Sunday, September 4, 2011

Paper Friendships

Your friends aren’t worth the paper they’re written on.

If you were to be given a list of characteristics or traits that secretly described someone close to you, when asked to predict whether you would like the individual or not, I highly suspect that the results would often be contrary to the reality.  I say this because on occasion, the emotional connections between myself and another have been stripped away leaving the bare facts of the situation, devoid of disturbance and bias.  In these moments I realised that I was treating my comrades to the benefit of my double standards, distracted by the fact of friendship, cognitively blinded by their amiable familiarity.  Their words and actions all being passed through a separate filter, or group of filters reserved only for those I hold dear.

The purpose of analysing these occurrences in perhaps such a ‘cold’ manner is not to discover that your friends are equally big assholes as those you openly despise, but to bring further awareness to the manipulative methods at work in the background of your unconscious that have noticeable, and sometimes significant effects.

Unfortunately, Facebook users appear to suffer from similar effects caused by unintentional filter removal, whereby they are forced to confront the stark facts that almost 99% of their newsfeed contains utter garbage, and their friends are intolerable by equal measure.

When humans are reduced to exaggerated avatars, and stripped of all the other elements that combine to form presence, it becomes much easier to view them unempathetically.  Similarities between individuals have been shown to have a positive effect on interpersonal attraction, which seems to support the idea that uniforms have a dulling effect on our empathy when interacting with various people at work.  It's as if we must make a conscious effort to remind ourselves of our human similarities, and not to be persuaded by appearance.

In the same way that we allow our friends more leeway, those who we are unfamiliar with seem to be at a great disadvantage, as the filter appears to work in reverse.  We are much harsher in our judgments and stricter in the enforcement of our moral code.  Instead of looking for positive aspects to reinforce the ideas surrounding friendship, almost by default we are blind to them, especially if the ‘sworn enemy’ filter is in place.

All instances of a person acting in accordance with expectation will be highlighted over the negative cases, even though the former will often outweigh the latter in frequency.  This failure to take negative cases into consideration accounts for things such as the belief that dreams can predict the future, or other more subtle errors as in the example of saying that you ‘like’ or ‘dislike’ something.  When what you really mean is that on average, and to the best of your recollection, you have or haven’t had a positive experience of the person or thing in question.
By generalising you are whitewashing over the negative cases for the sake of convenience and to save on brainpower.  And sometimes we simply want to forget all the cases that do not conform to the desired or expected pattern. 

As for the predictive ability of dreams, out of the thousands we have during a lifetime we remember even less, but overall we will be more likely to recall those that are relevant to real life events, and to completely disregard the instances in which they have not ‘predicted the future’, and are otherwise deemed insignificant.  It may be more pleasing to hold onto the idea than to attribute it more realistically to coincidence and bias. 

The opportunities for coincidence to occur grow as time progresses (as sample size increases), and in the case of your irritating co-worker, the longer you spend with him, the greater the opportunity for you to confirm your biases.  Meanwhile the negative cases stack up, unacknowledged for their significance.

I have come across the mistaken belief that we only remember things which are worth remembering, and that if we forget something it is because either it was useless, or that we didn’t care (enough) about it in the first place.  This may just be a case of cognitive dissonance at work, where we feel the need to tell ourselves comforting stories to make up for the loss of important information due to our brains, and the processes we have no control over.  
Remember this next time someone tries to lay a guilt trip on you for forgetting their birthday. 

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