“What would you say if I told you that I see you,” Z said after biting into a chicken sandwich he purchased at the food court, “and I know who you are.”
“Oooo! Spooky intro,” A said with a laugh. “I’m going to say you don’t know me, because you don’t know the first thing about you.”
“You’re right, of course, but what would you say if I said told could find you without ever talking to you? If we put those you know any love through a series of tests, surveys to arrive at assessments based on observational data from a study of a sample size regarding their tendencies, patterns and routines, we might arrive at an evaluation that might surprise you.”
“I would say that you’re so full of beans you stink!”
“Want me to take a shot?” Z asked.
“No, but who’s we?” A asked. “You said we. Who’s we? Wait, let me guess, Psychology major?”
“Oooo! That sounds confrontational,” Z said.
“It is actually,” A responded. “My confrontational approach is a result of psych majors thinking they know the first thing about me. You don’t know squat. You take your textbook knowledge out to the streets to predict how we’re all going to act and react, but you don’t know the first thing about me. Psych majors think they can study tendencies, patterns and routines, and with some variance predict who I am and who I’m going to be. I just think it’s absolutely ridiculous.”
“I view Psychology as the study of choices,” Z said, “and I’d agree with everything you say about the textbook approaches. I’m not a textbook student of the mind. I’m fascinated with creative approaches to problem solving and study. I try to avoid textbook as often as I can. I, slash, we study the choices people make, why they make them, and the rewards of consequences of them. If you don’t care for the methods we’ve devised for studying human nature, how would you do it?”
“I wouldn’t,” A said. “I would consider it an utter waste of time. With the world population currently clocking in at just under 8 billion, and the United States at 328 billion, I wouldn’t even pretend to know anything about anyone. There are simply too many people, with too many different backgrounds and experiences in life to know any one person.”
“Research scientists take a sample of the population, and they factor in a plus minus ratio for margin of error,” Z said. “Now, you can argue the sample size, but with that many people in the world, how can you say you’re immune to their findings?”
“How can you say I am not immune?”
“You see that guy over there eating a slice of pizza?” Z asked. “Did that guy sample it first? If he sampled it, was it a decent representation of the rest of the pizza?”
“I’m not arguing methods of operation,” A said. “I’m arguing about the assumptions psych majors make.”
“Let’s flip this around then,” Z said. “What do you think of the guy eating that pizza over there?”
“All right, I’ll play,” A said, agreeing to this exercise after some back and forth. He turned to look at this pizza-eating man in the food court they sat in, and then he flipped completely around to examine the man.
“What are you eating, sir, and what are you eating?” A whispered loud enough for Z to hear. “I love pizza as much as the next fella, but are any of those ingredients real? Does the meat on it even merit a grade? And what are you eating? Are you eating some form of pain you could never digest properly? Did your dad tough love you into a man? Are you eating those times your mother told you that you were too old for hugs and kisses? Are you eating that time you walked up to a girl and she said, “Move along!” A guy that pale should not be wearing a bright, neon yellow T-shirt. The fella needs to contrast his skin with dark colors. Then you have the baggy khaki shorts, and the three-day growth, and you have to assume the man is a divorcee dining with his estranged kid. No wait, the child is an out-of-wedlock birth. That’s my guess, because his father obviously never had a wife influence the appearance he should present to the public. I’m guessing he gave up making discerning choices long ago, and he has issues with self-discipline.”
“I know you’re trying to be funny here, but you just told me a lot about you,” Z said. “I have no interest in whether you’re right or wrong about the pizza-eater. I have no interest in the pizza-eater at all, except what you say about him, because it tells me something about you. Hold on, hold on, let me finish,” Z said to interrupt A’s grumbling. “This particular pursuit suggests that if I ask you direct questions about you, you’re going to give me idealized answers. You’ll either say what you think I want to hear or what you want to say about yourself. Your analysis of Mr. Pizza-Eater tells me more about you than I could ever achieve through direct Q&As. All analysis is autobiographical.”
“And you think this is an exact science?” A asked.
“Of course not, but why did you focus on those characteristics of the pizza guy?” Z asked. “What is he eating, and what is he eating you asked? What are you eating? What assumptions did you make about the man’s plan in life through his diet and his desire to ingest his pain? You assume this man might have a better life if he had a better diet, a wife, and if he shed the yellow shirt and baggy khakis. What does that say about you? It’s not an exact science, but it’s a lot closer to a truth than if I said, tell me about yourself. What makes A tick? What are your strengths and weaknesses?
“I was hired as a consultant some years ago,” Z continued. “I sat in on some interviews they conducted, and they asked me to determine how they could interview prospective candidates better. Most of the interview involved in-house questions, and then they asked the standard what are your greatest strengths and weaknesses question. I suggested that they flip this question around and ask the candidate to name their favorite manager and what made them a great leader? They should then ask the candidate who their least favorite manager was, and I said they should inform the candidate to avoid using names in this case. I said that demanding that the candidate avoid using names would free the candidate up to be as candid as possible in their critique of that manager. They could add a question like, “What did they do right, and what did they do wrong, and how would you do better?” I suggested that might throw the candidate off the trail of the true nature of the question, but the meat of their answer will be can be found in their analysis of their previous managers. All analysis is autobiographical.”
“That’s not exactly groundbreaking, but I’d agree with some of your analysis,” A said. “Only because your preferred form of testing gets closer to the subjects analyzing themselves, even if it’s incidental, but if I were in charge of a research group, I would go one step further. I would study group C, the interviewers, the Human Resources department, or whomever designed these questions. What questions did they design for the interview, why did they choose those questions? I would also interrogate my interviewers before they conducted the interview to see how well they know themselves. How well do any of us know ourselves? Noted psychologist Abraham Maslov suggested that around 2% of the world population practices rigorous self-reflection. In my experience, I think that number is high. Psych majors love to study others, but they’re not so great at studying themselves. How can anyone know anything about anyone else without knowing themselves first?”
“I know myself,” Z said. “I know myself better than anyone else in the world. Why would I spend time understanding myself better? Isn’t that a little narcissistic?”
“True reflection goes beyond narcissism,” A said. “You’ve no doubt heard people repeat the ‘You can’t handle the truth’ line? And you’ve heard people say, “They don’t want to ask me questions,” and the ‘they’ in their statement often involves an employer, or someone with some intimate knowledge of their particular brand of honesty. “They don’t want to know what I think, because they know I’m too honest. I am brutally honest.” They usually laugh after saying such things, in some self-congratulatory way, as if to say we all know how brutally honest they are. “Well, you may be brutally honest,” I say, “with others, but are you as brutally honest with yourself? Have you taken the time to sample size of your actions and reactions in the same way you do others?”
“We all examine ourselves to some degree,” Z said. “We all think about the things we do, and we all examine ourselves.”
“I’m talking about rigorous examination,” A said. “I’m talking about knowing what’s your fault? You’re not doing well in life, and you’re not happy. How much of that is your fault? You’re not getting along with your parents? How much of that is your fault? How many people fail to recognize their role in something as simple as a family squabble? I’ve witnessed family squabbles where my friends knew, absolutely knew, they were 100% in the right.
When I was young and stupid, I’d ask them, “How can you not see your role in this matter?” I learned from that, let me tell you, I learned. I learned, first and foremost, never to ask that question again, because it opens a whole can of, “My parents, my Aunt Judy, or my Uncle Biff, are awful people,” they say. “Do you have any idea what they’ve done to me? Do you have any idea what they’ve done to me in the past?” I don’t do ask them this anymore, and I involve myself as little as possible now, because it’s pointless. Because when you’re intimate enough with the situation to know their role in the family squabble, you learn that most people don’t consider the role they play in it. I now know that I was around 50% responsible for just about every family squabble I was in. They don’t see it. Are they lying? No, they’ve just completely blocked that part of the squabble out.”
“What good does it do to dwell on our negatives?” Z asked. “Isn’t it better to move past them and forget them?”
“How do we learn from our mistakes?” A asked. “What happens when the next family squabble arrives, and we’ve learned nothing?”
“There is that of course,” Z said, “but we’re finding that in the debate between remembering and forgetting that Freud was just wrong. Focusing on our failed moments to the point of obsessing over them, to find some kind of truth about our current state is often more harmful than just putting the whole sordid affair behind us and moving on.”
“I’d agree with that,” A said,
“Thank you, Jesus.”
“If you’re going to analyze me though,” A continued. “I expect you to thoroughly analyze yourself first. If you’re going to pretend like you know me, I ask you if you know yourself as much as you pretend to know me. I will no longer accept analysis from someone who has failed to analyze themselves properly.”
“That’s a bold statement,” Z said.
“Well, let me ask you this, what is a psychiatrist, psychologist, or any professional analyst?” A asked. “If we dig down to the nuts and bolts of these professions, what are they? Some of them provide technical, textbook answers, others act as our friends who guide us to therapy, but when we clear all that out, what are they? They’re listeners. The best of the professions just let their clients talk. They’re great listeners in a world where no one else listens. They teach us how to analyze ourselves and they try to teach us how to help ourselves by viewing matters more objectively. If we can learn how to achieve that level of objectivity on our own, when we analyze ourselves, we could nullify the need for analysts. I’m not saying it’s easy. It’s quite difficult to achieve objectivity when it comes to examining ourselves. Some say it’s utterly impossible, but I think they’re thinking in absolute terms. Is it possible to be objective in an absolute manner, probably not, but we can make great strides if we want it bad enough. That’s the key, Z.”
“In one sense,” Z said. “We should all take some compliment from a research scientist’s desire to study us. People want to know who we are. They want to know what makes us tick. They’re curious-”
“They’re not curious,” A said. “Let’s not get nuts here. I know your goal is to have a civil conversation here, but I gotta tell you that if you want us to go down this road together it will not be hand in hand.”
“It’s obvious you’ve had some bad experiences,” Z said, “but the idea that you’re insulted by someone analyzing you in a casual way is a bit much.”
“I’m not insulted by it,” A said. “I just consider it ridiculous. When we sit down in a research clinic and voluntarily subject ourselves to their findings and evaluations, I have no problem with it, but when psych majors think they know who we are after talking to us over our backyard fence for ten minutes, it gets a little silly. I’m talking about the people we meet on the street, in our place of employment, and at family reunions. They have degrees in psychology, and they have their little knowing smiles that suggest they have some insight into who we are.”
“And you think they’re all wrong?”
“Of course not,” A said, “but I think they’re wrong almost as often as they’re right, which puts them about two steps above a guess. It’s what we might call an educated guess.”
“What is an educated guess though,” Z said. “Some are based on anecdotal experience, I will grant you that. The over-the-backyard-fence psychologists making guesses is one thing, but some educated guesses are just packed with a portfolio of data. There’s the educated guess that you’re on the insecure side, and that many of the things you’ve said today support that. That educated guess is worth about as much as the person giving it. There’s also, hold on, hold on, let me finish. There’s also the assessment that a psychologist can make, based on where you were born in your family. Where you the oldest child of your siblings? Were you an only child? If you were the oldest child, you’re more likely to exhibit certain characteristics, if you were a middle child, you often exhibit middle child, Jan Brady characteristics, and if you were the youngest, you’re likely to exhibit other characteristics. Psychologists pack those educated guesses with decades of sample data. There are too many variables to list here, and they all matter, but the characteristics of where a child was born in the family are so consistent that some psychologists suggest that it might define you for the rest of your life. That’s an educated guess based on studying patterns and tendencies that I find fascinating.”
“It is an interesting idea,” A said, “but it’s still just a theory, and all theories are guesses, some more educated than others, but they’re still just guesses.”
“And Einstein made some guesses too,” Z said.