There was a young woman who’d recently married. Following long-standing traditions, she happily threw herself into domestic affairs, creating a loving and comfortable little palace for her husband to come home to after work. In the course of settling into this new life, this rite of passage into womanhood, she decided to bake her husband a pot roast – a dish she enjoyed since childhood, and whose recipe she recently learnt from her mother.
She mixed the seasoning, dressed the roast, sliced off both ends, and set it in the pot. Savouring the first few mouthfuls, the husband pressed her on how she made it. One question struck her – why did she chop off both the ends? She could not answer why.
A few weeks later the woman was visiting her mother, reporting details of her new home and marriage. It occurred to her to relay the question: “Mum, I made the roast like you showed me, for Thomas. He asked me why I cut off the ends of the roast before baking it, but I wasn’t sure. Why do you do that?”. Her mother, too, could find no answer for this.
For Christmas the families got together. The newlyweds, the woman’s mother, and her mother’s mother were all there. The woman took the chance to ask her grandmother the same question.
“Chopping off the ends of the roast? Oh, that’s just because the pot I had was too small!”
We have all grown up with culture and inevitably internalised the culture – made it part of who we are in our everyday lives. When we hear “culture”, our minds tend to jump toward exotic lands, and bizarre clothing and initiation rituals. But culture manifests in the smallest and most banal of practices in the quotidian life of you and I – What sports do the guys at work discuss? Do you use toilet-paper? How many metres away are “walking distance” shops? And our cultural tendencies are inescapable. Even if you like to think you’re the most objective thinker in the world, chances are you still tend use some quaint phrases favoured by your dad, or have similar music preferences as your sister, etc, etc. These have been repeated so often, and from such an early stage, that they’re no longer just a part of the environment “out there”, but have become an inalienable part our identity. We carry the culture in us, when we go somewhere. As such, they’re not a product of conscious effort, but are automated – it requires no mental exertion to display our culture (e.g. we don’t have to actively think “what was it that dad always said?” – we just say it). If anything, effort is likely required to suppress or alter them.
There are other automated thought processes busy at work in our lives. Chances are you’ve heard of the term “cognitive bias“, or “cognitive distortions“. Confirmation bias and loss aversion are perhaps two more better-known ones. They’re generally posited as something undesirable; a little lie-whispering demon in my head that led me to buy a Lamborghini before I have my driving licences; a mental lock-down blotting out the infallible facts laid out by my friend explaining global warming to me.
These cognitive distortions are there for a reason; they are not in themselves “bad”. The person we are today has evolved in such a way not merely through capricious Luck, but through an immense chain of cause and effect. Cognitive distortions are also borne of some self-serving function, though in today’s modern complexity of interactions they may at times go astray.
There’s a few sources that try to be helpful with 7-point-lists of how to combat the cognitive distortion of choice. At the end of the day it all boils down to being aware of it. Because they’re automated, cognitive distortions are generally invisible to us. But this doesn’t have to be the case – we can direct our attention toward them and, in doing so, summon them to order. I’ll probably post more on this later.
One last type of automated process I’ll mention is something that doesn’t need much explaining here – habits. Just like culture and cognitive biases, habits can work in our favour, or against us. If they serve our goals, we call them “good habits”; if it’s something we’d rather not have, at least when we consider them from the subsequent hangover, we term them “bad”.
When I was researching my honours project I was astonished to find that what many people call “memory” is in fact an entire tree of various types of remembering. “Implicit memory” is one such branch of memory, where things are learnt without us even realising it. Many of our habits and components of our culture are learnt in such a way. Our implicit memories, and all these automated processes (and I wish I could ascribe this a less ungainly term), are part of what Sigmund Freud called das Unterbewusstsein – the Subconscious. The Subconscious is our mind’s most powerful force of nature – it drives us far more than anything our willpower or our conscious effort might do. If it comes down to a war between will and our automated process, you better not bet on the horse named Will. Indomitable as the Subconscious may be, the automated processes do not necessarily have unfettered reign over our lives.
We tend to be more aware of our habits than of our culture, because we’re able to make comparisons between individuals (“would you like smoking or non-smoking?”), whereas “my” culture is all around me (“do you want to leave your newborn son alone in the hills for a week, or stay with him in the maternity ward first?”). However, sometimes in travelling people are hit by “culture shock”, when they run into a culture vastly different to what they were expecting. The shock inevitably wears off, but it imbues the traveller with invaluable knowledge. Seeing an alternative way of doing things holds up a mirror to ourselves. The ability to compare affords us a greater objectivity, to take a small step out of our bubble, and a chance to scrutinise our automated processes. Necessarily, this comparison also puts the question to us: is it better? Worse? Do I like the way they do it more than the way we do it? Should I change accordingly? Is there a third, fourth, one-thousand-and-fiftieth way of doing this instead? Is there a optimum middle-ground between our way and their’s?
Such profound and confronting questions might not pop up on your booze-cruise, 10-cities-in-10-days Europarty tour. It takes a certain sensitivity and depth of experience for the cultural mirror to come out and to see a new picture. But something I’ve always enjoyed about travel is to have that mirror shoved in my face, to have these questions put back on to me. If possible, I like to immerse into the host culture. Yes, it can be confronting, and may cause me to question the sanity of my host for a moment, and leave me screaming in my head to flee back into my comfort zone. But I live through it and am rewarded with insight.
Whilst this social comparison isn’t the only way to address your automated processes, it is perhaps the most effective and unapologetic way to force a look at ourselves; into ourselves. My western upbringing might say it’s ironic, that it takes the presence of others for me to see myself. For those familiar with the Batswana philosophy of Ubuntu (tip: NOT the operating system!), this is perhaps already obvious; or as someone who was skateboarding in 90s USA might say: “Tcha… DUH!”
What I’d like to offer you, my dear intrepid blogonauts, is a few glimpses into the mirror. I daresay everyone here has a habit or two they’d like changed. Perhaps you were hoping that 7-point-list of life-hacking your cognitive bias had a life-shattering 8th point. Are there any other automated processes that could be improved? I’m not about to tell you what to do, I’ll merely nudge you hold that mirror up to yourself. What secret world are you living in plain sight for all to see?
Questions, coherent rants, and snarky remarks are all welcome below.