Flight from Experience: Observation Biases

In a previous post I described the orientation of contemporary psychology to experience (Mindful Self-Presence: Challenge and Promise). To the extent that an individual’s goal in counseling is psychological insight, a necessary first step is observation of and attention to the data that the insight will be about. Biases related to research and decision-making seem to have become common knowledge. For example, a confirmation bias refers to the temptation to focus on evidence that supports my own thesis and an egocentric bias inclines me to make choices that benefit myself personally. A good method for, or good conversation about, research and decision-making is an important aid to resisting such temptations.

Biases also exist that tempt us to be poor observers of our own experience. Here good observation means heightening conscious awareness of inner experience. Biases that skew such observations include avoidance of feelings in favor of thoughts about feelings (what some psychologists have termed intellectualization) and avoidance of feelings that are not only uncomfortable in themselves but that evoke secondary feelings, for example, shame or anger. A good method such as mindful self-acceptance or a good therapeutic conversation help to limit the destructive impact of such biases.

Part of making a good observation is managing thoughts and expectations about what I should be feeling or what other people might feel or what I am expected to feel. Such thoughts about what I am feeling will occur, but mindfulness exercises cultivate a capacity to look past them and to constantly check such thoughts against inner experience as it occurs in real-time to see if the thoughts are accurate. Similarly, a therapeutic conversation brings a person into the present of ongoing inner experience and makes it possible to correct thoughts about what must be going on against what is occurring in inner experience.

Heightening conscious experience means adopting a welcoming attitude to whatever occurs and being open to, even seeking, novelty. Very often thoughts about my feelings are drawn from the pool of knowledge that I already have about myself or from things I already know about people in general. What matters most in psychological insight is learning something new. That means being open to the as yet unknown parts and depths of myself. To be open to the unknown is to hold my ideas about what I am or must be feeling lightly and be ready to add to my personal the catalog of feelings whatever this new inner experience might turn out to be.

Adopting a welcoming attitude serves as an antidote to selective attention and poor observation by managing secondary experiences. What I am feeling about a person or situation is distinct from what I might feel about being uncomfortable in the first place. Here, for example, is where shame or anger about feeling sad, weak or embarrassed might come into the picture. Such secondary feelings often complicate the process of self-discovery. They function as a filter that preselects which feelings I’d be willing to allow into the catalog and which feelings I would not. Feeling ashamed about or angry because of some inner experience means that the primary feeling is banished from the catalog and I’ll never discover whatever I might otherwise have learned about myself.

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