Making meaning

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A parent and child walk through a shopping centre and both see a man dressed in a red suit, with a white beard, sitting in a sleigh. It is mid December, and carols are pumping out of the speakers nearby.

Both parent and child are exposed to the same stimuli, yet they make such different meaning from what they perceive.

The child is filled with excitement and wonder and have thoughts and beliefs that are vastly different to the parent. The parent may know something different and interpret the scene in a completely different way.

Neither is right or wrong – they are simply making meaning. We all attempt to make meaning from what we encounter. It helps understanding, decrease uncertainty and provide the ability to use such meaning to help predict things like this when they happen again.  Everyone starts their meaning making from what they already know – the parent knows something different to the child, which creates different beliefs and meanings.

The stories we create

Humans love ‘cause and effect’ narratives to make meaning. From powerful experience it is entirely natural to ‘work backwards’ to see if we can identify the ‘cause’ to the ‘effect’ that we have experienced. ‘Because X, then Y’ is such a reassuring thing to know. Then when X happens, we can know that Y will follow. We lock in a narrative – that narrative becomes our story.

Humans are notoriously poor at discriminating between causation and correlation, and this gets meaning making and creating the stories that define our narrative into trouble.

Did you know that more shark attacks happen when sales of ice cream are higher? Buying ice cream does not encourage more sharks, it is simply that X and Y happen at the same time, but are not really related to each other (both, as it happens, are related to the fact that on hot days more people buy ice cream, and they swim at the beach). The events are correlated, not linked by causation.  Do you imagine that buying less ice cream would protect people from shark attacks?

But this is essentially what people do all the time.  They mix up correlation and causation, and create stories and narratives connecting events that happen together, but are not linked by cause.

It’s how we create superstitions.

It’s how we create false beliefs.

It’s how we lock ourselves into an immediate belief about something, and miss the opportunity to explore and be curious.

Rather than see X and Y as happening at the same time without connection, people love to see X causing Y with a high level of certainty.

Consider some typical examples that people truly believe:

  • I can pick the bottom of the market.
  • When there are five reds in a row at the roulette table the next spin will be black.
  • When my boss gets that look on his face I know I’m in trouble
  • If I get out of bed on the wrong side, my whole day will be bad
  • If I don’t wear my lucky socks, my footy team won’t win.
  • If I ask for a pay rise the boss will say no.

In each of these situations, a false cause-effect link has been created and locked in as knowledge and a belief:

  • Each day on the market is not tied to how the person feels, but other events and signals in the market.
  • The next roulette spin does not count on the previous spins, but the chance of this spin only.
  • Who knows what drives the boss to create that face ? – it may have nothing to do with us.
  • Think about the ridiculousness of superstition.
  • Your request for a pay rise should be based on your performance now more than the fact your boss said no last time.

Can you see how they might not represent what else may happen? How having this particular story and narrative fixed as a belief can offer a measure of comfort, but equally can lock the person in to being stuck?

Sometimes the story emerges as a ‘trigger’. When children have been exposed to events they don’t understand they may try to create meaning from it to find ways to protect themselves. A smell, a tone of voice, an event can be seen as the precursor to a negative experience (this is often seen in unresolved trauma and PTSD) – meaning that when that ‘trigger’ is experienced now, it immediately sets off a defence in case the previous experience may happen again. Can you see how the false cause-effect narrative keeps the person stuck revisiting and re-experiencing unpleasant things from their past?

Exercise:

When you notice yourself making meaning from what someone does or says or an event, imagine shifting to a ‘curiosity’ stance.

  • What if there was no cause to this effect, just correlation?
  • What if there was an alternate meaning?
  • What could I learn to make my routine meaning more nuanced and valuable?

And as you do this – as you open the door to possibility – you shift from knowing to seeking knowledge. As you seek knowledge you create the opportunity to shift your beliefs and learn new things.

The child will one day be that parent. What they believed as a child about Santa will probably change. Are you open to allowing a different meaning to be made of your old stories and the experiences you have, or will you rely on only what you know?

If your stories and the ways you make meaning are keeping you stuck, then it might be time to adaptively change how you do it.  If you want to do better, contact me now

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