eventually call C naive in the same way that A called B.

However, when Person B called Person A naive, he was using it in a different way: he was accusing Person A of taking the “easy” route of dividing the world between “Have” and “Have-not,” which can be just another way of saying “Evil” and “Good.”  This is also related to lack of experience or insight, as this kind of moral or sociological dichotomy are prevalent in everything from childhood stories, whose audience is by definition uneducated in complex systems,  to major blockbusters, which still simplify those systems immensely to create easy-to-digest narratives (think of House of Cards, which is cynical and thus believable, but still presents a very simplistic view of government). Person B is criticizing Person A on the simplicity of his beliefs based on lack of information. And this is also much more objective label he’s placing on Person A: that his views are uninformed. That can be verified.  It’s a falsifiable criticism.

Furthermore, it’s hard to do the same to Person A as we did with Person B and imagine someone else on the other side of Person A, making an even simpler proposition that make sense in any way: they could only make a similarly simple but wildly different view, such as that “All poor people are lazy and all rich people are hard workers.” or “God/karma rewards good deeds and punishes bad.”

Simple doesn’t mean wrong, but it does mean easy to believe, and the less someone knows on a topic, the easier it is to convince them of anything about it.  That’s the source of my distrust in simplicity, and why “naive” will always primarily connote a lack of understanding.   Just as one encounter with someone from another culture can give rise to a simplistic stereotype, immersion in that person’s culture, and meeting multiple people from it, gives an understanding of complexity.  The same goes for any job, or hobby, or genre of art.  It’s easy to accept simple beliefs that we have no information or experience on.

The older we get, the more experience and information we have, and the more complex our worldviews become in some respects, while others generally don’t. If my model of how beliefs are formed is correct, the areas of our lives we have experience in give rise to more complex views.  Those that we remain ignorant on, stay simple. People usually don’t realize this, because wildly complex things are often summed up by simple explanations, to make it easier to understand. “Gravity makes things fall down.”  Sounds simple, but the words themselves mean nothing more than “Thor makes lightning in clouds” unless you actually know what “gravity” is, and why “down” is subjectively defined the way it is.  As a child, the words are enough: to someone educated in the fields, astrophysics can be an elaborate and complex lens to view something as simple as a falling apple through.

Just so for debates about social matters, or economics.

Most people will freely admit their naivete in a scientific field unless we’ve studied it extensively, and sometimes even then.  Even deniers of global warming or evolution will not pretend to be experts in physics or astronomy or chemistry. Where there are no implications beyond the field’s purview, people don’t care enough to fool themselves into pretend expertise. As soon as some mathematical theory is shown to have implications that people disagree with, I predict a higher number of people who will pretend expertise in mathematics, or willfully ignore the importance of their lacking such.

Meanwhile, social matters are all about the implications.  It’s hard to find a topic related to people’s behavior or society’s norms that doesn’t bump up against people’s Values in some way. And so people who have never seriously studied anthropology, world history, economics, psychology, government, etc, nevertheless feel confident that their understanding of such topics, simple as they may be, are sufficient to reach correct beliefs.

Acknowledging complexity would directly challenge our surety in the rightness of our Values, and so we do not confront our naivety in these fields because it is far easier to take an assertive stance that makes sense to our Values than to face the uncertainty of a complex world. But that’s exactly what we have to be willing to do if we want to ensure our beliefs are aligned with reality.

Simplicity should be embraced in predictive models that are demonstrated to work, but we should be skeptical of it when debating hypotheses about how the world works.  Being “naive” is considered a bad thing because it makes one easy to fool… including by one’s own preferences and biases.

Disgust and Politics

So, I don’t particularly believe or disbelieve the latest scandalous Trump story about his ties to Russia. I’m waiting on more evidence.

But I find it morbidly amusing that people seem to think some of the weirder details of the report are so important, like him supposedly paying prostitutes to pee on the mattress that Obama would sleep on.

Even for Trump that seems ridiculously pointless and petty, but the thing is, I don’t think any appreciable amount of his supporters would care even if it were true. This is a potential “scandal” in the sense that it would “scandalize” those who already dislike him, while those who voted for him would, at worst, cheer on such behavior, and at best, wrinkle their nose and say “How distasteful, but really, we need to better control our border.”

If the actual ties to Russia are substantiated maybe it would provide Republicans in congress enough cover to start an impeachment process so they could get the ultra-conservative Mike Pence that they really want. But other than that, in terms of how his supporters feel about him, I don’t see it really mattering even if true, given all the other things that have already come out about him.

I recently saw a post on facebook about a line from the great book Thinking, Fast and Slow:

“The psychologist, Paul Rozin, an expert on disgust, observed that a single cockroach will completely wreck the appeal of a bowl of cherries, but a cherry will do nothing at all for a bowl of cockroaches.”

A lot’s happened since I first read that paragraph in the book itself, and upon rereading it, my mind reached for an analogy to politics. What it grasped was mostly shapeless, just vague ideas. After thinking about it more since, I don’t think that initial reaching was justified. Politics is nothing like a bowl of cherries with a cockroach in it. Or maybe it is, but the above quote doesn’t apply as cleanly.

To millions of American, the analogy might fit in that there are certain beliefs that are “cockroaches” which poison any given person’s bowl of cherries. Liberals might think a conservative politician is wrong, greedy, ignorant, whatever, but still not consider them “unfit for office” even if they want to dismantle social security. However, if the politician has said anything remotely racist or sexist, to liberals this seems to be a cockroach that should bar them from office, and liberals will often be the loudest to express shock and disgust at conservatives for not feeling similarly. Of course, many conservatives do, but the tolerance point is clearly set at a different place. Many conservatives agree that such views are “clearly wrong,” but they like the politician’s views on on taxes or abortion, so what’s a few cockroaches here and there?

On the other side, (traditionally, recent times seem to have changed things) conservatives might think a liberal politician is stupid, naive, soft, whatever, but really only raise a howl if there’s some type of sex scandal or infidelity, and express shock and disgust that liberals don’t seem to care as much as they do. Again, some liberals do, but again, the tolerance point appears to be set differently, in general. I’ve seen many liberals bemoan the “sex obsessed” culture of politics in the US, and wish for less Puritan views, like those of much of Europe, where presidents can be bachelors, or have mistresses without being demonized. Sure, Bill Clinton may have cheated on his wife with an intern (after all, maybe the two have “an arrangement”), but the economy was great, and we didn’t invade any countries! Aren’t those cherries juicy?

But beyond vague ideas like that, the analogy falls apart. There are too many examples of people who are happy to vote for a bowl of cockroaches, even if only for a single, juicy enough cherry. And since politics in the US often comes down to a choice between two imperfect options, I can understand that. If I had to eat either a bowl of 6 cockroaches and 4 cherries or a bowl of 8 cockroaches and 2 cherries, well, that’s life sometimes.

The only really concerning part is when tribalism rears its ugly head, and cockroaches are called cherries to avoid admitting flaws, or quietly ignored so as to avoid that feeling of dissonance. “What is true is already so. Owning up to it doesn’t make it worse.”

I feel like if we were all more honest and upfront about where our lines in the dirt are and aren’t, it would help clear up a lot of the conversations and arguments about who we vote for and why. It also might reduce the toxicity and antagonism around political discussions, if people are willing to admit (to themselves as well as others) how imperfect their politicians are, and hold them to a higher standard on both sides.

Then again, that requires us to actually spend time thinking about what we’re really willing to tolerate and why, and that’s a hard thing to do until reality forces particularly strange or distasteful truths and choices upon us.

I Notice That I Am Upset

In Chapter 20 of The Origin of Species, Red uses a mental flowchart to identify why he’s so upset at something Psychic Narud said to him.  People have asked what it’s from, so here is a rough draft of that flowchart in its entirety.  I came up with it as a way to help clients improve awareness of what upsets them and work through why, and you’re welcome to use it as you will.

upset-flowchart

“Safe Spaces” for the Right and Left.

Apparently, Texas students stormed out of a class wherein the professor asserted that humans all descended from Africans.

Texan students storm out after professor says we’re all of African descent

My brain feels wobbly around this, which tells me there’s something more to it that I’m not grasping right.

I’ve always thought of trigger warnings and safe spaces in college campuses as obviously important-if-done-properly, but widely blown out of context and misunderstood and exaggerated by detractors in order to talk down to millennials or find a new avenue to attack “PC culture.” I haven’t been in school for about five years, so it’s never really affected me, but my sympathies have always been vaguely with the people asking for what I consider to be justified uses for triggers (to prepare students for traumatic content in lessons) and safe spaces (to allow discussion of voices that normally self-censor due to fear or anxiety).

This event seems to fit into neither of those. It’s a professor, apparently innocently, relaying facts, and people getting upset and leaving the class as a result of their own political beliefs (as opposed to walking out because the environment was not “safe,” since presumably, no one was heckling people for walking out until they started to do so).

What makes this interesting of course is that the politics of it are flipped around from the stereotypes. So presumably, “PC” liberals would be hypocritical to mock the people walking out, but only if they don’t view trigger warnings and safe spaces as applying the way I described: if they do only consider them as meant for traumatic material or oppressed minorities, then they’re not being hypocritical in mocking people for reacting in a way that they themselves are often mocked for supposedly condoning, since they would consider that mockery to be aimed at a strawman that they are watching occur in real-time, but from the “opposition.” In other words, gleeful mockery at seeing people who normally might make fun of them for doing the exact thing the people leaving the rooms are doing is kind of understandable. Kind of like seeing a bully run home crying to their mother after the bully has repeatedly used the “crybaby” insult on them.

(Whether they’re being rude, or whether it’s the best reaction to have, is a different matter, of course.)

On the flip side of this, there are potentially conservatives who are NOT okay with trigger warnings of any kind, and NOT okay with safe spaces of any kind. Hopefully none of those people are making excuses for the people who walked out (in the interests of not being hypocritical), but if they’re attacking them for being representative of how “PC” and “pampered” college kids are these days, then they’re still strawmanning, because again, the usually proposed uses of trigger warnings and safe spaces would not apply to this circumstance. So once again, I find my sympathies aligning with the liberals ever-so-slightly more than I do the conservatives, assuming no one is being hypocritical (for the hypocrites, obviously, my sympathy is minimal).

Now, maybe I’m misunderstanding what the real use of safe spaces and trigger warnings have been about. Maybe I believe in the “ideals,” but in the trenches of the war these ideas are fighting in, people are pushing for safe spaces for ANY topic, or trigger warnings for ANY topic, that might offend anyone and, as the detractors insist, simply serve as an excuse to further distance themselves from ideas they dislike, and entrench themselves in intellectual bubbles.

I don’t doubt that some people might in fact want that, but I tend to view those who do as in the extremes: maybe that’s a mistake. Since I’m not in the trenches, I don’t know.

But for now, I’m going to hold onto the ideal, and examine this circumstance (at last) through the lens of what I hope might do the most possible good:

Do the people who walked out of this class deserve a “safe space?”

The uncharitable view, of course, is that they simply walked out because they didn’t want to listen to someone talk about things they considered “obviously wrong” or “offensive” to their notions of what humans were, where they came from, and how their religious beliefs and racial identity tied into their ego and sense of self.

So assuming the professor acted professionally, which seems to be the case just from the article, most people I think would say no, on both sides of the aisle. This is, as I said, the classic strawman of this position, made all the more contentious because it’s being actualized by the political culture that tends to most often be against “PC” culture.

But from the perspective of the kids who left, do THEY feel like they had to leave because they were unable to speak their mind free of ridicule or peer pressure?
 
And that, I don’t know. But it’s possible. On most college campuses, even in Texas, conservatives can in fact be a minority that feels “unsafe” airing their political or religious views for fear of the ridicule it’ll bring.

So if I’m being charitable, which I’d like to be, maybe these students really do need a safe space to talk about their beliefs about the origin of mankind without being mocked or feeling pressured into accepting the views of those around them, so they can really articulate what they believe and why, and maybe be more open to having their views challenged and changed.

And of course maybe there was a mix of both such students who walked out of the class. Apparently some stayed behind to argue, in any case.

Ok, the wobblyness has mostly faded, now that I’ve written all that out and feel a bit more secure in what I think and why. If anyone wants to let me know if I’ve missed something, please do.

Confirmation Bias

If confirmation bias had an image, it would be something like this:

How many black dots do you see in there? If you’re like most people. chances are you see 1, maybe 2. Until you move your eyes. And then you see another 1, maybe 2. And the first ones you saw are gone.

There are 12 black dots in that image. At most you can probably only see a fraction of them at a time.   And yet your mind convinces you that it can see the whole image perfectly… so much so that it helpfully fills out the grey intersections where the other dots are, leaving them empty. Don’t mind them. Nothing to see there.

Our minds are so good at pattern recognition they will ignore data about reality to complete the patterns they perceive. And if you’re one of the rare people who can see all 12 at once, don’t worry: there are plenty of other things that will fool you instead.

If your brain can trick you into only seeing one or two of the dots on this image at the same time, you can rest assured it can trick you into thinking you know more than you actually do about data that isn’t even all in front of you at the same time, let alone data that isn’t all the data in the world about that topic.

That’s the trickiest half of confirmation bias. Not just focusing on data that confirms what you believe, but ignoring evidence that goes against what you believe, so thoroughly that something in your mind filters it from your senses or memory before it even reaches “you.”

There’s nothing wrong with having a belief without having all the data concerning it.  We’re imperfect beings, and can’t go through life having 0% confidence in things just because of unknown unknowns.

But believing something isn’t the same as being 100% or even 90% confident that it’s true. You can believe in something and acknowledge that you’re only 70% confident in it, or 53.8% confident, as long as you know of things that would increase or decrease your confidence if brought to your attention.

But most people don’t think that way. They don’t talk about their beliefs in probabilities. Even if they acknowledge that they “might be wrong,” they’re confident that what they think is true. And research has shown people to be overconfident in their beliefs again and again and again.

Thanks to empiricism and reason, we do have good reasons to believe certain scientific and philosophical ideas. They’ve been vigorously tested and used to make correct predictions about the world. They’ve been used to change things in our external, shared reality. It’s okay to be confident in things like “I exist” and “things in the world can be measured.”

But things like political beliefs? Beliefs about people you’ve never met? Beliefs about systems you’ve never studied?

Lower your confidence in all of those. All of them.

When you’ve reached the point where you know what you value (Equality, Justice, Health, etc) but are not quite positive about what the right things to do to achieve the optimal balance of those values in the real world are, you’re a bit closer to understanding what you think you know and why you think you know it.

If you’ve reached solipsism, dial it back. That way lies madness, and insufferable, pointless arguments.

The Power of Guilt

“Sorry is the Kool-Aid of human emotions. It’s what you say when you spill a cup of coffee or throw a gutterball when you’re bowling with the girls in the league. True sorrow is as rare as true love.” -Stephen King

Inside Out was a movie about a young girl named Riley who has five anthropomorphized emotions: Joy, Anger, Sadness, Disgust, and Fear. The emotions each played an important role in keeping Riley safe and happy, though it took the plot of the movie to teach everyone what function Sadness served: to signal to others that you are not okay, that you are not happy with things as they are, that you need help. Sometimes it’s an emotion that tells you that, so you become motivated to change things.

Surprising as it may be to some, this is not an obvious thing. There are many people who do not understand it, and even understanding it, have trouble integrating it into their behavior and worldview. One group of such people are children or teenagers who experience grief and don’t receive the proper support. They can often act in destructive ways, to themselves and others, until they receive help processing their own emotions and the changes in their lives. Another group are adults who were handed too much responsibility at too young an age, and, later in life, have trouble expressing sadness or hurt. This is especially true when the people causing them distress are simultaneously those that need them to be fine.  Others are adults who were conditioned at a young age against showing any weakness or vulnerability, either as a method to control them or a misguided attempt to strengthen them, and never shook off that conditioning.

Like any emotion, sadness can be overtuned or undertuned to the point of dysfunction. But the reason the movie was valuable is that it shined a spotlight on an emotion many people don’t understand as well as they do Joy or Anger or Fear, an emotion that can make them inherently uncomfortable to talk about or express.

If I were to write the sequel to Inside Out, it would be about Riley growing into a teenager with a host of new emotions, and the focus of the plot would be learning about Guilt.

Like Sadness, Guilt is an emotion that causes discomfort. We actively try to avoid actions that we know will cause it, and subconsciously try to explain our actions or thoughts in a favorable light to assuage it, a process misnomously referred to as “rationalization.”  When Guilt is too active, when people are conditioned to feel it too much from too many things, it can lead to self-flagellation and undeserved repentance that limits growth and makes happiness seem itself a poison.

But without Guilt, we end up with a world of dangerously static people. Guilt, properly felt and understood, leads to change. Guilt, properly acknowledged and reacted to, leads to growth.

What Do I think I Know, and Why Do I Think I Know it?

When I was too young to understand rational justifications for behavior, Guilt was the emotion that led to the most memorable moments of personal growth.  When I was at summer camp we used to throw crab apples at each other for fun. One that I threw accidentally hit a girl near the eye. Her wails led to an intense sensation of guilt that did far more to deter me from repeating the action than any punishments the camp counselors devised. When future games of throwing crab apples commenced, I found something better to do with my time. Well, probably not better, but less likely to hurt others.

That was an accident. Once in elementary school, I hurt someone out of cold, calculated anger. The PE teacher randomly divided us into two teams and sent my group to the field first.  When we switched, I ended up at the back of the line for kicking the ball. Someone had to be there, and that day it was me. It had been a long, hot 30 minute wait to get my turn to kick, and I was counting down the minutes before I knew the bell would ring. Finally, with moments to spare, it was my turn. I positioned myself, watched the bright red ball come bouncing toward me, and just as I prepared myself to kick it, one of my classmates ran in front of me and, laughing like a loon, sent it sailing over the field.

The bell rang before the ball could be returned, and as we walked back toward the school buildings, my eyes locked on the back of the ball-kicker’s head. My “righteous” rage thinned to a laser point, and I strode up to him from behind, tapped his shoulder, and sucker-punched him in the face as hard as I could.

I can’t remember if I got any satisfaction in seeing him curled up on the ground and screaming in pain. I only remember the guilt afterward, as I promised myself I would never do that again.

And I didn’t. But that doesn’t mean I never hurt someone again.

My older brother used to beat me fairly often when we were young. Our relationship got a lot better after I moved out for college, and better still after he left for the military, but while I was young he would hit me for all manner of things, sometimes in frightening rages, other times just as a playful form of expressing annoyance.

It wasn’t until my best friend broke down in tears and told me he wanted me to stop hitting him that I realized I’d adopted my brother’s behavior. Not in anger, just “playful” punches on the arm or slaps upside the head.  It was like someone had shined a light on a dark corner of my mind, illuminating machinery I hadn’t even known was there. I began to cry too, and promised him I would stop. And I did.

I cried again years later while reading Ender’s Game for the first time. “I’m just like Peter,” Ender thinks at the end of the first chapter, crying over the boy he beat.  “Take away my monitor, and I’m just like Peter.” Becoming my older brother was my greatest fear as a child.

Hurting people isn’t the only thing to be guilty about, of course. I used to steal all the time as a child. Magic card packs from toy stores, food from supermarkets. Eventually I got caught, threatened with jail, fingerprinted, and released without a trip to the police station. I felt miserable the whole ride home. My mother’s recriminations stopped at “next time don’t get caught,” but my own continued all the way to my bedroom. While there, I lay on the covers and stared at the ceiling. I knew I had to fight my urge to steal, kill it completely dead, before it landed me in more trouble. So I identified each and every one of the irrational thoughts I’d been repeating to avoid Guilt at stealing, my “rationalizations,” and discarded them.

It’s not fair that we’re poor and can’t afford things. If everyone who was poor stole society would collapse, and I’m not literally starving to death. Discard.

I’m stealing from large stores and national companies, not individuals. They won’t even notice the loss. Individual people work at these stores and rely on them doing well to maintain their job or get better pay. Discard.

I’m very kind and generous to others. It balances out. Helping others does not justify unrelated actions that harm others. Discard.

By the time I left my room that evening, I had resolved never to shoplift again. The community service and special classes I had to attend were superfluous: my desires for self preservation, and guilt over the people I was hurting, were strong enough to fuel change, and I was thankfully rational enough to leverage them into the right changes to my thinking patterns to be effective. The urges to steal were still there, but they were easier to resist every time I did, until they ceased almost completely. I haven’t shoplifted since.

All this isn’t to say I’m perfect. I got into a fight a couple years ago and hurt someone more than was justified by the circumstances. I still occasionally fill my water cup with soda from the fountains at fast food places. Guilt only works as a mechanism for change when it’s genuinely connected to an action, and that disconnect between actions that are intellectually recognized as wrong, but don’t emotionally result in guilt, is what confuses so many people who struggle with change, either in themselves or others.

How Does This Knowledge Help?

Besides the value in understanding guilt’s role in helping us grow, there’s also the value in understanding what its absence in others signals.

In my line of work, and often through my extended social circle, one of the hardest challenges I see people struggle with is emotional abuse. Because it isn’t as overt as physical abuse, and because by its very nature it turns one’s own thoughts and feelings against them, it’s important to understand how valuable guilt is to changing someone’s behavior and helping them grow, so that you can also identify why those that lack guilt, won’t.

Narcissists exist. They can be parents. They can be siblings. They can be friends. Whether it’s due mostly to biology or social factors, this reality has to be confronted and addressed at some point in many people’s lives. Narcissists aren’t sociopaths, or psychopaths. Just people who cannot help but primarily see the world in terms of their own wants and needs. And of course people can fall on a spectrum for narcissism. But those at the extreme end can be frighteningly hard to know how to deal with… especially if they’re someone close to you.

In systemic therapy, all behavior is examined through the system it’s a part of, even if it’s uncomfortable to do so. When someone emotionally abuses their spouse, we ask “What is that spouse doing that’s allowing that behavior to continue?” Not because we’re blaming the spouse for being abused, but because everything people do communicates something to those around them, and either reinforces or punishes the actions of those around them. If you can’t make someone want to change (and you often can’t), sometimes you have to change what happens if they don’t.

If there was a quick and simple one-size-fits-all solution to getting people to change negative behaviors, the world would look like a very different place. People are complicated, and different enough from each other that, even with generally applicable incentives and behavior models, finding just the right lever to pull or button to push can be the work of hours of intensive exploration and analysis.

But over time we’ve generally learned what doesn’t work, and that knowledge is worth spreading.  The word “enabling” is tossed around fairly often, and is an important concept to understand when it comes to battling addiction. But people don’t just enable each other’s alcoholism or gambling obsessions. People also enable each other’s selfishness or cruelty, usually because we don’t realize how we’re doing it.

And that’s where the presence or lack of guilt is so important.

Shame is an external form of guilt. If someone is acting selfishly, or callously, or dishonestly, shame done right can shock them into better self-awareness. It’s an extrinsic motivation, an outside incentive that can help lead to change even if the person doesn’t want it. It’s not the ideal mechanism, but it can be a vital starting point.

Unfortunately, as a tool, shame’s natural state is a mallet. It’s hard to wield with the precision necessary to constructively affect behavior. It’s also far too often wielded in the name of ego rather than compassion.

Shaming someone for their religious beliefs (or lack of them), their sexuality, their hobbies or interests, or because they reflect poorly on the shamer, are all done far more often than the “constructive” forms of shaming. It’s this widespread destructiveness that’s given “shame” and “guilt” such negative connotations, where it’s considered wrong by many to impose your beliefs or morals on another’s actions.

Let’s focus on that distinction here:

Destructive shaming frames the issue as outside the person’s control.  It often manifests in contempt, shouting, and belittling. It tends to either incite self-loathing or defensiveness, neither of which lead to positive changes.

Examples: “You always do this. You never do that. Why do you do that? Why are you like that?  Are you lazy/stupid? You’re a horrible person. You’re pathetic.”

Constructive shaming focuses on appeals to the actor’s better nature, and their stated or ostensible values and desires to not harm others. It manifests in frank but calm language, is surrounded by support, and followed by a positive goal.

Examples: “I want to make sure you know how much this is hurting me/them. I know you don’t want that. What do you think might be causing this? Is there anything I can do to help?”

Constructive shaming is not a magic bullet. People who repeatedly act in their own interest at the expense of others, or at the expense of themselves, have spent years learning to “rationalize” and justify their actions, and, at a more advanced level, learn to cycle through self-recrimination as a method of assuaging guilt.

Enablers are often sought out at this point. The guilty party will admit their shameful acts to people who are “safe,” friends or family that they know will offer empty platitudes as support, like “You’re a good person” and “There’s nothing wrong with wanting to be happy.”

Telling someone they’re a good person when they made an honest mistake is helpful. Telling them they’re a good person when they repeatedly do things “good people” don’t is not.

Telling someone they deserve to be happy is important when they keep putting other people’s desires over their own. Telling them they deserve to be happy when they repeatedly put their own desires first at the expense of others is not.

And yet this is what makes up a lot of a friend-group’s or family’s interactions when someone expresses guilt. They want to help. They want to signal support. These are admirable desires, but they have to be measured against history and desired outcomes.

If a friend calls you to berate themselves over cheating on their significant other while simultaneously fishing for support in how unhappy they are with their SO, recognize that distinction between support and enabling.

If a sibling laughs about how they can’t remember their “crazy hijinks” of the night before because of how blackout drunk they got, laugh with them if you want to, but see if that laughter is covering some deeper issue.

People often hide their own concerns for their safety and wellbeing, or their fear of judgement/shame by others, in humor or a casual assurance that everything is fine.  Expressing guilt becomes a form of guilty pleasure, a signal to attract comfort from others, and receiving comfort and absolution from others makes it easier to continue the same behavior.

The first step in changing that behavior is often changing the responses to it. Every part of a system has some affect on the other parts of the system, and if you can’t directly change the behavior of Part A, you can try to alter it through the behavior of Part B, or through the response of Part B through Part C.

The Takeaway

When trying to change your own behavior, lean into guilt. Focus on it, remember it, and ask others to provide the external shaming of your future self if necessary. Don’t let the guilt consume you: use it as strength and motivation to become the best version of yourself.

When trying to change someone else’s behavior… well, that’s where things get complicated. Always try to change people’s behavior through kindness and understanding first. When that fails, “tough love” is sometimes necessary, assuming you have the right relationship with them and temperament to ensure it’s done properly.

But sometimes love isn’t enough.

Idealistic Me wants to believe that everyone can change, when they’re ready and if they have the proper support.  Pragmatic Me recognizes that, time, effort, and resources are limited, and that if someone does not want to change, sacrificing good people’s time and effort and value to enable bad actions is not just irrational, but immoral.

Even the worst human in history might change and grow and become a better person with a thousand years of life to live. Unfortunately, for now we only have a handful of decades to work with, and for many, that’s just not enough.

To make things worse, there are many ways society pressures people to persist in helping those that abuse them and others: “they’re family,” or “true love is unconditional,” or “friends are meant to support each other.”  These too can be the tools of an abuser, to turn someone’s guilt against themselves and keep them trapped in servitude.

For those that cannot be guilted, cannot be shamed, who wear their selfishness on their sleeve or repeatedly promise change without demonstrating it, often hiding behind tears and dramatic acts of attention-seeking self-destruction, the best option is often to simply cut them out like a cancer.

And this is always easier said than done, a bitter path to take, full of its own facets of guilt that need to be examined, acknowledged, and in this case, often discarded.

But that’s another post.

In the meantime, recognize how important guilt is to change your own behavior, when you need to. There’s a certain point where not judging yourself, not beating yourself up over your mistakes, is just as wrong as putting yourself into a self-hate spiral.

Until you can put the behaviors behind you, the ones that make you harm other people, the ones that make you harm yourself, you shouldn’t forgive yourself for the pain you cause.

Become a better person first. Use whatever tools you can, including guilt, to get there. And once you’ve got a handle on it, then forgive your past self, because you’re not that person anymore.

And at the same time, recognize how important a lack of guilt in someone else is as a signal that they’re not ready to change .

Don’t let guilt become a cage you lock yourself in, and don’t let others who lack guilt use your love for them against you. Narcissists and emotional abusers don’t need to trap you in their own dysfunction: they know exactly how to take guilt and make into a prison that you’ll build for yourself, deflecting any shame aimed at them and handing it back to you, brick by brick.