Mind the Gap

You experience the gap numerous times each day. Everyone does. The gap, in this case, is the discrepancy between what you expect will happen and what actually happens. Because your brain finds this gap to be very unsettling, it responds by rushing to close it (i.e., explain it) as quickly as possible. Ostensibly, the purpose of an explanation is to help you understand what’s happening—or give you the sense that you understand—so you can determine a course of action to take.

This is an automatic process that works reasonably well in a variety of situations, especially if they’re straightforward and/or familiar. Coming up with explanations is so automatic and so fast that you probably don’t stop very often to question the validity or accuracy of the expectations that gave rise to the gap that needs explaining.

But if your expectations are based on unfounded assumptions or an incorrect analysis of the situation—or if they are missing critical information—then your explanation is bound to be flawed. And it turns out that most such explanations are flawed.

In truth, when we set out to explain our actions, they are all post hoc explanations using post hoc observations with no access to unconscious processing. Not only that, our left brain fudges things a bit to fit into a makes-sense story. Explanations are all based on what makes it into our consciousness, but actions and the feelings happen before we are consciously aware of them—and most of them are the results of nonconscious processes, which will never make it into the explanations. The reality is that listening to people’s explanations of their actions is interesting—and in the case of politicians, entertaining—but often a waste of time. —Michael Gazzaniga, Professor of Psychology, UC Santa Barbara

You can’t avoid having expectations. If your brain wasn’t predictive, you wouldn’t be able to function in the world you find yourself in. But those predictions are based, to a great extent, on the mental model the unconscious part of your brain maintains of what’s normal for you. Naturally, you feel pretty confident about them. But the degree of confidence you have in your explanations is not a reliable guide to their validity or accuracy.

When the gap is generated by a flawed explanation based on unfounded expectations, the action you take to correct or respond to it won’t get you the result you want. Instead you will be faced with yet another gap to explain and contend with. Continuing down this winding road can take you very far afield from your original destination.

As a result, the conscious part of your brain (the part you think of as “I”) may become more and more dissatisfied, frustrated, and even confused. You may give up or at least feel like giving up. The unconscious part of your brain, on the other hand, is likely to be quite satisfied with this state of affairs.

We have a big brain capable of greatness with hardwiring for survival. –David DiSalvo

The unconscious part of your brain is, as Cormac McCarthy put it, “a machine for operating an animal.” This particular machine’s prime directive is survival, and it thinks the best way for you to survive is to maintain your status quo. It has a variety of tricks up its sleeve to deceive you into thinking you’re moving forward when, in fact, you’re expending a lot of mental energy running in place on the hamster wheel.

The Myth of Self-Sabotage

Self-sabotage is a great example of an explanation created to account for the gap between the expectation that our behavior ought to be based on our conscious intentions and the experience of doing something other than what we consciously intend to do. If you accept the self-sabotage explanation, the logical action to take is to try to determine how and why you’re sabotaging yourself. This is a diversionary expedition that leads to a dead end. It contributes nothing in the way of helping you change your behavior.

The expectation that our behavior ought to be based on our conscious intentions is based on several unwarranted assumptions. The reality is that since we operate on autopilot most of the time, most of our behavior is generated by unconscious impulses, not by conscious intentions. And the unconscious part of our brain wants to maintain the status quo. You’re far more likely to keep doing what you’ve been doing than you are to do something different.

You may not like it, but the fact that you don’t always do what you consciously intend to do should not surprise or confound you. The logical action to take (instead of trying to figure out how and why you’re sabotaging yourself) is to retrain your brain to make the desirable behavior part of the status quo.

When you follow the path of least resistance by unquestioningly going along with your brain’s interpretation of events and behaviors, you end up digging yourself deeper into your rut. If you want to expand your mental model, change your direction, and give yourself more opportunities to succeed, one of the best things you can do for yourself is to develop the habit of questioning your expectations.

Bats, Balls, and Biases

Critical thinking is the ability to think clearly, rationally, and objectively and to understand the logical connection between ideas. It’s an active rather than a passive process. Because it requires System 2 (conscious) attention, it doesn’t come naturally to us and it isn’t easy.

In some instances, we equate difficult with boring. In fact, after reading the short paragraph above, you may already be bored. Critical thinking? Who cares and why bother?

Well, for one thing, it’s possible that improving your critical thinking skills might help you become a better person. But more importantly, it might help you get more of what you want and less of what you don’t want. That’s because good critical thinking skills are essential if you want to master the art and science of change. And unless you master the art and science of change, you’ll continue to be stuck with whatever the status quo happens to be—or to become.

On the BIAS

We all view what happens in the world and what happens to us through our own individual perspectives (our mental models). That means we are all biased.

Here’s an easy way to remember bias:

Beliefs and Values
Interpretations
Assumptions
Stereotypes

Beliefs are ideas or principles we have come to accept as true.
Values are our personal principles or standards.
Interpretations are explanations or understanding.
Assumptions are suppositions: what we take for granted or assume.
Stereotypes are generalizations and oversimplifications.

All of these elements operate in the background (System 1) so we aren’t usually consciously aware of them. Being biased is the normal state of affairs. We don’t have to make an effort to be biased. We have to make an effort to become aware of our biases so we have a fighting chance to act in our own best interest rather than automatically.

One of the most fascinating aspects of the human condition is that we think of the conscious part of the brain (System 2) as “I.” Yet it’s the biased unconscious part of the brain (System 1) that usually runs us. It takes no time or effort to come up with a System 1 reaction or response to a situation, question, or event because System 1 is fast, vast, and always on.

As Daniel Kahneman says in Thinking, Fast and Slow:

Everybody recognizes the difference between thoughts that come to mind automatically and thoughts that you need to produce. That is the distinction.

System 1 has an answer for everything. And its answers are correct often enough to lull us into accepting them unconditionally most of the time. But you’re not going to get change from System 1; you’re going to get same old/same old.

In addition to understanding our own biases, we also need to develop the capacity to know when it’s OK to go along with System 1’s response and when it isn’t. Well-developed critical thinking skills can help us make important decisions and solve significant problems by allowing us to effectively evaluate both the information at hand and the “intuitive” suggestions spontaneously arising from System 1.

Do I need an umbrella?

If you look outside and observe rain falling, you could safely jump to the conclusion that you need to take an umbrella with you when you go outside. You would not increase your chances of making the best decision by checking the weather report on your smartphone (getting more information) or analyzing your interpretation that rain falling means you’re likely to get wet if you go out in it.

How much does the ball cost?

On the other hand, you may not want to count on the first response that comes to mind as an answer to the following question:

A bat and a ball cost $1.10.
The bat costs one dollar more than the ball.
How much does the ball cost?

If you jump to the conclusion that the ball costs 10 cents, you would be wrong—no matter how confident you might feel about your conclusion.

That’s because if the bat costs one dollar more than the ball and the ball costs 10 cents, the bat would cost $1.10 for a total of $1.20. So the correct answer is that the ball costs 5 cents and the bat costs $1.05 for a total of $1.10.

Did you do the math, so to speak, or did you jump to the quick—and erroneous—conclusion? If you jumped to the wrong conclusion, how confident did you feel about your answer? And does it make you feel any better to know that between 50% and 80% of college students also come up with the wrong answer.

No ToE (Theory of Everything)

I have enjoyed learning about and working with the Enneagram for the past couple of decades because it describes—amazingly accurately—how we humans actually function. I’ve gotten to know myself much better as a result and have learned to curb some tendencies and to live with some shortcomings. It has also been an invaluable tool for working with clients in various situations and capacities. Maybe best of all, I’ve learned to laugh at myself, at least a little. And I’ve gotten to know others on a deeper level.

But sometimes I think we ask too much—or expect too much—of the Enneagram. As comprehensive and amazing as it is, the Enneagram can’t and doesn’t explain everything there is to know about us. It is not the personality equivalent of a Theory of Everything.

One aspect of the Enneagram that has become increasingly popular over the past 10 years is identifying the so-called Instinctual Variants, and more recently Instinctual Variant Stacking. The concept seems to have originated with Oscar Ichazo, but it has been considerably expanded and given greater significance than it once had. The purpose of the Instinctual Variants, and the stacking thereof, appears to be to try to explain the differences within types. (This is what I’ve read, not just my interpretation.)

Well, of course there are differences within types. And there are all kinds of things that could explain them, most of which have nothing at all to do with the Enneagram. Over a dozen years ago, my then partner in crime Elizabeth Libbey and I devoted a great deal of time and effort reviewing a large portion of Enneagram literature and looking at how the Enneagram maps onto or corresponds with other psychological, sociological, and neurological research. We found a solid basis for the Stances (Aggressive, Compliant, and Withdrawing), but nothing comparable in regard to the Instinctual Variants. In fact, I came across research results that flatly contradict the idea (held by many in the Enneagram community) that “instincts” have anything whatsoever to do with actual biological instincts. That’s why I don’t write about that particular topic.

Trying to fit all the disjointed, fractured, and misshapen pieces of us inside the Enneagram doesn’t seem realistic or useful to me. And I wonder if that isn’t what turns some people off about personality typing systems. What I’ve learned about the brain and mind supports the idea that who we are is much more complex than that. There are aspects of ourselves we will never completely know or be able to explain, as much as we may be driven to search for such explanations. I also think that’s a good thing!

Originally posted in ninepaths.com.

You Can Call Me (Antisocial) Al

Al was one of my substance abuse clients at the methadone clinic where I used to work. I knew he was a Type 5 because I managed to persuade every single one of my clients to complete an Enneagram questionnaire. With his shaved head (usually covered by a baseball cap) and multiple tattoos, Al was a little off-putting, appearance-wise. He had spent more than one stint in San Quentin where he joined an Aryan Brotherhood gang. As he—and several other ex-con clients—explained to me, you had to belong to some group in prison in order to survive. He never seemed very committed to the white supremacist thing, and being a 5, he certainly wasn’t part of any gang on the outside.

Somewhere along the way, Al had encountered a psychiatrist who diagnosed him as having Antisocial Personality Disorder. I’m not sure what the psychiatrist was thinking. Did he believe that because Al had committed antisocial acts, he must therefore have Antisocial Personality Disorder? I don’t know. And I wouldn’t have cared, except the doctor was so convincing Al took on the diagnosis as part of his identity. It was almost as if he introduced himself by extending his hand and his diagnosis, “Hi, I’m Al. I have Antisocial Personality Disorder.”

Meow!

The disconnect for me was that Al was unfailingly prompt for his counseling appointments and far more considerate of me than many of my less-sinister-appearing clients. He’d knock softly on my door and stick his head into my office after the client ahead of him had left. “I just wanted you to know I’m here,” he’d say. “Take your time. If you need a break, I’ll wait.”

He knew I was a big San Francisco 49ers fan when Steve Young was the quarterback (possibly because of the red jersey with the huge number 8 I wore to the clinic every game day). So when he came across a used set of 49ers sweats at a thrift store, he got them for me.

He once spent a few months in an East Bay correctional facility, during which he wrote me several droll letters. He also sent a card with a kitten in a wicker basket on the front. On the inside it said, “Just want you to know how much I miss you!” In pencil (the only writing implement allowed), he’d added, “I’m out before you can say ‘meow!’”

After months of weekly counseling sessions, I figured that if Al had a mental health diagnosis it was probably Avoidant Personality Disorder. Although I’ve never been in prison, joined a gang, gotten tattooed (something I’m still threatening to do), or committed any felonies, based on Enneagram type alone I’m a much better candidate to develop Antisocial Personality Disorder than he was.

Avoidant Al

Eventually, I pulled out the DSM IIIR (a version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders), and during one of our sessions we read through both diagnoses. It seemed clear to me he met the criteria for Avoidant Personality Disorder—which also fit with his Enneagram type—and he agreed.

To some extent, it was a matter of exchanging one label for another. What difference did it really make? Well, it was subtle at first, but once Al started to see himself in that different light, he began to open up more. He developed some insight into his behavior and especially into his feelings. Before I left the clinic, he got involved in a relationship with a woman who had a young daughter, and I saw him access the healthy side of Type 2, which is part of his triad. It was a wonder to behold.

The Enneagram gave me another lens to look at my clients through—ultimately one that was more humane and more useful than some of the other lenses through which they’d been seen.

5 Reasons to Study the Enneagram

We move through this world under the impression—some would say the illusion—that we’re consciously choosing all of our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. But most of the time we’re operating on autopilot, stuck on the hamster wheel, doing the same thing over and over again, in spite of our best intentions.

The Enneagram provides a window into our habits of thinking, feeling and behaving. The result is that the more we know, the less we’re at the effect of the programs that are usually running us.

As a system for describing our basic temperament or personality, the Enneagram is comprehensive, multifaceted, and accurate. It requires a bit of effort to fully grasp, so if you’re wondering why you should bother–what’s in it for you–here are five good reasons to learn more about the Enneagram:

1. You’ll Be Able to Let Yourself Off the Hook.

A surprising amount of what we perceive of as our own individual quirks, flaws, and shortcomings are not the result of our upbringing or personal experiences—or the fact that we’re stubborn, wrongheaded, or lack any semblance of willpower. It’s just the way we’re wired. That means we don’t need to continue expending time and energy trying to figure out why we’re that way or attempting to fix ourselves. The Enneagram offers a short-cut to self-awareness and self-acceptance, which is very powerful ground to stand on.

2. Other People Will Make You Less Crazy.

Even when you don’t know what someone else’s type is, just being aware of the fundamentally different perspectives and attitudes of each type can be eye-opening. That awareness makes it a lot easier to cut the other people in your life some slack and stop expecting them to be who they’re not. It also makes it less likely they’ll be able to push your buttons as often and as easily. Our differences don’t always have to be frustrating or divisive. They can be a source of humor and even a way to connect.

3. You Can Stop Banging Your Head Against the Wall.

Do you ever feel like your life is the one Narcotics Anonymous was referring to when they defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results? If so, take heart. The Enneagram explains how we get into our particular ruts of behaving, thinking, and feeling—and then offers a range of alternatives to try out from among the other types. Knowing your type is also extremely helpful—maybe even essential—if you are in the process of attempting to change your behavior.

4. It’ll Make You Smarter, Improve Your Memory and Mood, and Keep Your Brain Healthy.

Learning about the Enneagram may not add measurable points to your I.Q., but brains crave challenge and stimulation in order to maintain their plasticity. Learning something new actually changes your brain physically by not only increasing synaptic connections, but also growing new neurons—no matter how old you are. That’s one of the main ways to keep your mind sharp and flexible and your memory intact. These neuronal interconnections in our brains affect our behavior, thoughts, and feelings on a daily basis. You can definitely nurture your neurons by learning about the Enneagram.

5. It Has What You’re Looking For.

On the psychological level, the Enneagram is a great tool for anyone who’s on a journey of personal exploration or wants to change old, outmoded patterns of behavior. On the interpersonal level, it can help you deepen your relationship with your partner or develop clearer communication with friends and family members. At work, it can help you get along better with your co-workers, understand your boss, and become more effective. What you take from it depends on how you come at it and what it is you’re looking for.

I learned about the Enneagram 20 years ago when I was working as a substance abuse counselor and trained to become a Certified Enneagram Instructor. Not only did the Enneagram help me get a handle on some of my own automatic (System 1) behavior, it was the single most effective tool I ever found for working with my clients.

The work I do now is based on the most recent understanding of the mind and brain that neuroscience and psychology can provide. And once again I have found the Enneagram to be an invaluable tool, in this case for identifying my clients’ automatic behavior and tendencies.

Many of us want to increase our self-awareness, but we can’t pay attention to everything. The Enneagram points us in a direction that allows us to see how we tend to operate, in both positive and constructive ways and in negative and sometimes destructive ways. It’s one way to find out some of what’s in our particular mental model. Since the contents of our mental model are not directly accessible, I see the Enneagram as a short-cut to self-awareness.