Yes, I think too much

Interpretation Age

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A study was done identifying a gene that is rather blandly identified as 5-HTTLPR as a marker for mood disorders. In particular, it was believed that having this gene increased a person’s risk of depression and anxiety. The connection between the gene and affective problems has been long established, but recently it was pointed out that the presence of this marker was twice as high in East Asian populations but the frequency of the commonly linked mood disorders was half that in Western populations. It has been speculated that the gene does not relate to depression or other psychological disorders but may in fact be a marker for social sensitivity. Since awareness of others is an asset in group-oriented cultures and can be a deficit in cultures that focus on individualism, the presence of 5-HTTLPR has a different emotional effect depending on the cultural environment.

I’m not mentioning this because I’m fascinated by cross-cultural studies or genetic markers (though I am interested in such things). I use it as an example of how data or information can easily be misinterpreted based on bias. Scientists who studied this genetic issue interpreted its prevalence among those with mood disorders as an indication that it is a marker for a psychological problem because of their particular cultural bias. They didn’t cast their data-gathering net wide enough and offered up an  interpretation based on less than expansive data.

We live in an information age and the question that we need to ask ourselves is how well we use this information. Do we use it to understand the world or to be thoughtful, or do we simply plug in the bits and pieces that support our worldview and validate our personal pet theories? It has been said that people have begun to use information in order to support theories rather than create them. That is, they form a theory first, then collect the information that supports it rather than look at the information first and derive a theory that goes along with what that data suggests. In the aforementioned study, they most likely looked at the genetics of people with mood disorders, and saw what they had in common that people without such disorders tended to lack. This is tantamount to looking at all members of a gang, noting that they all wear white socks while businessmen wear dark socks, and concluding that all who wear white socks are members of a particular gang without noticing that they all tend to wear sneakers and most people who wear sneakers wear white socks.

In my experience, this is becoming more and more often the case as we are drowning in information. The more we have, the more we need to tune out and the more selective we are about what we accept and pay attention to. This is a rather dangerous trend as it leads to mistakes that can have serious consequences, particularly when interpretation is wrong in areas which affect our lives. On a macro level, this can be very bad and I think that we might be able to see some of the consequences of that in the low-fat, high-carb lifestyle that was advocated in the past. It may (or may not) have contributed to the increased incidence in type 2 Diabetes in populations in which such changes were widely recommended.

On a more personal level, however, I think that we are also quite prone to taking available information and misinterpreting it in line with our psychological issues and biases. Early on in my working life (around age 24), during my second job, I worked in one office alone 3 days a week and another office with other employees 2 days a week. There was a much older woman at that office who had her own room and I would walk by her desk and say nothing. One day, she called me into her office and asked me if she had done something to offend me. I was taken aback at that assertion and said that she most certainly had not done so and I didn’t know why she believed that was the case. While holding back tears, she told me that she couldn’t understand why when I walked by the open door to her office that I never offered a greeting such as “good morning” when I saw her. I felt terrible about that and I told her I was very sorry, but I was just “really busy”. The truth was that I lacked social skills because I had never worked in that sort of environment and didn’t know better about what to do or say.

In that situation, this older woman worked with me for months and built up a sense of hurt and rejection over my actions. She felt I had a grudge against her because I strode by her office without offering a greeting. Her interpretation of the available information couldn’t have been more wrong and her confrontation upset and brought both of us nearly to tears. She felt rejected based on her worldview about people who failed to greet her and what she believed it meant. I was humiliated at my lack of knowledge of office etiquette and social ineptitude, but in my view, I had been going about my day quite properly focusing on getting the job done rather than socializing. No one was “wrong” in this situation as both of us operated from our own worldview and there was no moral failing, but both interpretations of the available facts were incorrect as I neither disliked her nor was I going about my business in a socially appropriate fashion.

Beyond misinterpreting the actions of others, we often do not read ourselves very well. Why am I so sensitive? Why do I procrastinate? Why can’t I get a boyfriend? We take a personal inventory (often an inaccurate or incomplete one) and try to understand ourselves, but we infuse the interpretation with a mishmash of public psychobabble and our own ego issues. A personal interpretation which is incorrect will lead to a resulting misstep. If you try and try and fail, maybe it’s because you aren’t following the correct course of action because you are misinterpreting why you act as you do. You may believe you have a stomach ache because you hate your job and are developing an ulcer, but it could be that you’re sensitive to MSG or allergic to some food you commonly consume at lunch-time. You may think the answer is quitting your job, but it might be simply changing your diet. When presented with a fact, it is very important to focus on interpretation with an open mind rather than to seek a quick answer in a narrow field of options which fit your worldview.

We are both blessed and cursed to live in an information age, but I think that we need to start to work on building an “interpretation age”. We need to start using information not to cast about for obvious answers based on the current buzz and self-serving interpretations, but to find accurate answers that lead to successful solutions. We need to focus on using processes that allow us to take information and find the proper path, not ignore that path because it’s one we do not favor.


Written by yesithinktoomuch

September 18, 2010 at 10:48 pm

Posted in psychology, science

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