Ellen Langer

Psychopathologizing Everyday Life ·


It is certainly good to know that the theorizing and work that we do our laboratories reaches the public. On the other hand, it is also true that “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.” Many people are aware of concepts like rationalization, obsession, and denial, for example. In my view, it is these very concepts that do more damage than good when they are used in the casual way many of us seem to use them; and even perhaps even more so when professionals us them to explain behavior that might be better understood differently. Let me take them up one at a time and explain.

Most of us are familiar with the tale of the fox who wants the grapes on the vine too high for him to reach. Instead of pursuing what is taken to be a hopeless venture, he instead concludes that he didn’t really want them anyway. This is the essence of rationalization; the “after-the-fact” decision that is motivated by the belief that we can’t have it, so we re-evaluate wrongly that we don’t really want it. That is, we lie to ourselves. There are at least two problems here. The first one is in the frequent confusion of a “before-the-fact” strategy and lying to ourselves after the fact. When we hear someone say some version of “I didn’t want it anyway,” we too quickly accuse them of rationalizing. If whatever the person no longer wants is from all perspectives, positive, so that to not want it would be irrational, then maybe we would be right. When is this the case? Rarely, if ever, I think. Indeed, the more mindful we are, the more we realize that whatever we are evaluating “cuts both ways.” What is good from one perspective, may be bad from another, and neutral from yet a different view. If we know this and as a life strategy, choose to attend to the positive aspects of the people and things around us, then an adaptive thing to do when the frustration to get want we want feels too much for us, is to let it be and attend to those aspects that give us a more balanced picture of what we are not having; that is, the good and bad aspects of it that we can call to mind. To do this is not lying to oneself. If we too easily see ourselves or others as rationalizing whenever we/they take a positive view; we foster negativity. If every time we change our minds we accuse or are accused of rationalizing, we learn to become less flexible. Let’s go back to the fox and the grapes.

The fox apparently can’t bear the disappoint of not having the delectable grapes and so he lies to himself about them. If instead of being mindlessly consumed by how delicious the grapes might taste, he allowed more uncertainty about them, the fox might be freer to actually find another way to get to them. That is, our single-minded evaluations that lead us to think in terms of rationalization, often lead to intense emotions that prevent more flexible thought. The grapes in some ways may be good, in others they may not be; in some ways eating them if good will be good for us, and in other ways they won’t be. This more mindful view prevents the narrowing of attention that comes with intense emotion.

Now let’s consider obsession. If we can’t sleep at night because we feel plagued by some problem at work, for example, too often we accuse ourselves of obsessing. We complain that we just can’t stop thinking about it. Many of us lead very active lives meeting demands made by many people. Lives like this allow little time to sit back and problem solve. Once we turn off the lights the night is ours to reclaim. If we go right to sleep, the problems that faced us that day may still be there to greet us tomorrow. If we mindlessly assume that we should fall asleep almost immediately upon hitting the pillow, then, of course, if we don’t there is a problem. If we try to address the day’s concerns before we fall asleep, on the other hand, tomorrow may be a better day. If we do resolve the problem after the lights are out, then the process of problem-solving before sleep has been reinforced. Thus, we try it again another night with another problem. It is not, to my mind, irrational to do what seems to work. The problem with this kind of problem-solving, is that it is not always successful. If indeed it were, many of the issues would probably have been dealt with earlier in the day. That is, some problems simply are difficult to solve. If we wake up tired, with the problem not solved, it seems that the thoughts were useless and hence our attribution to obsession. Failed attempts at working something through may be necessary to finally arrive at what we take to be a solution. I think an attribution to problem-solving rather than obsessing, may help us get more sleep.

Denial is yet one more of these psychopathological terms that we overuse to describe ourselves or others. As with rationalization and obsession, often when we make an attribution to denial we are understanding the situation mindlessly from a single-perspective. Consider that horses are fast approaching us and everyone but me runs for cover. Later, when we discuss it from my hospital bed, I am accused of having denied the threat of harm. Before agreeing that I was in denial, let’s turn this example just a bit. Later, when we are about to discuss the event, consider that instead of being in the hospital, I am dismounting from one of the horses. Now instead of accusing me of being in denial, those who ran away feel like cowards. The point is that before the event we could not know what would happen. Others did what made sense to them given their prediction of impending harm. They also were not irrational, given their view of the likelihood of being harmed. I did what I did, as a result of a very different prediction; one based on the assumption that harm was unlikely.

Thus, the attribution of denial is often simply the mistake that the situation can be seen in just one way; and the person purportedly in denial sees it in a way that is different. The more people who see it in the same way, the more likely the one who sees it differently will be misunderstood. Now let’s return to our discussion from my hospital bed. Since those who ran away are now safe and I was harmed, I can mistakenly say of myself that I must have been in denial. Seeing oneself as in denial is not unlike the feeling that “I should have known.” After the fact it is easy to see how the events unfolded. Before the fact, there are many other ways it could have gone.