The duality of individuality

Is the glass half full or half empty?

The answer to that question is limited only by our imagination, and each one of us will have a different way of answering it. Some of us will respond instinctively, others will analyse the glass, trying try to calculate where the 50% mark lies, so that they can give an accurate answer. There will be others who will try to figure out why you are asking that question in the first place, in order to come up with the answer they think you want to hear.

Each one of us will process the question in a different way. This happens because the sum of our life experiences is what drives the response process. We all have different frames of reference. That, amongst other things, is what makes us individuals. Although we all share similar emotions, such as motherly love, anger, rejection, success, pride, etc., the environment, timing and context in which we experience these emotions is different for all of us. This makes the mental imprint we have of that experience unique. It is precisely these experiences that we then use as filters to process situations and information during our lifetimes. A child has a relatively clean mental slate, and it is easy to understand the weight and importance that these mental imprints can have on a child’s future.  When and how this happens early in life makes a huge difference to a child’s potential. In his book Outliers: The Story of Success, Malcolm Gladwell talks about the story of Lewis Terman and his still-running longitudinal study called the Genetic Studies of Genius (known today as Terman Study of the Gifted). Terman was convinced that geniuses (people with an IQ higher than 140) would achieve great things in their lifetimes. As it turned out, all he was able to prove was that, when it comes to their achievements in life, geniuses are also normally distributed. However, when the data is segmented in a different way, it shows a clear correlation between social class and academic performance. This is related to upbringing and the tendency for well-to-do families to encourage and support academic education, whilst the socially disadvantaged parents generally have little time to encourage and support their child through education, and in some cases may even be ashamed that they themselves do not have an academic ability.  We all see the world through different eyes, and no two eyes are the same. When we answer the question about the glass of liquid filled to 50% capacity, not only is the process of answering different for each individual but also it all happens in the blink of an eye.

So what gives us the ability to do that? Well, it’s our brain, of course, but more interesting it’s the duality of our brain. On the left side of this organ there is the rational part that thinks through problems and structures thoughts – this part will filter the challenge itself, in terms of physical and factual data. On the right side is the emotional part that filters a different type of data: body language, context, company, etc. Each part plays its role in transforming this data into information on which we make a choice of responses. Whilst we have the ability to think rationally, we are driven by emotions. This is why in the US supermarkets when you get your receipt you see in big letters how much you’ve saved, while the total of what you’ve spent is in normal text – they want to make you feel good about how much money you have saved at their store, never mind that you’ve maxed out on your credit card!

Modern psychology has made a lot of progress trying to understand how the two sides of the brain function and complement one another. There have been many analogies used to describe the tension between the two halves, but perhaps the most vivid is the one used by the psychologist Jonathan Haidt (Professor at New York University Stern School of Business) in his book The Happiness Hypothesis. Haidt sees our emotional side as an elephant and our rational side as its rider. Sitting on top of the elephant holding the reins, the rider may give the appearance that he is in charge, but, in fact, if the elephant were to see a mouse or be in any other way scared, it is quite clear that the rider would not be able to hold the elephant back, no matter how hard he pulled on the reins. It is precisely this tension between the rational and emotional sides of our brains that makes it so difficult for us to change. The elephant side is instinctive, and always on the look out for instant gratification. The weakness of the elephant is the rider’s strength: the ability to plan long term – the knowledge that calories saved today will enable me to lose weight. Put another way, everyone knows that smoking is bad for you (rider), but getting the elephant to stop procrastinating and coming up with excuses is difficult indeed. The challenge is for our riders to keep the elephant on the path long enough so that we can reach our destination. To achieve this the rider needs to resort to tricks, such as avoiding people who smoke when you are trying to stop smoking, or strategically placing a device that makes pig noises every time you open the refrigerator door.

There is no strict recipe for this: everyone is wired differently, every situation will require different measures and certain things will work for some people but not for others. It is important to recognize that the rider needs to and can manage the elephant – even if this occasionally requires putting a blindfold on the elephant’s head. Learning to manage our elephant is not that difficult: the rider needs to observe how the elephant behaves, orchestrate life with fewer temptations and reward the elephant for every step it takes in the right direction. After all, gratification is what it is craving!

Francis Lambert – Zabok, 17 December 2012 (originally written 29/05/12)

4 thoughts on “The duality of individuality

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