March 7, 2007

The Psychological Uncertainty Principle




A commenter, who I believe is a physics undergrad (his blog here) emailed me some of his thoughts on narcissism, and wrote:

...those studies where people rank each other in a room for different attributes having never met them... I think what's going on is we assign people personalities based on how they look and force them to become a certain thing, creating a whole custom world for them...

which puts the idea of "profiling" on its head.  Do we actually ever "figure people out," or do we change them into what we think they are by the act of engaging in a relationship (on any level) with them?  It sounds a lot like a psychological version of quantum entanglement:

When two systems, of which we know the states by their respective representatives, enter into temporary physical interaction due to known forces between them, and when after a time of mutual influence the systems separate again, then they can no longer be described in the same way as before, viz. by endowing each of them with a representative of its own... By the interaction the two representatives have become entangled.

Which, unfortunately, sounds a lot like this (p. 236):

The unreflective consciousness does not apprehend the person directly or as its object; the person is presented to consciousness in so far as the person is an object for the Other.  This means that all of a sudden I am conscious of myself escaping myself, not in that I am the foundation of my own nothingness but in that I have my foundation outside myself.  I am for myself only as I am a pure reference for the Other.

You can't know who a person is without relating to them, and once you do that, you irrevocably change them.

Only in relationship to another do you get defined. Sometimes you can do it with your God; but either way, any adjective has to be placed on you by someone else.  Are you brave?  Strong?  funny, stupid, nervous?  All that comes from someone else.  So when someone relates to you, they define you.  You can try to control this-- hence the narcissist preying on the borderline to get her to see him the way he wants to be seen-- but ultimately it's up to the other person.

So we're are, or become, whatever a person thinks we are?  No, it's worse than that-- we want to be what they think we are. That's why we maintain the relationship, otherwise we'd change it.  ("I divorced her because I didn't like who I became.")

We do it because it is easier, and it serves us.   You're kind because he sees you as kind-- which in turn allows him to be seen as someone who can detect kindness.  And you accept that you're kind-- or mean/vulnerable/evil/brilliant-- because it serves you-- there's some gain there.  But a strong person accepts that on the one hand the other person gives you definition, and on the other hand you are completely undefinable, free, at any moment, to redefine yourself.  You can defy him, biology, environment and be anything.

You say: but I can't be a football star just because I want to.  But that's wanting someone else to see you in a certain way.  Do you want to play ball?  Go play ball.  "But I won't get on the team."  Again, that's wanting to change someone else.  Change you first. 

But what about-- identity?  That's the mistake, that's bad faith.  Thinking that our past is us; what we did defines us.  Our past can be judged-- what else is there to judge?- but it can't-- shouldn't--  define us, because at any moment we are free to change into something, anything else.  And so, too, we can be judged for not changing.

Ultimately, you are responsible for everything you do and think.  Not for what happens to you, but for how you choose to react.  Nothing else made you be.  Nothing else made you do.

Trinity said it best: The Matrix cannot tell you who you are. 


A psychiatrist talking abou... (Below threshold)

March 8, 2007 3:13 AM | Posted by Shalmanese: | Reply

A psychiatrist talking about entanglement in reference to a physicist talking about narcissism? Hilarious!

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You have to be careful with... (Below threshold)

March 8, 2007 3:34 AM | Posted by Shalmanese: | Reply

You have to be careful with relativism lest you go in too deep and meet your ass coming the other way.

You can either be competent or not competent. You can either perform the load calculations correctly and leave a fine testament to human ingenuity or perform them incorrectly and cause the bridge to collapse and kill 5 people.

Relativism works as long as it's only people dealing with people but sooner or later, mother nature jumps in and then you can't avoid paying the piper.

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"Relativism works as long a... (Below threshold)

March 8, 2007 10:26 AM | Posted by AK: | Reply

"Relativism works as long as it's only people dealing with people but sooner or later, mother nature jumps in and then you can't avoid paying the piper."

I think Herman Melville said that 'Faith and philosophy are air, but events are brass.'

In their volume on 'The Age of Faith' in the History of Mankind' series, Will and Ariel Durant had a story. It
was from the time in the Middle Ages when scholastic philosophy took hold in the universities.

A peasant had a talented son. He decided to make the very important decision of selling a yoke of oxen to raise the funds to send his bright boy to the Sorbonne, in Paris where, if the kid succeeded and made the right contacts, he might become influential in the church and in turn help his family back home.

A yoke of oxen represented vast wealth. It would be the equivalent of a farmer selling his or her John Deere tractor--those machines cost thousands upon thousands of dollars.

After due time, the boy returned from the university, having learned debate, logic, all the verbal tricks. He probably also felt quite superior to his peasant daddy.

The father asked his son what he learned. The boy saw 6 eggs on the table and with ruthless logic, 'proved' that the six eggs were actually 12 eggs.

Dad stood silently, knowing he had no way to beat this brat at the logic game. Instead, he took the six eggs and told the boy,

'Son, I am taking these for my supper tonight. You can eat the other six.'

There are times when ideas do indeed change us.

There are other times when an idea can send us to bed without supper.

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"You have to be careful wit... (Below threshold)

March 8, 2007 11:02 AM | Posted by Anonymous: | Reply

"You have to be careful with relativism lest you go in too deep and meet your ass coming the other way."

I like that.

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I'm curious about the relat... (Below threshold)

March 8, 2007 5:41 PM | Posted by Admin: | Reply

I'm curious about the relativism comment, because I definitely did not mean that personality was relative.

My point is that actions (events) are clear, and thus subject to judgment. But your past behavior doesn't influence your future behavior; you just think it does. You choose to believe you are "that kind of person" but really, at any moment you can be any kind of person you want.

Normal life, however, asks that you pick a personality that suits you, and stick to it. Best example would be parenting: you may want disparately to cheat on your wife, or to booze it up every weekend, or buy a Ferrari, but your kids "ask" that you be a consistent, predictable person, so that they can use your foundation to develop. They're "asking" you to be "the kind of person who would never cheat"-- so you have to be it.

But this is my point: you're not intrinsically, or naturally, that person; you just chose to be that person. Every moment of every day, you use up energy to be who you are.

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Where does accountability c... (Below threshold)

March 8, 2007 6:35 PM | Posted by Anonymous: | Reply

Where does accountability come into play with this theory? It sounds like you're saying if a person does something bad (cheats on their spouse, harms someone, takes advantage of someone, etc) that it doesn't define who they are. Doesn't it? It sounds like it would be a great (and convenient) theory for the type of person lacking a conscience. Under this theory a person without a conscience can cause harm (because it doesn't define who they are) and blame the people who are harmed. That's warped.

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Some of what you're discuss... (Below threshold)

March 9, 2007 3:09 PM | Posted by Elliott Hammer: | Reply

Some of what you're discussing is reciprocal determinism, which acknowledges that we affect our environment (and groups of people, for example) just as they affect us.

I take issue with your assertion that we are responsible for what we think and what we do. I agree with the second part, but the first is more complicated. Yes, we can control what we think to some degree, but it takes a great deal of effort and practice. It might be more accurate to say that we control what we do with our thoughts. I should be vigilant for unfair or prejudiced perspectives and work not to act on them. But I can't necessarily help their being a part of my mindset. Yes, I can expose myself to schema-inconsistent information and interactions, but that takes time as well.

I really like your site!

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"Ultimately, you are respon... (Below threshold)

May 11, 2007 8:22 AM | Posted by Thank you: | Reply

"Ultimately, you are responsible for everything you do and think. Not for what happens to you, but for how you choose to react. Nothing else made you be. Nothing else made you do." said by Alone says it all

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"Ultimately, you are respon... (Below threshold)

November 15, 2007 12:54 AM | Posted by Cindy: | Reply

"Ultimately, you are responsible for everything you do and think."

Like the anonymous poster above, I agree that we are not always in control of or responsible for what we think - what we believe or actively think about, maybe, but not everything we think.

A psychiatrist friend once told me, "Sometimes you can't help how you feel. You can only help what you do about it," which provided some perspective on feeling guilty about normal feelings of anger. There's nothing so counterproductive as feeling bad about feeling bad.

I don't know how feeling and thinking are separated by psychiatrists, but everyone has had unwelcome negative thoughts, feelings, and gut reactions. You're only really responsible for choosing to dwell on them, act on them, etc.

And what about silly blips? No one chooses to think about last week's episode of Seinfeld during a eulogy, but it happens.

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I only skimmed this quickly... (Below threshold)

July 6, 2014 9:59 PM | Posted by Anonymous: | Reply

I only skimmed this quickly, but, my two cents: have a narcissistic parent, and one who was quite crafty in their manipulation of the uncertainty principle, or what I believe is the underlying physical mechanism of the uncertainty principle in my own psyche. It makes me sound crazy, but there you have it; it's a perspective that you don't see a ton of, at least in a cursory scan of the literature on narcissism, which is better at documenting some of the outward appearances and social effects of growing up with one ("what it's sort of like"). Therefore, I'm giving this kudos for at least opening up a line of discussion, which someone smarter than me will have to refine. If all goes well, that someone will be me a little bit later.

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