Recent excerpts a Slate’s The Wrong Stuff interview with Harville Hendrix on the state of “being right” led me to consider ways in which emotions may affect people’s consideration of new idea and making new decisions. The bolding and italics in the text are mine.
TWS: Why do you think most of us are so insistent about being right?
HH: There are two ways to think about that. One is a very natural and non-pathological analysis, which has to do with the way we are designed as human beings. I call it “concentric consciousness.” For all of us, we are at the center of our own universe, and everything else is the periphery. So it makes sense that we think that the way we see things is the way they really are. That’s natural.
There’s a philosophical theory called the correspondence theory of truth, which pretty much describes most people’s ordinary, everyday, non-reflective way of thinking about themselves and the world. Simply put, it means the belief that there is an exact correspondence between what I see and what’s really out there: “My perspective is universal and what I see is what is real.” That’s a very real part of the human experience.
By the 15th century, philosophers understood that human perception involves interpretation, and that idea has been developed considerably by postmodern philosophers and psychologists. All we have is the capacity to interpret phenomena. We do not have access to the thing in itself, as Kant would have said. All we have is a representation of the thing, and that representation is clouded by our own subjectivity.
Some people are wounded in childhood by an intrusive or neglectful parent, and that produces emotional pain, and emotional pain produces self-absorption. And when you are wounded and become self-absorbed, your natural inclination to see yourself as the center of the world and everything else as on the periphery is amplified to the point where you cannot be flexible with data. You can’t actually take in new information very well. When you’re wounded early, you organize the world in a certain way, in order to give yourself some sense of inner cohesion. You make up your mind about the way things are, who you are, who your parents are, and although that helps you survive, it also means you have all these very rigid ideas surrounding what is fundamentally a fragile inner core.
TWS: And the experience of being wrong about those ideas threatens that inner core?
HH: If you’re wounded in some way, yes. You form all these perspectives, but for you, those perspectives are not perspectives. They’re perceptions: the world as it really is. To have those perceptions turned into perspectives, which would be the healthy thing to do—that threatens your fragile internal organization. And because you rely on the stability of those perceptions—rather than on a stable self—to feel safe in the world, the idea that those perceptions are fallible produces huge amounts of anxiety. As I see it, one of the core reasons we can’t admit to being wrong is that doing so threatens our internal cohesion and throws us into chaos.
If you grow up in a healthy family, by contrast, you grow up with that same concentric consciousness, with the same correspondence theory of truth, but you have a solid core. You have flexibly, adaptability, you have the capacity to be curious, so when someone says, “Oh, I didn’t like that movie,” and you did, you can say, “Well, what did you think about it?” But if you’re wounded and defended and scared, you just think, “Well, if you don’t like that movie, that means you’re wrong or stupid, because the way I see it is the way it is.”
TWS: …having your perspective challenged produces anxiety… our capacity to tolerate being wrong hinges on our capacity to tolerate emotion.
HH: I think that’s right. To entertain the possibility that you’re wrong is to feel anxiety about your inner organization, as well as shame, embarrassment, and even guilt about the erroneous perspective. And shame and guilt are almost intolerable emotions. So in order not to experience that anxiety and shame and guilt, you become rigid in your perceptions.
- Is it possible that feelings of rightness/wrongness influence people’s acceptance of new ideas?
- How might knowing about the affect associated with wrongness influence leadership or team building?
- Might this factor be a block to engaging people in exercises and events to generate new ideas and make new decisions?
- Could this be a reason why people are said to resist change?
- How might feelings associated with rightness or wrongness influence the sales process? Creating new futures?
Full interview here