The Foibles of Appraisal

A thing is not necessarily true because a man dies for it. —- Oscar Wilde

It has been said that there are many distinctions without a difference, but sometimes distinctions define the differences that matter most. Among a variety of circumstantial experiences, how we interpret undesirable situations in particular can determine our potential for encountering psychological damage in general.

Isolating the tyranny of circumstance from the tyranny of self is one of those crucial bifurcations that separates what the psychologist Daniel Kahneman refers to as the “experiencing self” from the “remembering self.” What we believe about ourselves in relation to remembering a traumatic incident or personal injustice can exacerbate the intensity of what we actually experienced at the time it occurred. Similarly, the acknowledgment of something being abysmal does not obligate one to endorse a perpetuation of the abyss.

Albert Ellis, the purveyor of all things rational, once commented, “People don’t just get upset. They contribute to their upsetness.” To be philosophically copacetic, this quote can appear dismissive and more than a bit depoliticized when recognizing the emotional devastation that could be expected on any spectrum of trauma. However, this proposition has merit when considering the black hole of masochism that often ensues whenever we assume full responsibility for random misadventures. In other words, to what degree does emotional incrimination and relentless self-criticism become a long-term liability in the wake of misfortune? To employ a useful analogy, sometimes our perception of temperature is disproportionate to the actual temperature. Variables such as wind, humidity, cloud cover, and the location of the sun influence perception in ways that can make temperature feel warmer or colder. Likewise, the fluctuating variables of experience are subject to a wide range of interpretations that can be negatively internalized or retroactively exported at the expense of those around us. Ironically, it’s the perpetual exchange of experiences that makes our lives possible. Similar to the emergence of temperature due to particle friction and the effects of thermal radiation, everything that can be classified as a positive or negative experience is inexorably tied to the onslaught of unavoidable interactions.

The development of a psychological “filtration system” to identify experiences that are central to constructions of identity rather than incidental is another distinction with a qualitative difference. For example, the arduous ethical convictions and philosophical insights developed through enduring life’s fluctuating variables should be central to our concept of self. On the contrary, being defined by the unpredictability of circumstance is not only unsustainable; it’s insane.

Post hoc assimilation of experience allows for the selective integration and re-interpretation of events without feeling conscripted to an immutable narrative. Likewise, validating the fluidity of process keeps us from emphasizing the significance of any interval within a process.

To be held hostage by a crisis should not result in being a lifetime apologist for the crisis itself.

Unreasonable Expectations

Luke: Listen, if you were to rescue her, the reward would be

Han Solo: What?

Luke: Well, more wealth than you can imagine!

Han Solo: I don’t know, I can imagine quite a bit. (excerpt from the movie Star Wars)

Following up on a previous topic about situational indifference, I’d like to focus on the value of reducing expectations (cue Miss Havisham* stage left). However, I must first point out that adjusting one’s emotional barometer in response to unwelcome news is different than succumbing to apathy and incredulous disillusionment. Furthermore, the “recommendation” to reduce expectations isn’t to imply that expectations should never be expected. The problem occurs when expectations are disproportionate to the evidence for maintaining such anticipations. Human appetites for gratification are generally larger than what is realistically on offer, and experiencing outcomes are often less intoxicating than imagining outcomes.

The Israeli-American psychologist Daniel Kahneman has examined two experiential states described as the experiencing self and the remembering self. Kahneman presents these states as somewhat paradoxical in that they seldom establish synchronicity or compatibility. For example, the experiencing self may feel exuberantly “in the moment” and elated during a pivotal milestone, but the remembering self may downplay the occasion or find reasons for criticism. Conversely, the remembering self may idealize a former event while the experiencing self may have felt nonplussed during the actual occurrence. In hedonic psychology—measuring reported states of pleasure and pain—a person’s most accurate response to stimuli would be what Kahneman refers to as “moment utility.”¹ Moment utility is simply the perceptual awareness and feelings of an event as it is unfolding. Obviously, variables of perception change after an event due to a combination of adaptation, emotional disposition, and the low-fidelity nature of memory when eroded by the passage of time. Studies in neuroscience have demonstrated that human memory is subject to multiple errors in storage and retrieval. Unlike the digital storage units etched on a DVD, memory shifts over time and the reliability of memory is “retrospectively colored” by one’s current emotional state. In summation, our remembering self becomes the commander in chief when adjudicating future decisions, and overall life satisfaction is invariably assessed from an historic perspective. Consequently, nothing in the future may live up to our hedonic predictions and euphoria has a limited shelf-life when compared with the tenacity of aspirations.

In physics, the “observer effect” refers to changes that the act of observation will make on a phenomenon being observed. Likewise, remembering states of well-being in psychology are influenced in ways that ultimately lead to subjective relativity. Innocuously-intended closed questions about life contentment become open-ended discussions with minimal resolution. Whatever could possibly be expected is gradually replaced by the realization that there’s probably less to anticipate than our unmitigated desires can fabricate. The best way to avoid disappointment may be to lower the bar on unrealistically favorable predictions.

There is an emotionally seductive reason why people want to vicariously identify with the protagonist in heroic films. However, life is not like an epic adventure movie that reaches a climactic conclusion; it’s more like a Victorian novel that ends ambiguously, unexpectedly, or tragically. Nonetheless, our allocation of time is ultimately what makes each moment worth experiencing.

1. Memory Vs. Experience: Happiness is Relative, Naina N. Chernoff, APS, Observer, Vol. 15, No. 5, May/June, 2002.

* The “Miss Havisham effect,” based on the Charles Dickens character, describes a painful longing for lost love, which can become a physically addictive pleasure via paradoxical activation of reward and pleasure centers in the brain.