Believing and Behaving "As If"
Understand Oneself Better
Manage Many Stressors
Accept the "Bad" and the "Good" Sides
Mark S. Schwartz, Ph.D.
July 11, 2020
(Updated August 16, 2020)
· People very often behave "as if" their perceptions and impressions of themselves are accurate.
· People very often behave "as if" their perceptions and impressions of others also are accurate.
· People hold religious beliefs "as if" they are accurate, and very different views are less so, of less value, even incorrect, or even dangerous.
· Some main religions encourage and ritualize confessions and asking for forgiveness from others and a deity "as if" doing so will "cleanse" themselves of their wrongdoing.
· I argue with you "as if" I am correct.
· I am angry at you "as if" you are wrong.
· People get married and say their vows "as if" the marriage vows have a good chance of being confirmed and predictive.
· Millions of people enroll in college and spend vast amounts of time, energy, and money "as if" it will pay off.
· Millions of people start businesses "as if" the company will be successful.
· Millions, indeed billions, of people try to lead good and decent lives "as if" this will get them into "heaven."
· Millions of people invest in stocks "as if" it will make money.
· Many millions of people invest in houses "as if" it will appreciate.
· People support sports teams "as if" this year will be a winning year.
· Many lawyers in court argue for some or many of their clients "as if" they believe in their cases.
· As a medical patient, I believe my physicians and follow their recommendations "as if" they are correct.
· Many people drink a lot of alcohol (or take other substances) "as if" this is the only way they can or the best way for them to manage their current situation.
· Do you choose clothes to buy "as if" you know what your style is and what looks best on you?
The following statements of my beliefs might sound incorrect and even very odd to some readers. There might be a temptation to stop after reading the following assertions. However, I encourage readers to finish this document.
Our views, our thoughts, our interpretations, are held "as if" they are accurate, either totally or mostly. Still, very often, probably nearly always, they are at least very insufficient and very often even inaccurate. I believe that we humans hypothesize about our understanding of ourselves, others, and explanations for most events. However, we do not consider our beliefs "as if" they are hypotheses. "We" typically are not comfortable with the idea that we might be incorrect. We are often uncomfortable thinking that we do not understand many of our behaviors. We are uncomfortable with admitting that we just do not know the reasons why we say and do what we say and do. And, further, we are uncomfortable with accepting that we do not understand why others say and do what they do.
I have heard these distortions from many thousands of patients, family members, neighbors, and even professional associates. OMG, you might be saying to yourself. Is Dr. Schwartz saying that people do not know what they are talking about when they try to explain their reasons even for their behaviors? And, is he saying that people also do not know what they are talking about when they try to explain the actions of other people?
My short answer is "yes." However, the "news" is often not "bad."' It is frequently "good." My message is that we do not know many of the reasons for what we are saying are our reasons. However, we can do fine with plausible hypotheses. We can function with "best guesses" and not necessarily the only truth and only way of explaining ourselves or other people. Consider that there are other reasonable hypotheses. Much of science functioned based on plausible assumptions that were not sufficient or turned out to be incorrect. The learning theory attributed to Dr. B. F. Skinner still works very fine even when though it turned out that it did not explain some behaviors. Examples of inadequacies of this theory include language development in young children and "insight" learning. Nevertheless, Skinner's approach is still very widely accepted and is very functional in many applications.
The problem occurs, the "bad news," is when we believe that the hypotheses are the only truth. The problem arises when we "cherry-pick" the options and data and thus distort the evidence we use to support the beliefs. I will return to discussing this later and give examples.
The concept involving not knowing reasons for our behaviors is akin to a variety of theories that have been around for a long time. These include some psychodynamic concepts such as denial, displacement, suppression, and others. These are also similar and linked to some cognitive-behavioral theories such as overgeneralization, jumping to conclusions, all-or-nothing thinking, and others.
However, the point of the present document is not to discuss or support any prior theories and concepts, although I subscribe to and agree with many of them. The point here is to point out and review my firm belief that, for whatever reasons, people do not know why they say and do what they say and do. And, that they do not understand and consider the multiple reasons why others say and do. Furthermore, there is at least one distinct advantage of this "fact," and I take the literary license to call it a "fact," although it is admittedly a hypothesis. This advantage is that it gives us options for self-statements, for perceiving and explaining ourselves, and explaining behaviors of others. Briefly, let us consider being aware of two types of beliefs about myself or two types of views about another person. One type results in adding to my anxiety, depression, or anger, and the other type results in feeling calmer, not depressed or much less depressed, or not angry. And suppose in this general case, that I recognize that these two hypotheses are just that and that I have no way of ever knowing which are correct. Thus, my choice is between one belief that results in feeling very uncomfortable versus the other that results in feeling much better.
Examples are endless, but a few will hopefully suffice to illustrate. (refer to here but put in a different blog document.) Examples:
· Why mom & dad ask their daughter to calm down, speak in a lower tone, ….. What daughter hears…. "shut up", ……
I believe that most people will admit to themselves and others that there are a lot of topics for which they do not understand. However, I think that these topics are often not many of the essential issues in our lives. Consider topics such as religion, politics, marital and similar partner relationships, business, financial disagreements, parent-child disagreements, and even professional disagreements.
And, of course, there are topics for which we are well educated, highly experienced, very knowledgeable, and are typically correct. But, those are not the topics for which I am primarily referring. However, I have often heard people argue with real experts. These people understand and have far more education, training, and experience. Examples include a non-mental health professional arguing with a highly credentialed and highly experienced mental health professional. It often just does not seem to matter to many people whether the other person is genuinely highly credible and trustworthy. Religion, politics, and health are prime examples. Another recent example is COVID19 risks. Another example is a layman, a politician, disagreeing with the long term medical head of a federal governmental agency about face masks and social distancing.
Examples of problem topics include:
· Why am I angry?
· Why is s/he angry?
· Why did s/he do what s/he do?
· Why did I do what I did?
· Is my religious belief about ____ more ____?
· Will people who have certain religious beliefs ____?
· Can an atheist lead a moral life?
· Are people of specific races inferior in ____ to people in a different race?
Now I come to a unique part of this Blog. This part is a simile to help readers who are skeptical and resistant to accepting new cognitions, self-statements, and hypotheses about themselves and others. It is also to help readers reduce or eliminate their resistance to new hypotheses about themselves and other people.
One of my favorite creations is the simile of trying a new style and color of a suit. The new style and color contrasted with a prior incorrect belief. In other words, the prior belief was that this new color and style was not for me. In other words, accepting changes in cognitions, interpretations, and lifestyle is like trying and getting used to new clothes.
Looking at clothes on a rack often do not appear the same nor as good as when a person tries them on looks at themselves in a 3-way mirror. Similarly, new attitudes, attributions, and behaviors often do not appear the same when one first hears or reads them. "It's not me!" people say. Compliments by others can increase the likelihood that the new clothes become better accepted and worn more often. Similarly, better reactions from other people in response to our revised behaviors and attitudes and beliefs, reinforce our revised hypotheses, ideas, and actions.
Thus, accepting and getting used to a new self-dialogue, new cognitions, new behaviors, is like trying on, buying, and wearing a very different color or style of suit. New attitudes about yourself and others are as comfortable as a new and different style of clothes for which you grew to like.
So, here is a more extended version of the simile. Have you experienced going into a clothing store and looking at some clothes hanging on a rack and thinking that they really wouldn't look good on you? The salesperson is someone you know or someone you have bought something you liked from before. You trust them. He or she encourages you to at least try on the outfit. The salesperson tells you that he or she thinks that you would look good in it. That suit or dress looks better on you than on the rack. He or she believes that the style and color are right for you. You're doubtful, but for a few reasons, you agree to at least try it on.
When you looked at the outfit on you, it did look better. The more you looked at, from different angles, the better it looked. Sure it needed some alterations to fit your particular shape, but that wasn't so hard. When you picked up the altered outfit and tried it on at home again, it looked great on you. Then when a few people complimented you on the new outfit, you felt good. You were pleased with yourself. You had taken a chance. You trusted the salesperson, an honest salesperson who genuinely believed that you would look good. Sure he or she wanted to sell you the outfit but wouldn't steer you wrong.
When you develop new attitudes and beliefs about yourself, about others, about events can be like developing new perspectives and opinions about new clothes. The new clothes might not look beautiful to you at first when you see them on you. But try wearing them, look at yourself with them and from different angles. Try them out for a while, and you might well be pleasantly surprised at how well they work. See how good you feel with them and how others see you differently and better. See how they seem to grow on you.
The above has happened to me several times, so I know it happens. I have heard about this happening many times with others. It is prevalent. Hasn't this happened to you?
The origins of the "as if" ideas incorporated into my writings and psychotherapy sessions have multiple roots. These origins include the philosopher Hans Vaihinger whose "as if" philosophy influenced psychologist George Kelly[i], theory and therapy. Another significant influence on my thinking is the theory of Effectance Motivation (White, 1959). My interpretation of Effectance Motivation is the fundamental need to understand.
A detailed discussion of the theories of Valhinger, Kelly, White, and other related approaches is far beyond the scope of this paper. Perhaps I will address these in another document. At this point, I will briefly summarize some of my interpretations of their core thoughts that influenced my thinking. Humans assume and adopt many false and unrealistic beliefs about themselves, other people, humanity, life, and more. These assumptions are not subject to sufficient study and thus cannot be confirmed or disconfirmed. Firmly believing these fictions help the persons justify their behaviors and feel more knowledgeable, more powerful, more justified, and in control.
The Psychiatrist Alfred Adler extended Valhinger's ideas by proposing that people's motivation includes expectations of the future. One example is behaving in ways that are consistent with their beliefs in heaven and hell that are fictional but assumed by many people to be true. Thus, they live their lives "as if" there are heaven and hell. Adler referred to this type of thinking as "Fictional Finalism," behaving from perceived truths that are, in fact, fictional. This idea is certainly not surprising, including the recent and current political world.
The less than conscious mind accepts much as real that is fictional. Checking with reality can help balance this for some people some of the time. However, sadly a large segment of the population avoids or does not have access to the facts and reality to counter the fictions.
Another influence on this theme in my ideas is the work by Robert White (1959), referred to as Effectance Motivation. Briefly, this is the need by humans to experience competence, thus believing that they understand and are correct. According to this line of reasoning, we humans strive to think that we know and are right in our beliefs.
From one perspective, it does not matter whether the ideas are accurate and correct. It only matters that the person has enough knowledge, even fictional knowledge that makes sense to them, to believe that they are right.
It is "as if" they are saying to themselves, "I know; therefore, I am." "I am correct; therefore, I am okay." "I have enough information; therefore, I am okay." "My knowledge makes sense to me; therefore, I am okay." "Do not confuse me or complicate matters with information that I might not be able to understand." "Keep it simple." "Don't create inconsistencies or other information, including your "facts," that could negate or contradict my knowledge and my understanding."
Intolerance of Uncertainty (I.U.)
Related to the need to understand is the research on people's intolerance for uncertainty (I.U.). A definition of I.U. is a human personality characteristic that results from a set of negative beliefs about ambiguity, i.e., uncertainty. The implications involve the tendency to react with negative emotions, cognitions, and behaviors to uncertain situations and events (Buhr & Dugas, 2009). People vary in this tolerance for uncertainty (Lauriola, Mosca, Trentini, Foschi, Tambelli, & Carleton, 2018; Morriss, 2019; Gosselin, Ladouceur, Evers, Laverdière, Routhier, & Tremblay-Picard, 2008).
Among the consequences of being intolerant of uncertainty is overestimating threat, worrying, harboring a need to control uncertain situations, and seeking reassurance. Uncertainty can contribute to significant stress and can result in inefficient coping. Examples include people adopting oversimplified, i.e., superficial and naïve explanations (Berenbaum et al., 2008; Rosen et al., 2014; Lauriola et al., 2015; McEvoy and Erceg-Hurn, 2015; Carleton, 2016b). One can think of I.U. as signifying fear of the unknown. (Hong and Cheung, 2015; Carleton, 2016a).
Research supports the idea that people with various clinically significant psychological disorders, and combinations of disorders, harbor varying degrees of uncertainty intolerance. (Holaway et al., 2006; Gentes and Ruscio, 2011; Sternheim et al., 2011; Holaway et al., 2006; Yook et al., 2010; McEvoy and Mahoney, 2011).
Similarly and by implication, people vary in their intolerance of misunderstanding events or at least the meaning or gist of events. These can include interpretations of oneself and other people's thoughts, intentions, and behaviors.
Listen to people debating on social media. They argue about many topics. These include politics, confederate flags, and "Black Lives Matter." They argue about gender variations. They argue about statues and monuments. People on each side of the debates appear to be justifying their certainty in their viewpoints. The debate is "as if" their viewpoints are "facts." In the process, they often disparage the viewpoints of the people with different viewpoints.
This section delves into White's competence motivation or effectance motivation. Effectance motivation refers to "the desire for effective interaction with the environment" (White, 1969, p. 317). My current interpretation and variation of the definition is the need to understand, make sense of, one's environment, other people, ourselves, tasks, and events. One major part of my doctoral dissertation in 1966 involved the effects of the assumed uncomfortable feelings associated with uncertainty and not understanding the meaning of events. Among these concepts of interest to me were and still are the motivation:
· to be logical
· for certainty
· to understand and to predict accurately
· to interact effectively (effectance)
· to attain competence
· to be accurate in our interpretation of our environment, events, people, behaviors, and
· to feel and appear competent
We also know that humans tend to prefer and seek simple explanations and understanding of our very complex worlds of others and ourselves. We typically base our presumed understanding and predictability on minimal variables and information. Just look at the reasons why we vote for selected candidates, choose mates, make investments, and much more. Of course, many people, including me, and you, I hope, try to rely on many factors. We weigh many factors, investigate and consider many alternative explanations, or do we? We try. I try. And yet?
From Bill Griffitt's chapter (Griffitt, 1974), "reinforcement properties of similar and dissimilar attitudes are widely assumed to derive from a general motive to be logical, accurate, and correct (effective) in interpreting one's environment. ….. to the social environment, the accuracy, logicalness, and correctness of beliefs and attitudes concerning issues such as politics, war, and religion may be evaluated only by consensual validation or invalidation through social comparison with others (Festinger, 1954)…" (p.302)
In related work, this motive was labeled "effectance" and gleaned from the Robert White Effectance Motivation concept. My use of Effectance Motivation focuses only on that part that involves the aspects that involve people's need to understand and not to master skills and techniques.
This content is also closely related to a more contemporary concept of self-efficacy AND extensive research and writings (Bandura, 1997). It is part of the theoretical and, for me, the logical and practical idea of people actively needing to correctly interpret the statements, thoughts, and behaviors of others and themselves. I am merely noting the relationship but will not elaborate much on self-efficacy.
Conclusions and Summary
So, as the age-old saying goes, "A rose by any other name is still a rose." The theoretical terms and the theories and research differ in some ways, as is very common, indeed typical of science and researchers. Each draws on the thinking and research of others and infuses their own with their terminology and variations, implications, predictions, and types of research. Those are standard in science and part of the ways that scientific thought and research progress. For example, there are ideas, theories, and research that often dates back to ancient Greek philosophers and other philosophers over the millennia. However, each theory has its terminology, interwoven ideas, implications, and types of research. I am trying to weave together related ideas and theories that I think support the same or similar idea stated in various ways. For here, I choose the following tentative wording.
· need and strive to understand and to be effective,
· vary and have a variety of limitations within ourselves and within the topics, we strive and need to understand
· strongly tend to use various heuristics, thus relatively simple and typically incomplete but also inaccurate in many ways to understand
· harbor varying degrees of intolerance for ambiguity and get uncomfortable with such uncertainties
· experience distress to the degrees that we have such intolerance for uncertainty
· with various types of limitations, e.g., psychological commonly experience more intolerance for uncertainty
· do not like admitting to ourselves or others that we do not understand many of the perceived and actual crucial topics in our lives e.g.
spiritual, e.g., religious
political, e.g., conservative vs. liberal
individual differences, e.g., racial, gender preferences, personality traits
- think and behave "as if" we do understand, "as if" we are correct, "as if" there is truth and we know it.
- argue, debate, join, support, aggress against, and even go to war "as if" it is "our way or the highway." To be sure, sometimes in history and our lives, our "as ifs" are correct. However, I believe that even in many of those instances, we do not know. Still, we allow our thoughts and our emotional reactivity to dominate our lives "as if" they are in charge.
There is a simile about our thoughts being like the defense and prosecution in a courtroom. Our positive and reassuring thoughts are our defense. However, our defense attorney has been ill-informed and incompetent. The negative thoughts, with negative implications and outcomes, is like the powerful prosecutor. The prosecutor has been more easily persuading the judge and jury. This situation persists until our defense attorney displays devotion to speaking for our best interests. Our preferred defense needs to prepare better and rehearse.
We want our defense attorney to object to false accusations about symptoms, abilities to manage, and helplessness. We want our defense attorney to object rapidly before the prosecutor's words are allowed to influence the jury. Thus, we want the preferred thoughts to arise fast and effectively. I also wrote about this simile in my "Defend Yourself" Blog.
There is a more encouraging and preferable interpretation compared to the view that we humans do not understand anything. We need not live entirely in a "make-believe" or "as if" world.
Humans can very often behave fine with theories and belief systems that are functional, that work, that need not harm others, and that do not harm themselves. These beliefs can allow and facilitate reasonably efficient and caring interpersonal relationships. We need not be perfect. We need not understand all that we seek to understand. We can and do make lots of mistakes. We can learn to tolerate lots of uncertainty. We can believe in and interpret "as if" systems in religion, for example, and yet not adopt all of the systems and not interpret parts that will harm others or ourselves.
We can support our political and religious systems without depriving others of their beliefs. We can learn to work together and compromise without believing that compromise means we lose or are doomed. We do not necessarily have to consider our beliefs, our theories, as the only correct ones.
Is this easy? No, of course, it is not easy! Are some people, perhaps many people, incapable of doing it? Apparently, in the environment in which they live and with their limitations and burdens, I reluctantly agree that many are not capable. My purpose here is not to persuade all or most readers to strive for this ideal world. My purposes are to enlighten people to think differently. I want readers to understand themselves and others from different vantage points. Be more flexible, be knowledgeable, and be more accepting of yourselves. Develop and cultivate thoughts and behaviors that facilitate improved adaptation. Those who can better adapt will be more successful in life.
Consider the familiar situation when one set of beliefs, a theory about yourself and others, is not working well for you. When this situation is resulting in much distress for you, find another set of beliefs that have better results for you. This option is akin to saying that if a scientist's theory is not allowing accurate predictions that account for enough of the data variability, then modify the theory. In this case, modify your interpretations of yourself, others, events, etc. Keep adjusting until you feel much better and are predicting more accurately and with more benefits for you and those relevant to you. So, if my behavior is not leading to the desired emotions and behaviors, within me or by others, then modify your beliefs and try different behaviors. "Elementary, my dear Watson."
Bandura, A. (1997). Self-efficacy: The exercise of control. New York: W H Freeman/Times Books/ Henry Holt & Co.
Birrell, J. & Freeston, M. (2011). Toward a definition of intolerance of uncertainty: A review of factor analytical studies of the Intolerance of Uncertainty Scale. Clinical Psychology Review, 31(7), pp. 1198-1208.
Buhr, K. &Dugas, M. J. (2009). The role of fear of anxiety and intolerance of uncertainty in worry: An experimental manipulation. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 47(3), 215-223.
Fergus, T. A. (2013). A comparison of three self-report measures of intolerance of uncertainty: An examination of structure and incremental explanatory power in a community sample. Psychological Assessment, 25(4), 1322–1331. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0034103
Gosselin, P., Ladouceur, R., Evers, A., Laverdière, A., Routhier, S., & Tremblay-Picard, M. (2008). The Intolerance of Uncertainty Inventory (IUI): Development and Validation of a New Self-Report Measure. Anxiety Disorders, 22(8), 1427-1439.
Griffitt, W. (1974). Attitude Similarity and Attraction (Ch. 12). In T.L.Huston, T. L. (Ed.) Foundations of Interpersonal Attraction. New York: Academic Press.
Lauriola, M., Mosca, O., Trentini, C., Foschi, R, Tambelli, R. & Carleton, R.N. (2018).The Intolerance of Uncertainty Inventory: Validity and Comparison of Scoring Methods to Assess Individuals Screening Positive for Anxiety and Depression. Frontiers in Psychology, March 26, 2018. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2018.00388 https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2018.00388/full
Morriss, J. (2019). What do I do now? Intolerance of uncertainty is associated with discrete patterns of anticipatory physiological responding to different contexts. Psychophysiology,
[i] Coincidentally, my 2nd cousin, Jonathan Raskin, Ph.D., has published many papers and is an authority on George Kelly, Ph.D. He wrote the document "As if" in "The Internet Encyclopaedia of Personal Construct Psychology."