Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Comfort Zones

When I was a teenager I dated this girl, lets call her Rachel. Every guy she had dated had slapped her around. She liked me because I was a nice guy. I was even tempered and kind. She loved it.

But, after a couple weeks, she started messing with me. Pressing buttons. Tickling my emotional weak spots. Trying to get a rise out of me. And it worked. I got madder and madder and madder until I could feel my muscles tightening up and my hand rising. Almost out of body, I watched myself lift my hand to smack her.

And I stopped. My intellectual brain had figured it out before my reptile brain had taken over. She wanted me to hit her. Not wanted exactly. She desired it. She desired it because she knew it was going to happen and deeply desired some modicum of control.

She had an intuitive knowledge of what would happen and I refused to comply with her prediction. What I learned that day is that humans do not want happiness. They don't desire peace or stability but predictability.

Humans are predicting machines. We gather, collate, and organize data in order to make predictions about the future. We are most comfortable when reality conforms with our expectations. When reality correlates with our worldview. Part of the reasons we falter and fail with cognitive biases. Availability heuristic, Just-world hypothesis, Negativity bias, Ostrich effect, Hindsight bias, Clustering illusion, among many other come from our desire to either predict the future (which maintains comfort) or rewrite our past prediction to say that what happened was what we expected.

Humans make decisions which hurt themselves. Self sabotage. Usually the same people in the same ways. Because they are trying to fulfill a future which they expect.

I was always a bright student but never studied. I could get a B without studying for a minute. Look how smart I am. I get Bs without working. I have fulfilled my expectation of being excellent. Why not study and get an A? Well, I could fail. What would my failure do to my self image? What if I studied and still got a B? How would I define my self image? No need to ask that question because I can just not study and get the B.

I protected my expectation of reality by not trying. Just like Rachel protected hers by instigating aggression. She had learned that men beat women. It is how they show passion or it is the nature of men or whatever. She, like I, had a view of reality and we were threatened at a deep psychological level. We preferred to take a sub-preferential outcome because we felt comfort in it. In my case it was a lower GPA and in her case it was violence.

We do this all the time. We think we will fail at this or that and the failure makes us a failure. Since we are not failures we do not try. If we tried and failed we would have to admit that we are failures and that would threaten our self image. It would be uncomfortable. People use the phrase "comfort zone" and it drives me crazy. But it is not always a cliche. Sometimes we need to move out of our comfort zone to move forward.