Self-dimming of awareness to protect oneself against anxiety

July 25, 2012 | By | 3 Replies More

I’m mostly finished reading Daniel Goleman’s 1985 book, Vital Lies, Simple Truths: the Psychology of Self Deception (I found a copy of the book online here). He’s preaching to my choir, based on a paper I wrote in 1996 (“Decision Making, the Failure of Principles, and the Seduction of Attention), where I pointed out the critical and often unconscious role of attention in embellishing and distorting our moral decision-making.  My targets were the many people who believe that morality is mostly founded on the conscious application of rules.  I concluded that humans define and frame moral situations as a result of the way they attend (or don’t attend) to the situations. I warned that it is important that we become aware that we have great (often subconscious) power to define the situation as moral (or not). My thesis was as follows:

Attention is constantly steering us in directions which dramatically affect the application of principles [including moral principles]. For starters, if we completely fail to attend to a subject, we will likely be ill-informed about that subject, and likely less competent to make decisions regarding such matters. At the other extreme, excessive attention can bloom into an obsession, causing one to see the entire world through glasses colored by that obsession. Attention also works in subtler ways, however, rigging the machinations of legal and moral reasoning. Attention rigs decision-making in two ways:

1) by the manner in which we attend to our perceptions of the world, and
2) in the way by which we perceive and attend to the principles themselves.

I concluded that high-level decision making is based far more on attentional strategies than on traditional problem solving skills. Ever since I researched that paper, I have been amazed by the great power that low-level perceptual strategies have over whether (or not) a situation is morally compelling to us. Daniel Goleman’s book addresses many of the same concerns, especially the dramatic role of attention in determining how we perceive a complex situation.

Goleman begins Vital Lies, Simple Truths by pointing out that with the exception of music, we often think of patterns as “fixed affairs.” He reminds us that we need to think of patterns as “a dance of interacting parts.” For instance, cognition “is the product of a delicate balance between vigilance and inattention” pursuant to certain (often unspoken and unconscious) “ground rules” that “keep us comfortable by ruling some zones of awareness out of bounds.”  This setup results in “a dance with attention and anxiety as partners.”

Upon contemplation, this seems all too obvious (unless you are locked into the mindset where rule/commandments guide our sense of morality).  After all, if you’re not paying attention to something, it will rarely make you anxious. Most of us here in the US are not anxious about children starving to death in Africa because we are usually not paying attention to them.  Combined with the fact that dollars are fungible, this inattention allows us to spent extra money on vanity license plates or a dinner at a fancy restaurant, rather than donating that money to save lives.

Most of us are not even anxious about the many Americans suffering because of the lack of education, nutrition and health care because we are usually not paying attention to them. If we force ourselves to pay attention to these unfortunate people, face-to-face, it becomes extremely hard to not get involved, to not do everything we can to help them. But we don’t pay attention to these problems, for the most part.  We simply divert our attention to something we’d rather think about.  It’s as easy as changing the channel on the TV, but we don’t think of this channel-changing in moral terms.  But we should.  Because we so easily switch our attentional channels, we end up with terrible schools were children don’t have a chance to get a decent education. We end up with billions of people eating government-subsidized garbage instead of healthy fruits and vegetables. We end up with people dying from the lack of basic healthcare, including the lack of preventative treatment and basic diagnostic tests.

So why don’t we pay attention to these important issues? I suspect it’s because paying attention to these issues will either burden us (if we actually do something to help out) or cause anxiety (if we ignore the problem and simply switch channels again).  Inattention is an elegant solution to many types of problems, and the beauty of it is that it often comes with plausible deniability (“But I didn’t know…”).

On page 12, Goleman mentions an ancient Indian epic posing the following riddle, “What is the greatest wonder of the world?” The answer is “That no one, though he sees others dying all around, believes he himself will die.” This is a classic application of inattention.  I should add that ignoring this massive problem, that we are each on a treadmill moving inexorably toward death, is not a perfect solution to the threat of death.  But it’s a ubiquitous strategy that seems to work, at least on the surface level. I’ve explored this at some length in my posts on “terror management theory.”

Goleman points out (at page 13) that self-deception operates at two levels: the level of the individual mind and the collective awareness of a group. As all of us know, self-deception is extremely common in families.   Families collectively cultivate both collective myths and blind spots. They learn to avoid toxic thoughts and ideas by teaching youngster two things: A) “Here’s what we notice, and B) Here’s what we don’t notice.”  Families intensely collude to deny obvious facts, and this is “a hallmark of the vital lie.” In return for learning how not to notice things that threaten the family, members are rewarded by being recognized bona fide members of the family. This is a huge payoff, because being a member of a family offers many type of resources, including safety, nutrition and education.  The price of admission is the willingness to put blinders on one’s perceptual strategies, which maintains the invisibility of things detrimental to the family.

The family is the first classroom we all have for learning to avert our eyes in order to avert anxiety. When we grow up, we take this home-spun skill out into the world to serve all of the organizations we join. All types of groups work meticulously to skew attention to hide painful truths; all groups have their toxic truths–certain things we are not supposed to notice. Goleman comments that in each of these cases, “a looming anxiety is appeased by a twist of attention.” We instinctively know enough to employ our attention to “deny threat, and so cushion ourselves from anxiety.”

To belong to a group of any sort, the tacit price of membership is to agree not to notice one’s own feelings of uneasiness and misgiving, and certainly not to question anything that challenges the group’s way of doing things. The price for the group in this arrangement is that dissent, even healthy dissent, is stifled.

Whistleblowers are thus seen to be violating the most sacred understanding of what it means to be a member of a group. It is for this reason that Goleman considers whistleblowers to be courageous heroes. Whistleblowers break out of the trap group conformism (Goleman quotes Ellie Weisel here) by having the courage to “speak truth to power.” (Page 251). Their reward is to get demoted, fired or worse. Goleman points out the “paradox” that whistleblowers tend to be “highly loyal to the organization” for highly ethical reasons, yet many of them are made to suffer for telling the truth [See this video at min 20].

This ability of groups to spin multiple significant blind spots in order to maintain fables is immediately obvious to outsiders who step into the group; as one becomes socially acclimated to the group, one tends to adopt the groups blind spots as one’s own. In short, one learns the group’s strategies for what to avoid thinking about, Human beings walk around with many “blanks in experience hidden by holes and vocabulary.” These result from “an incapacity to bring attention to bear on certain crucial aspects of our reality.”   Goleman’s thesis thus dovetails with Jonathan Haidt’s thesis that morality, a hallmark of being a part of a group, both “binds and blinds.”

Attention defines what we notice, but Goleman points out that we rarely notice how we notice. Attention frames our experience, but we often don’t notice how we have constructed the frame itself, yet this attentional frame, which we ourselves create, can warp experience and inhibit action. (Page 20). Goleman cites to Hannah Arendt, who referred to the “banality of evil” as she described “how the mix of self deception and free will allows us to do evil, believing it good.”

Goleman fears that this ability to do evil by manipulating attention presents a greater danger in these modern times, given the modern mindset

a sensation of anxiety and shame whose center cannot be located and therefore cannot be placated; a sense of the infinite difficulty within things, impeding every step; a sensitivity acute beyond usefulness, as if the nervous system, flayed of its old hide of social usage and religious belief, must record a retouch as pain.

Manipulating attention creates blind spots that offer easy solace from the flow of facts that prick the pain of conscience.

Goleman sums up his theory as follows:

  • The mind can protect itself against anxiety by dimming awareness.
  • This mechanism creates a blind spot: a zone of block attention and self deception.
  • Such blind spots occur at each major level of behavior from the psychological to the social

Our strategies for manipulating and diverting attention not only affect us, but we pass on these strategies to others.  For instance,  they are often passed on from parent to child.

He cites to one of R.D. Lang’s poems from the book Knots:

The range of what we think and do
is limited by what we fail to notice.
And because we fail to notice
that we fail to notice
there is little we can do
to change
until we notice
how failing to notice
shapes our thoughts and deeds.

Goleman did not present his theory as a finished product. Although he considered his work to be groundbreaking, he asked forgiveness for his hurried review of the subject.

How should we deal with this human frailty that enables immense damage? The first step, according to Goleman is “notice how it is that we are asleep.” (Page 25). Goleman is not advocating that all truths should be told. There are such things as malicious truths that are best left unsaid. On the other hand, we generally need to cultivate the truth teller as a type of hero, as an ordinary person who “somehow marshals the courage to tell the truth about some abuse.”  There are also white lies, that need not be exposed.

Goleman recognizes that the ubiquity of the human practice of muting awareness to avoid anxiety suggests beneficial evolutionary origins. And, again, there can be great danger in peeling back the protective layers of ones understanding of life.   Nonetheless, there is a point beyond which this human tendency becomes toxic. Goleman assumes there “may be some optimal equilibrium between denial and truth.” The proper balance lies “neither in smug self-delusion nor in blatant self exposure.”

The default should be, however, that “truth must be told if we are to find our way out.” He offers the following as a guiding heuristic: There is, to be sure, a fundamental difference between those blind spots that spring from benign self-protection and those that spring from ugly collusion.” The human predicament is quite complex and is not always clear which is which.

“Somewhere between the two poles–living a life of vital lies and speaking simple truths–there lies a skillful mean, a path to sanity and survival.”


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Category: Censorship, Culture, ignorance, Orwellian, Psychology Cognition, Secrecy

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (3)

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  1. Erich Vieth says:

    This Wikileaks wallpaper makes a relevant point:

    “Every Organization rests upon a mountain of secrets.” Julian Assange

    Wikileaks - every organization

  2. Jay Brieler says:

    This is very good, and I need to digest it. But a few added pieces of pepper for the stew from a medical psychology type of guy.

    It is fairly clear from multiple fields of study that the modern human mind organizes itself at the highest level in terms of narrative. We have stories about ourselves and the world and the amount of control we have even over our own stories is variable and certainly not complete. That’s why it’s hard for us, as lefties in general, to not fall in when part of the lefty narrative doesn’t feel right.

    I have repeatedly talked about ego threats being one of the major motivators of human behavior. “Muthafrigga not going to tell me what to do.” But on a less hyperbolic and angry angle, what people are doing is defending their narratives. This is a normal process. We do it, the neocons are doing it, the ancient Emperors of China did it. And we elaborate our stories rather than throwing them out completely. Sometimes this gets preposterous and comical. Eventually there is a breaking point but these stories don’t die without a fight.

    The fight is not even a fight. It is telling a story that sinks into the psyche and takes hold. Why did Jesus speak in parables? Why did it work?

    • Erich Vieth says:

      Jay: Good comments. Yes, we have various ways of protecting ourselves from evidence that is inconsistent with our preferred narrative. Sometimes we do this by consciously swatting away annoying evidence. Goleman often focuses on habituated attention strategies that filter out those annoying consistence, so that we don’t have to do the dirty work. I see it as a form of plausible deniability. “I’m just a good and decent man who never happens to think about the kind of things that challenge me to change my lifestyle in such a way to make myself a highly responsible human being.” This strategy means that we are only negligent is setting up our “program,” and not actually mean-spirited.

      “Confirmation bias” is an obviously related concept.

      Or perhaps I’m projecting a bit here. Nonetheless, Goleman’s writings resonated deeply with me, and I invite anyone interested to also take a look at my paper, which is linked in the main article.

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