On Being Contrarian…

As a mother, therapy student, and healthcare worker, it seems the majority of my time is spent in the care of others.  As a Healer INFP personality type this endeavor suits me for the most part. However, as time has progressed, I’ve come to the realization that I’m becoming an adaptive reaction to others’ needs.  I have so little say in who I am becoming.  Everybody’s “baggage” tends to pile up after a long week.  When I review the endless needs, thoughts, feelings, and desires of those I provide care for, an “F’d” up hall of mirrors presents itself.  Within each individual’s worldview are a set of perceptual distortions That I become lost in.  I am unseen behind what is projected upon me….

EmperorCumulatively, these experiences are much like “The Emperor Has No Clothes”  fable.  What I like about this story is it represents effectively the notion of pluralistic ignorance: “a socio-psychological phenomenon that involves a systematic discrepancy between people’s private beliefs and public behavior in certain societal contexts” (Bjerring, et al, 2014, p. 2445).  This aggravates me to no end.  As I see it, pluralistic ignorance is the perpetuation of bullshit.  It requires us to pretend the king is not naked.  Effectively, in the context of the social situation, truth becomes bullshit and bullshit becomes truth.  A part of me feels compelled mention that the king is naked.  However, memories of ostracism  hold me back.   I stay quiet while my thoughts scream at me from inside.  Underlying a plastered smile, is a mind filled with aggravation.

I have to admit, by doing this I’m denying my true nature.  As a contrarian individual, I tend to see things in a manner which is counter to the norm.  Part of this has to do with my own temperament-based preferences, which I will discuss at another time.   Here,  I would like to examine a few interrelated concepts from psychology that can explain pluralistic ignorance.  Why is it we tend to collude with one another in order to perpetuate bullshit in this manner?

Piaget’s Schemas

Developmental psychologist, Jean Piaget studied cognitive development and believed it emerged in stages (i.e. sensorimotor, preoperational, concrete operational, formal operational).   In his theory, is the concept of schemas, defined as building block of knowledge that allow children to interact with their environment  (Piaget, 1952). Schemas provide mental representations of the world and help us make sense of what we encounter.  Through a process of assimilation and accommodation, we incorporate new information in order to refine our understanding of the world. (Piaget, 1952).  Žvelc, (2009), also notes that since they provide a representation of ourselves and others, they have a profound affect on our interpersonal relationships.

What I find interesting about this concept, is it mirrors insights from Thomas Kuhn’s book “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions” (Kuhn, 2012).   According to Kuhn, academic fields tend to operate on an implicit set of beliefs and assumptions or “paradigm”.  Paradigms are explanatory models of belief systems that guide the progression of knowledge within a scientific field.  New insights are utilized to expand the prevailing paradigmatic explanatory model – until something unique is encountered.  This anomaly produces a crisis – and eventually a new paradigm, (much in the same manner as Piaget describes with schemas).  These views of cognitive development and scientific discovery both provide a Hegelian dialectical perspective of progress.

Goffman’s Frames

In his book, “Frame Analysis”, Erving Goffman seems to describe social frames as constructed schemas of interpretation (Goffman, 1974).  They provide a socially constructed agenda-setting framework, that give us a background for understanding social interactions.  This allows us to engage in impression management.   Much of this occurs outside of our awareness, at a subconscious level.  For example, personal experiences are imbued with social meaning in ways we are often do not realize.  Goffman’s theory is very dramaturgical in nature and provides a convenient way of examining our daily interactions as “performances”.  Essentially, as his theory asserts, our experiences are organized on the basis of social constructs which provide us meaning.   In order to function in the social world, we must frame our experiences within this meaning system.

Berne’s Scripts

In his book “Transactional Analysis in Psychotherapy”, Eric Berne, (1961), provides a theory which is useful in analyzing social interactions.  His theory uses the concept of life scripts to describe a set of “unconscious relational patterns” (Erskine, 2010, p. 24).  Developed in childhood, they are relational patterns that reflect our attachment history and are repeated throughout life.  Scripts exist within limbic memory and influence our thoughts, perceptions and behaviors.  Finally, they provide “a generalization of specific experiences and an unconscious anticipation…that will be repeated throughout life” (Erskine, 2010, p. 22).  Berne uses the term “transference phenomena” (Ereskine, 2010, p. 15) to describe this repetitive nature reflected through our relationship history.

Concluding Thoughts…

Schemas are building blocks we utilize to understand our world in early childhood.  Goffman’s frames exist as an adult corollary, providing a means of impression management.  Finally, Berne’s scripts tie these two concepts together by allowing us to understand how our interactions are influenced by early childhood experiences.  Much of what we understand about the world, are assumed to be matters of fact. We expect others to see as we do with socially relevant meaning systems that can act as a guide for our interactions with one another. We expect others to comply behaviorally with this system of meaning regardless of whether it contradicts that individual’s true nature or lived experience.  We are disappointed when they do not comply for failing to validate this perceptual construct.  Kuhn calls contradictory evidence an anomaly (Kuhn, 2012).  Piaget (1952), asserts it is either assimilated or accommodated.  Berne (1961) uses script analysis to understand how social constructs influence our understanding of these relational anomalies. Overall, these concepts describe effectively how pluralistic ignorance is self-perpetuating.

As a contrarian, I feel it is important to note that “objective fact” and “common sense” are terms that often do not mean what we think they do.  They also happen to be highly overrated.  What is often perceived as “common sense” is instead a requisite deference to a schema-oriented social framework.  Objective facts frequently constitute lying by omission, when you consider their presentation edits out the fact that our experience of reality is Inherently subjective.  As a biracial individual, I have a lifetime of experiences with cultural relativism to back up this idea.  Things are never what they appear to be and we need to dig deeper…

What about the radical notion of thinking for myself and to hell with what others think?  There is something to be said for honoring my unique experience rather than bowing down to the bullshit perpetuated by “conventional wisdom”.

References

Berne, E. (1961). Transactional analysis in psychotherapy: A systematic individual and social psychiatry.
Bjerring, J. C., Hansen, J. U., Pedersen, Nikolaj Jang Lee (2014). On the rationality of pluralistic ignorance. Synthese, 191(11), 2445-2470. doi:10.1007/s11229-014-0434-1
Erskine, R. G. (2010).Life scripts: A transactional analysis of unconscious relational patterns. London: Karnac.
Goffman, E. (1974). Frame analysis: An essay on the organization of experience. Harvard University Press.
Kuhn, T. S. (2012). The structure of scientific revolutions. University of Chicago press.
Piaget, J. (1952). The origins of intelligence in children (Vol. 8, No. 5, pp. 18-1952). New York: International Universities Press.
Žvelc, G. (2009). Between self and others: Relational schemas as an integrating construct in psychotherapy. Transactional Analysis Journal, 39(1), 22-38.

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