Number 22 REASON

Number 22 REASON - THE ' ‘PSYCHOPATHOLOGY OF EVERYDAY...

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Unformatted text preview: THE ' ‘PSYCHOPATHOLOGY OF EVERYDAY SLIPS' Accidents Happen When Habit Goes Haywire JAMES REASON liar-Ix RHLWLV. a pmfirsor of p.r_1rniaiagr at Mr ( 'rritwsirr of .lfrorrdewr'. in Engineer}. is hit (radar of .~\Hsl-:?\”I‘-\IINIJEIJ? Tilt-1 I’srunoumv or: Merv-HI. l'..-u-sI-:s arm Evsm'ri-w Entrants. Tm years ago. during NATO training exercises over West Germany. the pilot ofa Royal Air Force Phan- tom jet accidentally fired a live Sidewinder missile at a Royal .-\ir Force jaguar. The Jaguar pilot parachuted safely to earth. but his twelve-million-dollar aircraft was destroyed. Earlier that same year. the top deck ofa dou- ble-decker bus travelingon a country road in south Wales was sheared off when the driver tried to pass under a low bridge. Six passengers died in the accident. And in l977. the pilot of a Boeing 747 jumbo jet. about to make the short hop from Santa (Tnlz. on the island of 'lienerife. to Las l’almas. on the island ofGran (Ianaria. offthe coast of northwest Africa. failed to wait for takeoff clearance from the control tower. Roaring dawn the tarmac at a speed of 150 miles an hour. the plane crashed into another 74? still tasiing on the runway. ()f the 63? passengers and crew aboard the two craft. 577 were killed. There is a natural tendency to suppose that disaSters sueh as these are the product of some rare species of monu'mental blunder. but the evidence suggests other- wise. In fact. the mental errors that lead to horrendous accidents are indistinguishable in nature from the trivial. absentminded slips and lapses of everyday life. The trué hallmark of absentminded errors, whatever their conse- quences. is not inexperience orineptitude but misapplied competence—habit gone wrong. in a sense. All of us can probably remember times when our words or actions were no longer running according to plan. We may have struggled to open a friend's front door with our own latchkey. forgotten the name of someone we‘ve known for many years. tried to drive away from the curb without switching on the ignition. or said thank you to a vending machine. Our lives are strewn with such inconse- quential lapses—what Freud called “the refuse of the phenomenal world." or. in a more daunting phrase. "the psychopathology of everyday life." Freud himself. who did not hesitate to study such apparent trivia. collected hundreds of examples of these everyday errors——misreadings. misquotations. slips ofthe tongue and pen. bungled actions. memory blocks—and in 1900 began writing '17:! Pri'réoprrrkolagv officers-doi- lair}. Published in 1904. the book became one of'his most popular works and ran into many editions. each with addi- tions to the original collection of slips. (The story is told that Freud first became aware of his fame in I909. when. on his way to the l'nited States by ship. he discovered his cabin steward reading the book} For Freud—slips were symptomatic oftwo things. They betrayed the presence of some socially unacceptable impulse. and they revealed the failure. at a moment of reduced vigilance. to suppress that impulse. Freud was a committed determinist. As he saw it. slips. no less than other mental events. had identifiable causes. They were significant occurrences. not meaningless accidents. As unwitting extrusions of the unconscious into everyday life, these bloopers. or paraprases (to use another Freud- ian term}. momentarily lifted the veil on some mental state that their perpetrators would have preferred to keep hidden. No one disputes that Freudian slips occur. Hut. con- trary to what most psychoanalysts believe. true Freudian slips are comparatively rare. and there are often other ways to account for mistakes that seem to derive from the unconscious. Consider these two embarrassing blunders. one of word. the other of deed. The first occurred at the recent opening of a new clinical-psychology building in the north ofE ngland. The officiating dignitary concluded her speech with the words. “I now declare this depart- ment ofcynical—er. I meats—“clinical psychology open.“ The second slip was committed by Freud‘s friend and colleague. the physician Wilhelm Steltel. On departing from a morning house call. Stekel intended to shake hands with his patient but. instead. began untying the bow that secured her loosely fitting robe. He later remarked. “I was conscious of no dishonorable intent, yet - ! executed this awkward movement with the agility ofa juggler." ' Now. it is perfecrly possible. as Freud might have suggested. that the local worthy who christened the new building was deeply skeptical about the value of clinical psychology and that, “unconsciously on purpose." she used a word that expressed her true feelings. Yet there are other explanations. albeit far less engaging ones. for her slip. Most Contemporary psycholinguists would simply say that the woman substituted "cynical" for "clinical" because she was anticipating the first syllable of the sub- sequent word. “psychology.” But even in the case of such a simple slip of the tongue. there are likely to have been at least three additional factors at work. Firsr. "clinical" and “cynical‘r share the same syllahic structure: the unin- tended word thus fits readily into its predetermined slot in the speaker's address. Second. "cynical." although erro- neous. is a proper word and is thus more likely to be uttered. even as a slip. than some nonlexical construction. Third. it is probable that the word "cynical" came more naturally to the speaker‘s lips than “clinical” because. as a local party hack. she would have used “cynical” more Frequently and recently than “clinical” in her everyday discourse. ()n the face of it. Stekel's attempt to undress his patient seems to admit of no other explanation than the Freudian one. \Et there is also a less damning interpretation of his slip. As a praCticing physician. Stekel would have daily untied the bows of numerous pajama trousers and night- gowns to reach afflicted parts. Such a sequence of aetions ‘ would have been second nature to him. Given that he was distracted or preoccupied at the moment of his departure. his outstretched hand could have performed its familiar task with no less innocence than someone absentmind- edly pouring coffee into a sugar bowl. and for surprisingly similar reasons. Both the brilliance and the weakness of Freud's own interpretation oflapses are apparent in his analysis of a single slip. discussion of which occupies an entire chap- ter in Tire Psynloparlmiagv of Et'cq'dqv [aft On a holiday trip. Freud met a young man of academic background who ended a passionate lament over the problems of his generation with a well-known quotation from Virgil. In the Aeneid. Dido voices her rage against the faithless Aeneas with the words. “Error-far? circuit nasrrrr (x 055%sz altar" (“Let someone arise from my bones as avenged"). But the line did n'ot come out that way when the youth spoke. What he acrually said was. “Exoan ex prom-it ossibrrs'afroc" Realizing he had misquoted the line. the 41 . The Psychopathology of Everyday sup. boy asked Freud to explain the slip—his omission of "dwarfs" (someone) and the reversal of "semis" and “ex.” Freud persuaded the young man to free-associate around the omitted word. The boy first separated “a” from ‘7iqrtis. ” The words that then came to his mind were “relics.” “liquefying.” “fluid.” “saints' relics." “Saint Si— mon." “Saint Benedict." “Saint Augustine.“ “SaintJan- uarius." The yourh then explained that he had recently read something about Augustine‘s views on women. and he also spoke of the miracle of Saint Januarius‘s blood. a vial of which was kept in a Naples church. Supposedly. the yomh remembered. “on a particular holy day it mirac— ulously liquefies." but if the miracle is delayed. people “get very excited.“ At that point. the boy suddenly had a thought that he mentioned only with great reluctance. He was worried. he confessed to Freud. because his girl— friend had missed her last period and might be pregnant. According to Freud. the important clues were the refer- ences to calendar saints (Augustine and‘lanuarius) and to the idea that blood flows on a certain day. But why. the young man wondered. had he chosen that particular quo- tation? Freud again had a ready answer. In Virgil. the un- happy Dido is crying Out to her descendants to avenge her race. The boy had the equally feryent hope that so descendants would arise from his recent sexual. en- counters. Is there an alternative explanation? The Italian textual critic Sebastiano Timpanaro suggested a more pedestrian yet more credible interpretation in his book TA: Freudian 31:). published in 1976: “Anyone Who has anything to do with the written or oral transmission of texts (including quotations learned by heart} knows that they are exposed to the danger of banalization. Forms which have a more archaic. more high-flown. more unusual stylistic expres- sion. and which are therefore removed from the cultural- _linguistic heritage of the person who is transcribing or reciting. tend to be replaced by forms in more common use." Timpanaro also argued that the missing word. “afi- qttr'r." is redundant in the misquoted sentence and that the ordering of "actors or" is extremely unusual for Virgil. The quotation was therefore susceptible to banalization on both counts. . Several lines of evidence support Timpanaro‘s point of view. The first comes from Sir Frederic Bartlett's classic research on remembering. done during and immediately after the First World War. Bartlett invoked the notion of schemata—mental representations. or the mind‘s pat- terned ways of perceiving the world—to explain the systematic biases apparent in the recall of pictorial and textual material. He found that subjects‘ reproducrions made from memory were more regular. more meaningful. and more conventional than the original drawings or stories themselves. “Names. phrases. and events are changed so that they appear in fortns current within the social group to which the subject belongs.“ Bartlett observed. In other words. odd or uncommon features of the original story are banalized to bring them into line with the individual‘s expectations and habits of thought. Bartlett believed that his subjects were trying to under- stand material that was new to them by unconsciously relating it to what was familiar. that is. to “established knowledge structures," or schemata. 10. PSYCHOLOGICAL orsonocns From this and from later research by the modern schema theorists who suCCee'ded Bartlett. it has become evident that each person‘s knowledge base is made up not of isolated facts but of established mental codifications of behavior patterns and of generalized theories about the world. We are able to handle information rapidly only because the regularities of the world. as well as our rou- tine dealings with it. are internally represented as sche- mata. When available information (derived either from the senses or from memory) is sketchy, we draw on certain schemata—old ideas and generalizations—to fill in the missing data. In other words. we fall back. by default. on ' habitual patterns of action to guide what we do. This is the theoretical basis for research my col- leagues and I have been doing since 1975. Specifically. we have asked some one hundred subjects (students. house- ' wives. office workers) to nate. in diaries reserved for the purpose. the details of occasions when they became aware that their actions had deviated from their intentions. Later. we asked them to answer a set of standardized questions about each slip. We wanted to know what they had intended to do and what they had actually done. and whether their bungled actions would have fitted in with some other activity in which they often engaged. We also inquired about their mental and physical states at the time- of the slip. and where they were when the slip occurred. One finding. based on our analysis of nearly one thou- sand errors. was that slips were most likely to occur in fa- miliar sun‘oundings—in kitchens. bedrooms. bathrooms. and offices. We also found that nearly all the slips hap- pened when our subjects were absentminded. that is. when their attention had been c'aptured by something it- relevant—some internal preoccupation or external dis- traction. In nearly half of the absentminded slips that we ana- lyzed. deeply ingrained habits played a part. The erro- neous actions took the form of coherent. complete sequences of behavior that would have been perfectly appropriate in another context. In each case the inap- propriate activity. more familiar to the subject than the appropriate one. had been carried out recently and fre- quently. and almost invariably its locations. movements. and objects were similar to those of the appropriate action. Apparently. the subjects‘intentions had been diverted from their planned route by the lure of some well-trodden pathway. some old habit or schema. Freud's contemporary. the Polish American psychologist Joseph Jastrow. was among the first to stress the habitual nature of slips: “The mind freed of its normal guidance continues to trot with the accustomed gait. stopping. like the horse that draws the milk-cart. at the proper points of call without the direction of the driver (who for the moment may be asleep).” ' There were a number of specific situations in which ' strong habits intruded. For instance. many people con- ' fronted the force of habit when trying to adopt a new routine. “I had decided to cut down my sugar consump- tion and wanted to have my cornflakes without it." one subject told us. "Burl sprinkled sugar on my cereal just as I had always done.” Persons about to perform ‘a task that they did not really want to do were also susceptible to being sidetracked. "I went into my bedroom intending to fetch a book.” a Student said. “Instead. I took off my rings. looked into the mirror. and came out again without the book." Some subjecrs were particularly apt to fall into habits when features of the present environment were similar to those found in other. familiar circumstances. One person said. “As I approached the turnsrile on my _way out of the library. I pulled out my wallet as if to pay— although I knew no money was required." , We also used diaries to investigate memory blocks. the “tip of the tongue" state. in which pe0ple.cannot call to mind a familiar name or word even though they are certain of its presence in memory. As soon 'as each memory block. had lifted ( the lost word often popped into consciousness afitr the search for it had been abandoned). our diarists recorded the details of their mental state during their efforts to remember. In nearly three-quarters of the cases we studied. the diarists reported that the route to the sought-for item (the target) was continually blocked by another. similar name or word, which produced a frustrat- ing sense of being very close to correcr retrieval yet re- peatedly barred from it. 1 myself experienced such frus- tration when I was trying to recall the film title Drifters“: ' but. instead. repeatedly dredged up the words “intern- perance" and “intolerance.” both of which I recognized as either phonetically or semantically close to the target. The most important finding of this study was that our subjects judged the blocking words to be more commonly used or encountered in their everyday lives than the target items. In short. the recurrent blockers. like the erroneous actions in out earlier study. were simply habits intruding on intentions. It seems clear from our close examination of slips and lapses that whenever thoughts. words. or aetions depart from their planned course. they tend to go in the direction of something familiar. expected. and in keeping with existing knowledge structures. Or. more briefly: errors tend to be more conservative than intentions—and the more frequently a particular routine is set in motion and achieves the desired outcome. the more likely it is to recur unbidden at the wrong time. as a slip of habit. William james likened habits to flywheels: once set in' motion. they require little additional effort to keep them going. But habits are hard to control. v These findings underscore a crucial point about absent- minded errors: they are characteristic of highly skilled activities—a problem of the expert. not the beginner. That seems to run contrary to common sense. since peo- ple expend a great deal of effort to acquire skills so that they will not make mistakes. Yet. paradoxically. the prob- ability of making an absentminded error increases with proficiency at a particular task. The more skilled we become at an activity. the fewer demands it makes upon consciousness. To quote James again. “Habit diminishes the conscious attention with which our acts are per-' formed." _ Freud believed that a careful study of slips of the tongue and bungled actions would provide privileged access to the unconscious. For his twentieth-century suc- -. cessors. the—unconscious remains the wellspring of much human thought and action. But for many contemporary 1 psychologists. priorities are different. and their notion of the unconscious has changed too. Over the past twenty years or so. they have begun to study the way the brain processes informnion and exercises its various control functions. The emphasis of their research has shifted toward the mechanics of such cognitive processes as perceiving. remembering. planning. thinking. and attending. and away from the underlying forces to which. Freud would have argued. such processes are ultimately subservient. Not that there are no “underlying forces“ in modern cognitive theory; there are. The difference between the Freudians and the cognitive theorists lies in their conception of what the unconscious is. For modern cognitive psychologists. schemata—the knowledge struc- tures that automatically guide routine perception. thought. action. and speech—are the unconscious. In this sense. human behavior is guided not by the unruly drives of the Freudian unconscious but by mental configura- tions. by our patterned ways of perceiving the world. So it is nor suppressed needs (as Freud suggested) so much as strong habits that surface when we are absentminded. When we run on automatic pilot. our conscioust intend- ed actions are often usurped by schemata that are appro- priate most of the time but unsuitable when changed circumstances require some modification of normal prac- rice. The Royal Air Force pilot who absentmindedly dis- patched alive Sidewinder missile into anorher plane testi- fied at his court martial that at the moment when he fired he had completely forgotten about the missiles and believed himself to be on the kind of routine training mission he had been flying for the previous eight years. In the pilot‘s defense. a senior officer argued that combat procedures were dinned so intensively into pilors that the men reacted automatically. At the inquesr into the dou- ble-decker-bus accident. the driver'explained that he normally drove a single-decker on that route and that on It. Inc "yenopmnomgy or everyday sup. the fatal trip he forgot he was driving a two—tiered vehicle. As for the horrific runway crash on Tenerife. the American Airline Pilots Association made a number of significant observations about the Dutch captain who did not wait for his takeoff instructions. His principal job was as head of KLM‘s flight-training department. During the preceding six years he had spent some fifteen hundred hours in a flight-training simulator. and he had not actually flown for twelve weeks before the catastrophe. In the simulator. the instrucror always issued airways (the designated route along which the plane would fly to reach its destination) and takeoff clearance at the'same time: to reduce operat- ing costs. simulator pilors were never required to hold position while awaiting takeoff clearance. Instead of re— acting to the real circumstances ofa real takeoff. the cap- tain may have reverted to a prepmgrammed mode of anion derived from long experience in the predictable world of the simulator. From these cases it is apparent that habit intrusions are not confined to minor errors. The central figure in each of the three disasters was a competent. experienced profes- sional. 0n the fatal day. none of the three behaved in any extraordinary or bizarre fashion; on the contrary. they all carried out habitual actions with practiced skill. Unfortu- nately. the circumstances in each instance demanded not the automatic repetition of familiar aetions but behavior specially tailored to a special situation. Clearly. the atten- tion of the three unfortunate men somehow lapsed. and old habit-schemata took over. Ordinarily. that would not have mattered much. but in these cases circumstances were unforgiving. Indeed. the differences between cata- strophic and trivia] errors are nearly always environmental - rather than psychological. Horrendous consequences arise only when errors are made in punishing situations. And even then. errors usually have to occur in diabolical combinations before an unfriendly environment exacrs its _ worst penalty ...
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Number 22 REASON - THE ' ‘PSYCHOPATHOLOGY OF EVERYDAY...

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