Category Archives: Psychology

Memory and Habits (Part I) — The Power of Habit


I’m savoring The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg in bits and pieces and made these fascinating discoveries.

1) The basal ganglia is central to recalling patterns and acting on them. It stores habits even while the rest of the brain asleep. The process of how the brain converts a sequence of actions into a routine, also known as “chunking” is what allows us to perform most activities in our everyday life without thinking twice.

2) Dr. Larry Squire, a professor of psychiatry, neurosciences and psychology, studied someone named Eugene who had problems with short term memory but could remember events before 1960 due to the effects of a debilitating disease. What kind of life can one lead if you cannot remember it? What Squire discovered was that “the brain has an amazing ability to find happiness even when the memories of it are gone.”

What implications does this have for Alzheimer’s patients, I wonder.

2) What Squire’s experiments with Eugene showed was that it’s possible to learn and make unconscious choices without remembering anything about the lesson or decision making. Habits are at the root of our behavior and it’s possible to form habits without memory. Once they are lodged within our brains, they influence how we act.

3) “Habits are powerful, but delicate. They can emerge outside our consciousness, or can be deliberately designed. They often occur without our permission, but can be reshaped by fiddling with their parts. They shape our  lives far more than we realize — they are so strong, in fact, that they cause our brains to cling to them at the exclusion of all else, including common sense.”

4) Why are companies such as Procter & Gamble, Microsoft and Google focused on understanding the formation of habits and how they can be changed? Because scientific research shows we rely upon all kinds of cues — visual triggers such as a candy bar or a TV commercial or a certain feeling — to change routines. The picture I’ve posted of a supermodel eating a burger is evidence of the fast food industry capitalizing on the science of habits by using strong visual cues and rewards to create habits that increase consumption of burgers and other fast food. The cues are powerful.

For example, in the case of Eugene, he would go for walks everyday and had to rely on visual cues to find his way back home because he could not depend on short term memory.

In the case of companies — and the examples used in the book were fast food companies — they used visual cues to unconsciously influence people’s habits and make them consume more. Researchers found that everything fro the aesthetics of a fast food chain to what employees say to customers were consistent cues to trigger more consumption. Even the way fries are designed to “melt” the moment they hit your tongue are meant to cause your pleasure centers to light up and compel your brain to lock in that pattern. It’s part of habit formation.

However, different cues and rewards can help us change habits. More to follow on creating new habits…

Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us


What motivates people to do what they do? How can we provide the proper incentives for people to conduct research, to innovate, and to perform their jobs well? These questions became especially relevant during the Advancement of Association for the Advancement of Sciences (AAAS) Annual Meeting in San Jose, California this year. What motivates scientists around the world to conduct their research? For some of the women scientists in developing countries with whom I spoke, any incentive to do research was met with the numerous hurdles they faced, from the lack of funding and available grants to being stigmatized as one of the few women pursuing higher education and science. Yet they continue to pursue scientific research.

How can this be explained?

I’ve been in the academy long enough to know that “loving” one’s research is too simplistic of an explanation. Recent debates about the implication of using this explanation can have a dark side in justifying the existence of an underpaid and exploited labor force in the arts, humanities and social sciences. This kind of justification would not be possible without a strong buy-in from stakeholders that suffering (simply bearing it) is part of the process — whether it’s conducting research, working as a research assistant in a science lab or serving overseas in a longterm mission. The idea that one is not “loving’ the process enough and is therefore to blame for raising questions, concerns and injustices that contribute to the suffering is a consequence of the insidious part of this kind of justification. It’s often hard to distinguish between the fine line of persisting and being resilient and knowing when to make a drastic change or walk away. After all, is it fair to expect people to be intrinsically motivated when extrinsic conditions are to too harsh? Are intrinsic motivations enough to produce innovations like Google and other revolutionizing innovations?

Without getting into the debates about the problem of using “love” or other types of intrinsic motivating factors to discuss labor, I wanted to see what the research in behavioral economics, psychology, management theory and the social sciences says about the topic, and more specifically, what career analyst Daniel Pink concludes, drawing from extensive scientific research, in his book.

Here’s what I found interesting from the book:

1) Extrinsic rewards can help you deliver fast results. However, in the long run, it can actually be detrimental to your desired outcome.

Experiment: Two Swedish economists wanted to see if paying citizens to donate blood would reduce the country’s blood supply. What did they do? The found 153 women interested in donating blood. They divided the women into 3 groups. They told the first group that blood donation was voluntary. Second group would receive about US $7. The third group had two choices: either a 50-kronor payment with an option to donate the amount to a children’s cancer charity. Of the first group, 52% of the women went ahead and donated. In the second group, only 30 percent gave blood. In the third group, rates were about as high as the first group at 53% who opted to donate blood.

It might be counterintuitive, but providing extrinsic rewards in this case of an altruistic act was counterproductive. Of course,  not all extrinsic rewards are equal. Pink notes that in other studies, when donors were given the option of paid time off, this actually increased the number of blood donors.

Some other problems with providing an extrinsic reward as a strong motivating factor include encouraging people to take shortcuts or be corrupt or engage in other types of undesirable behavior.

By the same token, using extrinsic motivating factors to discourage certain types of behavior did not always lead to a desired outcome. In another experiment in Israel at a  daycare center, economists recorded the number of parents who picked up their child late. When a punishment was unleashed on parents who were late, such as a monetary fine, there was actually a steady increase of parents coming late. Existing literature did not account for the possibility of an increase in the behavior being punished.

This discovery extends to individuals who want a short fix, to companies that only invest in short-term goals, and to addicts who hone in on short-term gain. The problem, as Pink concludes, is manifold. It can extinguish intrinsic motivation, diminish performance, crush creativity, crowd out good behavior, encourage short cuts, cheating, unethical behavior, encourage addicts, and foster short-term thinking.

If you are going to offer extrinsic rewards, Pink suggests that you offer it only after the task is complete and in a surprising way. Some of the highest levels of creativity were produced by people who received a reward as a bonus.

If you’re a manager, teacher or anyone looking to elicit desired behavior from a group of people, Pink makes the following  recommendations:

a) Consider nontangible rewards such as praise and positive feedback

b) Provide useful information. While controlling extrinsic motivators can slow down creativity, informational motivators can foster it. Give people meaningful information about their work. I have often found that in my own work, the most valuable feedback was precise and detailed and included positive and constructive advice.

c) Offer a rationale for why the task is necessary.

d) Acknowledge that the task may be boring and show your empathy for others.

e) Allow people to complete the task their own way. Although good work can be produced from micromanaging behavior, I have found through observations and my own experience, that excellent work is the product of an environment conducive to creativity and autonomy. That’s why the Google model works and Silicon Valley is one of the global hubs of innovation. This was not the result of overbearing bosses.

2) Pink breaks down behavior into two groups. It goes back to Meyer Friedman, a cardiologist, who ran an office in San Francisco. Among his heart patients, he distinguished between groups. He found that there were those who had excessive competition drive, aggressiveness and impatience. These people were likely to develop heart disease ore than other patients. He called this behavior Type A. Type B people were less harried by life or hostile when life did not go their way. Friedman and Roseman found that Type B people were just as intelligent, but they wore their ambition differently. Type B people, they found, had a lower risk of heart disease.

In the meantime, a management professor Douglas McGregor at MIT, who earned his degree from Harvard in psychology, began conducting research on faulty assumptions about human behavior. The prevailing view at corporations was that people disliked work and they had to be coerced and punished to do adequate work. He came with a theory about two different approaches to management. In Theory X, one’s managerial technique would produce mediocrity. This was focused on extrinsic rewards. By contrast, Theory Y, which Pink revises as his own and dubs “Type I” is driven by intrinsic desires, which is more concerned with inherent satisfaction of the activity itself.

Pink argues that if we want to strengthen our organizations, we must shift to Type I behavior. Type I’s are driven by freedom, challenge and purpose. Other gains, including extrinsic rewards, are just icing on the cake.

Pink concludes that Type I’s almost always outperform Type X in the long run. Focusing on short term gain is not sustainable in the long run.

On the other hand, Type I’s are in it for the long haul because of their internal desires to control their lives, learn about their world, and accomplishing lasting change.

Here’s the key to fostering more Type I behavior. It is not born, but made.

Just as the next Einstein can only innovate within a conducive environment, greater Type I behavior depends on environments and leadership which encourage this type of behavior.

What are some practical tips to encourage this type of behavior?

I’m especially interested in how to create these conditions at the organizational level.

3a) Create the conditions for greater autonomy.

Great quote: “The idea of management of people rather than management of, say, supply chains is built on certain assumptions about the basic natures of those being managed. It presumes that to take action or move forward…we need a prod….But is that really our fundamental nature? When we enter the world, are we wired to be passive and inert? Or are we wried to be active and engaged?”

Thus, a whole body of literature and research is built around this self-determination theory (SDT) — that autonomy is a basic human need and that people are naturally drawn to it. As Pink writes, mediocrity is expensive and autonomy can be the antidote. Autonomy, whether it hinges on flexible hours or leading projects or being encouraged to give feedback that shape company policy, contribute to greater job satisfaction.

b) Encourage Mastery Mindset

This involves changing the view that intelligence is something that is inborn. Pink writes that in fact, mastering any subject or task involves what Angela Duckworth has popularized as “grit” — the perseverance and passion for long term goals and practice, practice practice. You have to put in effort on days even when you don’t feel like it.

c) Maximize on Purpose

Pink uses the example of TOMS as an organization that operates on this principle. The aims are not to chase profit, which relies on short-term thinking, but on purposeful values. Profit is a catalyst rather than primary objective.

Finally, Pink urges us to follow science. He argues that there is often a mismatch between what science knows and what business does. Scientists, he writes, “offer us a sharper and more accurate account of both human performance and the human condition.” The truths they’ve discovered, that “if-then” rewards are not only ineffective, but detrimental in the long run, need to be taken seriously in the corporate world. Science shows that high performance is the result of the third drive – our intrinsic desire to “direct our own lives, to extend and expand our abilities and to make a contribution.” Humans are designed to be active and engaged. “Repairing the mismatch and bringing our understanding of motivation in the 21st century is more than an essential move for business. It’s an affirmation of our humanity.” 

Finding Meaning in the Second Half of Life by James Hollis

These are some of the quotes from this book that resonated with me:

1) “As we have seen, the most important messages of life come from the primary relationships with mother, father and siblings and then, in ever widening circles, the culture as a whole. These messages are internalized and we accede to them, seek to evade them, or unconsciously solicit treatment for them. These messages, or complexes, are splinter mythologies, embodied in daily life as fractal personalities, and to ether they enact the ego’s daily dance. Most of the time the ego is in service to these scripts even when it thinks otherwise….Thus, we marry, go to college, join the army, produce children and careers, and only from tim ego time question why or to what end.”

2) “But the question why continues to be asked in the unconscious.”

3) As Jung reminds, “It is not I who created myself, rather I happen to myself.”

4) “Perhaps the highest achievement of consciousness is not the self-serving reiteration of its own glories, its agenda of regressive reinforcement in the face of the late, intimidating cosmos that is our home, but rather its capacity to acknowledge that it has been called to witness, and to serve, to serve something larger.”

Quite consistent with the ideas of Buddhism, the way to a larger life is to become more conscious. Hollis provides a list of questions to reflect upon and answer.  The questions force us to contemplate the areas in which we are living out of habit, rather than intention. This leads to fear, rigidity and resistance to change. Rather, Hollis asks us to consider:

  • 1) Where has life blessed you?
  • 2) Where are you blocked by fear, stuck, rigid, resistant to change?
  • 3) What is the fear beneath the fear?
  • 4) Where were your parents stuck and where has that manifested in your own life? Are you repeating their lives, their patterns or trying to overcome them by compensation?
  • 5) What ideas, habits, and behavioral patterns are holding you back?
  • 6) Where are you still looking for permission to live your life?

Even if you do not believe in a “soul” or are indifferent towards Jungian or Buddhist thought, these are excellent questions to ponder on. This type of reflection can be the difference between living a deeper and “larger life” and feeling stuck and out of control.

I’m back – 2015


Towards the end of last year, I was exhausted. I was teaching a couple of university classes, trying to turn my PhD dissertation into a book, and working 60% percent time for an international nonprofit, while also serving as a Board member for another nonprofit with which I have been involved since 2004.

Although I enjoyed my work, I was relieved when it was time to take a break. I spent time with family, read books for fun (yes, what a novel idea!), and traveled to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia and Capetown, South Africa for pleasure and for work.

Since then, 2015 has been relentlessly speeding ahead.

My plate continues to be full. I’ve decided that I need to incorporate more yoga in my life and continue my journey of spiritual and self-help exploration. I thought to myself, what have I been rather passionate about for most of my life and how can I use this passion to provide a service to others?

I’ve always been a kind of junkie for self-improvement and spiritual articles/books. Perhaps due to my training in practical/applied research, I’ve also been a strong proponent of applying theory to everyday life. I want to see if theories in the abstract hold up in concrete settings. In what ways can knowledge make our lives better?

More than ever, as my life gets busier, and my work continues to be meaningful, I crave a deeper knowledge of what makes others tick, what it means to be “vulnerable” a la Brene Brown, and how to make our lives more meaningful a la Viktor Frankl and reflective.

That’s why I want to make 2015 the year in which I explore this topic using this blog by examining, condensing, cogitating (how I love that word!), and applying some of the profound ideas to our modern and fast-paced lives.

Here’s to new beginnings and the understanding of knowledge as they apply to our lives. I leave you with an inspiring quote from Neil deGrasse Tyson. Enjoy!



Bardo as the Intermediate State between Death and Rebirth

My grandmother passed away last Sunday night (Taiwan time) and since then, I have been reflecting upon her life and her wishes that her family and friends follow the Buddhist tradition of chanting and praying for a positive rebirth. I returned to my book collection on Buddhism, particularly The Tibetan Book of the Dead and The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying. 

I wanted to delve into the transitional realities known as bardos. According to Sogyal Rinpoche, bardos are “occurring continuously throughout both life and death, and are junctures when the possibility of liberation, or enlightenment, is heightened.”

He continues: “The bardo teachings shows us precisely what will happen if we prepare for death and what will happen if we do not. The choice could not be clearer. If we refuse to accept death now, while we are still alive, we will pay dearly throughout our lives, at the moment of death, and thereafter. The effects of this refusal will ravage this life and all lives to come. We will not be able to live our lives fully; we will remain imprisoned in the very aspect of ourselves that has to die. The ignorance will rob us of the basis of the journey to enlightenment, and trap us endlessly in the realm of illusion, the uncontrolled cycle of birth and death, that ocean of suffering that we Buddhists call samsara. Yet the fundamental message of the Buddhist teachings is that if we are prepared, there is tremendous hope, both in life an din death…For someone who has prepared and practiced, death comes not as a defeat but as a triumph, the crowning and most glorious moment of life.”

In my reading of it, bardo is the chance to seize limitless freedom. Death in many cultures, including what my grandmother believed, was liberatory. One could finally be free from suffering, but only if he or she has cultivated a strong understanding of non-attachment to the body, to this life, to the people in this life, and to one’s thoughts. I watched a video with the Dalai Lama and he exclaimed that he could not wait to die, and he said this genuinely with happiness. His reason? So that he could finally put into practice all those years of non-attachment to his self, his body, any illusions associated with human life. Bardo is the state in which one has the chance to put the cultivated consciousness into practice in order to let go and leave one’s previous life behind.

I also ventured into the film What Dreams May Come with Robin Williams — a film that I did not especially like, but was ingrained in my mind when I contemplated on death. The notion of consciousness in the film struck me when I first watched it. For example, Robin William’s character dies and enters a bardo-like situation created by his own fantasies and projections. Similarly, when his wife commits suicide, she lives in a hell created by her troubled consciousness. She could not let go of him, of her sadness, of her pain in losing their two children, and of her previous life. I thought the movie did a good job of provoking more questions than answers — for example, what is the soul, spirit or consciousness and what transitional states occur after one dies?

Rinpoche talks about potential obstructions to liberation. He says that we tend to react to past fears, habits  and old reflexes. They are steeped in negative emotions and habits that are residues of lifetimes of suffering. Although our physical state of mind weakens in the process of dying, the fear and ignorance remain even after death. In sum, “the results of our negative karma, which have sprung from the darkness of ignorance, are stored in the ground of the ordinary mind.”

In Tibet, bodies of the deceased are kept in peaceful environments. Bodies are not moved for at least three days. In my grandmother’s case, it is seven days.This is supposed to encourages departure of the consciousness rather than attachment to the body during the bardo period.

What exactly happens during the bardo state? Rinpoche explains the process:

1) You take on a body of light. Space dissolves into luminosity.

2) The brilliant light is seductive. There are rays and colors al around. This is known as the luminosity dissolving into union. This occurs over several days. There is such intensity in the vision that if we are unable to recognize it, it can appear to be frightening.

3) This is the stage where you have the chance to gain stability. It is also called “union dissolving into wisdom.”

4) The final stage of the bardo is wisdom dissolving into spontaneous presence. The whole of reality is presented. Peaceful and wrathful deities make their appearances. You will be able to see everything clearly, your past and future lives, see into people’s minds and have knowledge of all six realms of existence. The key is to keep stabilized so that you are not drawn to these captivating illusions that appear all too real.

“Now when the bardo of dharmata dawns upon me,  I will abandon all fear and terror, I will recognize whatever appears as the display of my own Rigpa, And know it to be the natural appearance of this bardo; Now that I have reached this crucial point, I will not fear the peaceful and wrathful deities, that arise from the nature of my very own mind.”

Liberation is achieved at the moment when consciousness realizes that its experiences are nothing other than the mind itself. The “energies” manifested as images are merely releases of the fettered mind. The key again is to remain stable and devoid of fear or hope.

In the bardo state, we go through all the experiences of our past lives and we revisit our our homes, our families, loved ones, trying to inhabit what was once our life. At this point, we are still attached to our bodies. We fall prey to old habits. If we generally worried a lot in our previous lives, we will do so in the bardo state. Bardo lasts for a total of 49 days. The first seven days are critical and in the first 21 days is when we have the strongest impress of our previous life. Some people wait for the full amount of time in bardo until their next rebirth; others are reborn immediately, depending on karma. The more negative and destructive the previous life, the longer the wait, resulting in a bad rebirth.

“The overwhelming power of thought, then is the key issue in the bardo of becoming.”

That is why family members and loved ones are encouraged to be happy for the deceased during the cremation and funeral. Expressions of sadness, such as wailing, can distract the consciousness of the deceased and cause undue suffering. Any negative occurrence can cause a negative reaction in the consciousness of the deceased and lead to a negative rebirth situation. A single posit thought in the bardo state can propel one to enlightenment  or a single negative reaction, even an irritation, can plunge one into depths of suffering. As Rinpoche recommends, “if in life, you have developed the natural reflex of praying whenever things become difficult or critical, or slip beyond your control, then instantly you will be able to invoke or call to mind an enlightened being, such as Buddha, Christ or the Virgin Mary. If you are able to invoke them fervently…your mind will be liberated into the space of their wisdom mind.” Training during previous lives will aid in process.

Because the bardo stage is a troubling time, there are powerful spiritual practices that can help the deceased during the 49 days. First, prayer is exceptionally powerful. The intensity of our love and depth of our connection felt in our prayers will assist the deceased. Another thing to do is to say Om Mani Padme Hum, the mantra of Buddha of Compassion which extinguishes any negative emotion, when the deceased person emerges in one’s mind. Directing good thoughts towards the deceased will help. Second, sponsoring retreats by good spiritual practitioners is also vital. Offering light of the deceased person, or saving lives of animals or freeing people from suffering inspired by the deceased will facilitate a better rebirth. Third, it is important that loved ones of the deceased are in harmony and peace during the bardo stage, so as not to disturb the peace of the deceased. For example, family members quarreling over inheritance matters may incur negative thoughts in the deceased and propel them towards a bad rebirth. The deceased is omniscient during this time so every thought we have is recognizable and felt by the consciousness of the deceased. Finally, loved ones can use their spiritual practices with the deceased in mind and invoking their name to help. Chants and prayers, rituals at church or deeds of service done with compassion and with the deceased in mind can be immensely beneficial.

Tibetan practices include these beneficial rituals, among many. One of the rituals is a weekly practice that occurs every seventh day after death. Prayers and lights are offered and alms are given to the poor in the name of the deceased weekly. In Tibet, the whole community of friends and relatives take part during the 49 days and provide support for each other. Grieving is not a solo process and this helps mitigate the pain of losing a loved one. There is so much we can learn from these two books and from the process of dying practiced in other cultures. I am finding that going to the temple weekly and sending my grandmother loving light and prayers has made losing her tolerable.

As Rinpoche concludes, “above all, look into your life to find ways of sharing your love more deeply with others now.” This is how my grandmother lived her life, full of compassion and love and the best way I can honor her life and help her consciousness during the bardo process is to extend love and compassion to others.

A Glance at Attribution Theory

One of my friends, a psych major, directed me towards attribution theory. This term basically alludes to the preconceptions we have about people and their characteristics and the process by which we attribute them to our “reality.” Our attributions, or preconceived notions about other people, are responsible for how we behave, how we interact with others, and what we feel.

An example provided by the Psychology Handbook in which I’ve been engrossed, involves an experiment, whereby volunteers were assigned to work on a lab project (Norton Hunt 428). During the project, they were informed that they needed the help of two other people, a graduate student and a freshman. Eventually, the volunteers requested help from the graduate student and freshman. When asked later why they thought the two students helped out, they said that the graduate student wanted to help them but the freshman felt obligated to do so. These attributions had more to do with their own assumptions about status and power than any objective reality.

The implications of this theory become significantly far-reaching and influential when we think about why poor people and other victims are so often blamed for their unfortunate circumstances. Most disturbing of all are the studies that demonstrate the more dire the circumstance, the more he or she is likely to be blamed for it.

We tend to attribute people’s unfortunate circumstances to their own actions. Psychologists explain this need to blame victims as a security blanket people cling to when the world seems to fall apart. Our need to believe that the world is orderly and just is so strong that it compels us to blame others for situations over which they have little or no control.

The world is orderly and just; therefore, if you were raped, you must have been dressed in a provocative manner. To admit that it was not your fault is to disrupt my own need to believe that the world is orderly, and then I would be left with chaos in my mind and nothing would make sense.

Of course, this still doesn’t explain why women jurors tend to be the most judgmental of female rape victims. In my observation, a form of dissociation must occur in judgmental behavior. Part of needing to believe that the world is just and orderly entails separating ourselves from any indication that it could be otherwise. This means an act of separating ourselves from the victim – in thought, we justify to ourselves, that this could never happen to us, I would never wear a miniskirt, so I would never be raped and I would never engage in irresponsible behavior so I would never be poor – takes place concomitantly with judgmental thought and behavior.

The closer the identity to the victim, by implication, the greater the possibility that this unfortunate circumstance could happen to the person who judges, I believe, the more intensely he or she will attempt to dissassociate from and blame the victim. Thus, female jurors judge female rape victims more harshly than male jurors because as women, there is a greater chance that they would be raped as well, so they must work harder at disassociating themselves from women like that. Hurling insults and harsh judgments at victims gives them a sense of security, because in the end, all they’re concerned with is that this unfortunate circumstance would never happen to them, especially in the just world that exists only in their mind.

Now, if we really wanted to generalize on this matter, we may attribute judgmental behavior to self-centeredness. Certainly, unless one has been diagnosed as a sociopath, each person must embody some sort of empathy for others, as it is required for human interaction. After all, perhaps the female juror who harshly judges rape victims is passionate about helping orphans, for instance. In other words, we may be selective in who we extend empathy to and who we judge harshly based on our own interests. We care for our own. We lend a helping hand to our own cause, our own special interest groups, those we care about, but it stops there.

Of course, we are confronted with limited time and resources to maximize our commitment to others. So we help our own. We devote all our energy and emotions to the energy crisis in Venezuela, even more so if we are Venezuelans and our parents are activists in Venezuela, but the genocide in Sudan must wait. Well, I guess some communitarians like Alasdair Macintyre and Michael Sandel would applaud helping our own communities because improving the world must start small, at the grassroots level, among “our” people first and foremost. The idea is that if everyone did the same for their own communities, engaging in political and moral discussion and helping each other at the local level, this would engender a wave of change throughout the world. But I wonder, wouldn’t cross-pollination be even better? Shouldn’t empathy for one group also enhance one’s ability to be empathetic towards all?

Social psychologists believe that we make errors when making attributions. We have a proclivity to give ourselves the benefit of the doubt and attribute negative characteristics to others than to ourselves given a similar situation. That is, we tend to attribute something negative and stable to other people’s behavior – he is poor because he’s irresponsible – while perceiving our own behavior as situational. In the case that I become poor, I’m likely to blame external structures around me rather than myself, but that other person is poor because he’s irresponsible. Could certain strands of communitarianism simply encourage this kind of thought and behavior? Quite likely, I presume.

Social psychologists acknowledge complexity in attribution theory due to personality traits and other differences among people, but one thing is clear. Constant attribution is learned behavior and can be unlearned. Trying to identify with those who are different from us is one step. Recognizing the situationality and temporality of difficult circumstances is another crucial step. Refraining from labeling ourselves as “incompetent” and attributing negative internal and stable qualities to our actions as well as to other people’s actions allows us to go beyond blame, and move towards positive change.

I now understand that their judgments are rooted in their need to believe that the world is just and orderly and that they are disassociating and differentiating themselves from me, out of fear and insecurity. I also recognize that I am not so different from them, for I also make judgments about others and attribute negative qualities at times to negative behavior. Now that I am mindful of my tendencies, I can question my “reality” and probe my thoughts further. I can acknowledge to myself that attribution stems from preconceived notions I have embraced and proceed to challenge these assumptions and therefore change them.

Carl Jung – Psychology

Carl Jung


In my previous posts, I wrote about the gravity of recurring negative thoughts. For Freud, the purpose of therapy is to bring about the cause of these recurrences, usually stemming from a crucial and often traumatic event in childhood, to the fore. Since I’ve been reading Carl Jung, who is probably one of my favorite authors, it’s intriguing to observe where he and Freud diverge. He writes in Modern Man in Search of a Soul that these recurrences of negative thinking, which he terms “neuroses” may be traced to something else. They may actually serve a useful purpose. Thus, the question we must ask is not “Why” or “What are the origins” of the neuroses as they are manifested in dreams, but rather, “What function does it serve” (6)? It may be that we can trace the neuroses to the future, a foreboding of something about to transpire or anticipation of a glorious future. Jung goes on to stress the importance of paying attention to our neuroses, especially as they evidence themselves in our dreams, for we spend almost half our lives in more or less unconscious states (11).


The primary purpose of psychoanalysis, then, as it differs from meditation or contemplation, is to look for what has been repressed or forgotten (35). Only through the act of confession, which prompts the release of suppressed emotions, can one become truly liberated from mental torments. Yet there are marked contrasts in how people cope with psychotherapy. The first marker, which Jung calls indicum is age. Apparently, younger people tend to be easier to handle, simply because the young neurotic is usually faced with the hesitation to confront the world, which is relatively more conducive to resolving than the older neurotic, who still clings to the dying past and youthful years (58).


Other indices the psychic consitution consists of include introversion/extroversion, spiritualism/materialism, reflective/non-reflective, and the remainder of the classic Carl Jung personality types (INFP, INTJ, etc.) He concludes that although these systems of comparison are too abstract to encompass everything about a person and certainly possess limitations, they are nonetheless indispensable because they create order in a new field (psychology) that at the time this book was written, was struggling with chaos. These were fascinating chapters, predictable, but no less intriguing; however, where Jung really shines with brilliance is in the subsequent chapter “The Stages of Life” (95).


What are the psychic journeys that correspond with various stages of life? Statistics show a rise in mental depression among men at around forty years of age. In women, these neurotic tendencies occur earlier, between thirty-five and forty. These tendencies occur as a steady and slow change in a person’s character. Certain beliefs in a person that was experienced in childhood may harden and become cemented around the age of fifty, even to the point of “fanaticism” (105). Jung suggests that the hardening of these beliefs may be a result of trying to overcompensate for feelings of insecurity that these beliefs are somehow threatened.


Jung writes that all our neuroticisms of childhood are further prolonged due to the appearance of the person’s parents. I can vouch for this, especially in Asian families, when it seems even a thirty year old’s inner child emerges when placed in family situations, mine included. It is for this very reason that one’s parents’ death has the effect of speeding up one’s mental life. In middle life, one is constantly looking behind him and this seems to instigate more neurotic tendencies. Jung compares the complexity of changes in the psyche to the rising and setting of the sun. The morning, when the sun shines brightly upon the world, in all its gloriousness, is akin to childhood and youth. When the descent begins, one starts aging, and this signifies the reversal of all that one believed to be true. “The sun falls into contradiction with itself. It is as though it should draw in its rays, instead of emitting them” (107). Interestingly enough, it seems at this stage of life, men and women’s corresponding masculine and feminine components begin to reverse. So men start to recognize their tenderness while women, their mental acuity. (Now, here I acknowledge that Jung was operating in a different time period and as Freud was his predecessor, may have bore some sexist assumptions about sex and gender roles and characteristics).


But why is aging so difficult for people, Jung persists? We know the purpose of youth. But descending into the afternoon carries with it much more confusion. Well, part of it, he concedes is the plain Western disregard for old people. In certain tribes and cultures, old people are revered and cherished. By contrast, in the US they must compete with the young. They gradually become obsolete in society.


Then Jung hits upon a truth that we can analyze regarding our search for bliss. He seems to suggest that the approach of old age is more depressing for those who had not lived their lives to the fullest when they were young. He asserts “if these people had filled up the beaker of life earlier and emptied it to the lees, they would feel quite differently about everything now; had they kept nothing back, all that wanted to catch fire would have been consumed, and the quiet of old age would be very welcome to them” (110). Jung’s secret gem is not entirely novel. How many times have we heard the elderly repeat, “Embrace your youth for it will go as quickly as a candle inflamed.” Now, this is quite an interesting insight, for it is hard to discern whether the person who lives joyfully in his youth will also live joyfully in old age, simply because it is in his disposition and aim to do so. Perhaps this person was joyful to begin with. Or it could very well be that if we have filled our cup of youth to it fullest until it brims with a variety of experiences, we would carry less regret in old age and therefore live happier lives.


Those who were unsatisfied with their youths will be even more distressed in old age, clinging to a youth that never was and inevitably wanes. Very few, Jung writes, are artists in life. Being an artist in life is living it to the fullest. Why shouldn’t all of us try to be engaged in the art of life and consequently succeed in “draining the whole cup with grace?” For Jung, part of being an artist in life is delving into the human psyche and acquiring wisdom. Wisdom is a return to the symbols that were already embedded in our psyche since time immemorial. There’s a level of the mind at work, universally among all of us, since the beginning of time. In addition to the intellect, which constitutes one level of thinking, there’s also symbols that rest in our unconscious that are the source of all our conscious thoughts. Thus, we spend the first and last stages of our lives immersed in unconsciousness and self-involvement.


As a child and elderly person, we are submerged in unconscious psychic happenings, posing problem for others as we are less reliant on ourselves. The middle two stages of life involve gaining consciousness, if and when we learn to be artists in life and consequently align our thinking with the primordial images of the unconscious (113). Jung seems to imply towards the end of this chapter that these primordial concerns entail spirituality, awareness of death, belief in life after death, and so forth – occupations that have been ingrained in humans since the earliest times. It’s what unites all of us together, the similarities we share as living and breathing beings. If we come to embrace them in the middle stages of life, then we will live our lives to the fullest and age gracefully and blissfully.


**Note: Jung can be criticized on account of his overly functionalist approach to evaluating people’s beliefs. For example, he assesses the significance of believe in the afterlife based on its consonance with “psychic hygiene.” In other words, if it’s good for your mind, then it’s a good belief system to have. However, this presupposes that people have an absolute choice in what they believe in, when in fact, their belief system may be attributed to the conditioning in their upbringing and elides other modes of experiences that compel people to believe in certain things, while not in others, that have little or nothing to do with its functionality. Thus, the oft-stated, ‘it just spoke to me,’ is a case in point. Or ‘I had an out of the body experience’ that convinced me of X belief as opposed to the purpose it serves the human psyche. Finally, we can question this assumption on the philosophical grounds that a belief system may be ‘good’ for someone regardless of whether it serves the psychic hygiene. Can certain principles embody intrinsic value without being entirely contingent on the outcome of espousing the belief? After all, to assert that a principle must have value based only on the outcome it produces is to negate its possible value in and of itself.