Selective memory and transaction costs

July 9, 2014

Not all of us were cut-out for debate club in high school. When it wasn’t a hot pit of rhetorical humbug sputtering with badly faked enthusiasms, it only proved that some of our classmates could stump convincingly for randomly assigned intellectual loyalties.

But whether we like to take sides or not, real life is full of unavoidable interpersonal conflicts. How do you generally relate to a two-party dispute that doesn’t directly concern you, when your own prior knowledge and beliefs don’t predispose you to take one of the two sides before they give their own arguments?

  • (a) One side is lying and it’s easy to tell by comparing the statements each respective side is making.
  • (b) Both are valid because truth is subjective, and one must credit each person or group with arriving at their own beliefs through a good faith effort to evaluate the evidence; when people arrive at divergent beliefs it is because of coincidental differences in individual experience and educational background.
  • (c) Neither is completely correct and the truth is in the middle, a combination of the partial truths held by each side that are easier to fit together into a correct answer if you set aside the false controversy that has arisen out of naturally argumentative human behavior.
  • (d) You decide you can’t tell whether either side is right simply by evaluating their own statements.

I could argue that if your opinions of 2-sided arguments are guided by one of the above assumptions about what to expect in such situations, it says something about you, as follows:

  • (a) You excel at skewering straw men, and enjoy feeling right about which side is going to win the argument. Paradoxically, you are also easily manipulated by propaganda, and are unaware of the extent to which you can be emotionally biased to pick a side without second-guessing yourself.
  • (b) You are conflict-avoidant and may be able to trade on it as a malleable white collar professional. But you might freeze up if the position you were required to advocate unexpectedly came under fire, unless someone less tentative could walk you through a suitably centrist response.
  • (c) You are a utopian conformist, and can imagine doing well as a judge, but would not make it through the gauntlet of practicing law. You probably represent secure interest groups, but wouldn’t win over the opposition yourself.
  • (d) You are fairly honest with yourself, but easily stalled by the temptation to remain indecisive. You may be too frank with yourself and others to have especially marketable intellectual skills, but even so you probably don’t admit to yourself just how much of your decision-making is truly under conditions of uncertainty, so long as the conflict among various bits of relevant information isn’t painfully clear to you.

I probably err more on the side of option (a) than options (b) or (c), but when I’m feeling lazy or out of the loop I go with (d).

It’s still bothering me that I didn’t testify against my mother when I had the opportunity to help the public prosecutor bring charges against her for first degree battery. I was deeply afraid of being disbelieved, and also concerned that my other relatives might retaliate while I still needed instrumental support from them to stay off the street. I can only imagine what it would’ve been like to get up in front of a court to describe what happened.

In the past I’ve been disbelieved for accusing my mother of assault, but I was describing early childhood memories of a period in her life when her behavior was even more volatile than it has been recently. Because they were fragmented, recovered memories, they were easily chalked up to an overactive and disturbed imagination.

I’ve tried to come to terms with the uncertainties such memories pose, and the frustration of knowing that there are other witnesses who may have fully intact memories of the same events, but that those individuals have no incentive to be truthful with me about what happened. It’s difficult to avoid paranoid ideation when I focus on them, so I like the Hillary quote in this travelogue about selective memory and perseverance.

But the imagination is a powerful force in its own right. I once read a book by the hypnotist who cured Mary Baker Eddie’s chronic back pain and indirectly inspired the birth of the Christian Scientist religion, with its emphasis on faith healing and rejection of biomedical interventions. He had heard of a hypnotist with the ability to raise a blister on a person’s arm using the power of verbal suggestion alone to simulate the presence of a heat source.

Mary Baker Eddie had endured years of quack medicine and been told by some medical authorities that there was no organic cause for her complaint – that she was only imagining things. This may be why she rebounded with the help of hypnotherapy rather than responding to physical therapy, but it was received as unempathetic and unconvincing advice.

One research paper on chronic pain stigma explores the ins and outs of medical empathy in detail: “empathy implies .. the observer is able to accept and understand the expression of another person’s experience because it reflects that observer’s own experience” without necessarily sharing in that experience simultaneously (unlike sympathy, where through the act of imagining the other’s experience one shares it to some degree).

Neurological evidence supports the existence of sympathetic pain as a literal sharing of the experience of physical pain, in at least some instances: “the act of observing others who are experiencing pain triggers activation of neural networks that have been implicated in the direct lived experience of pain” – but experiencing sympathetic pain also activates neural networks associated with the experience of observing emotional expressions of “disgust, fear, anger and sadness” or even observing positive emotions such as joy. So empathy and sympathy are often simultaneous experiences, but they may differ qualitatively as neurological processes.

Empathy is conventionally considered an adjunct of pro-social behaviors like showing compassion authentically, but when one feels unconvinced by one’s own understanding of why another person would express themselves a certain way, hostility can result instead – academics refer to this as “negative empathy” and warn it is especially likely in relationships that are “morally charged” like the physician-patient relationship (i.e., the physician is held morally responsible for meeting the patient’s needs).

This is also applicable to parent-child fights over a sense of inadequacy. Empathy is imperfect in the best of cases, and when intuition fails empathy can only be willed into being through a conscientious effort to build a mental map of the other person’s point of view; this non-intuitive form of empathy can involve more skepticism, and one’s self-doubt about ability to make sense of the other could readily be externalized into skepticism of their sincerity or presence of mind.


The authors recommend doctors working on addressing their own propensity for imposing iatrogenic stigma on patients should start by reflecting on the problem with artificial dualism in the way they conceptualize their options when following formulae for decision-making in clinical practice. “The examination might commence with the binary terminologies that are readily found in the pain medicine literature: objective/subjective; normal/abnormal; eudynia/maldynia; body (nociception)/mind (somatization). Recognition of how these culturally embedded dualistic frames can work against patients’ best interests would be integral to a program that seeks not to perpetuate them.”

But they warn that updating clinician’s conceptual frames of reference will never be enough if they aren’t willing to listen to patients as if they were authorities concerning their own experiences of illness, because the power imbalance traditionally invoked between clinician and patient is one of the drivers of iatrogenic stigmatization in general (as a defense mechanism when the intellectual authority of the clinician seems to have been called into question by the absence of an answer to the patient’s complaint off the top of the provider’s head).

Doctors can be remarkably stubborn purveyors of pain skepticism. As recently as the 1980s, pediatric surgeons performed their work without anesthesia on the grounds that infants don’t invariably protest in response to surgical incisions, hence they assumed infants do not really feel pain. A mother’s campaign to stop the barbaric practice led to reforms, but some clinicians still hold back, speculating that there are neurodevelopmental trade-offs associated with exposure to opiates at such a young age.


Invoking concern about pain and suffering also seems to mean invoking zero-sum game rules. Acknowledging pain can be tantamount to initiating a blame game, either out of impatience for relief or in pursuit of revenge. In one adventure novel I read recently, an obviously crippled woman notices she has a healer as a guest and contrives a dramatization of her disability with carefully staged coyness, to avoid offending the healer’s prerogative concerning whether or not the problem merits her attention. The diplomacy of medical consultative negotiations is fraught with such tensions.

Some social animals separate themselves from the group when ill (or in labor) – this may not be strictly pragmatic survival instinct so much as an emotional response to uncomprehending responses from the rest of the group to the individual’s unusual and unresolving sense of distress.

Silencing pressures are especially strong in group dynamics and formalized interactions. When trying to impose a 2-sided argument group dynamic, Doris Lessing points out “the rules of this particular game demanded that it was not enough to say: ‘So and so disagrees with us, who are the possessors of evident truth.’ It had to also be said: ‘So and so is evil, corrupt, sexually depraved,’ and so on.” The medicalization of deviance and the mentalization of distress are twin projects in iatrogenic stigma that fall heavily on chronic pain patients and patients with PTSD.


Each time a diagnostic category is apologetically withdrawn from the diagnostic manual the APA, it is much like Lessing’s comment on the value of hindsight in examining political propaganda for what it is: “One simply has to shut up and wait, everything passes… but meanwhile, these cool, serious questions and their cool, serious, dispassionate answers could save us. … ‘These slogans, or these accusations, these claims, these trumpeting, quite soon they will seem to everyone ridiculous and even shameful.’ Meanwhile, it is not possible to say so.”

Lessing argues that group dynamics cannot simply be transcended – to avoid being so easily humiliated by them, we have to learn how to work with the self-organizing tendencies of humans in groups, whether they strike us as irrational and pernicious frustrations at face value or not.

“The fact is that we all live our lives in groups – the family, work groups, social, religious and political groups. .. We are group animals still, and there is nothing wrong with that. But what is dangerous is not the belonging to a group, or groups, but not understanding the social laws that govern groups and govern us. ..

“A few months after the start of the miners’ strike in Britain, in 1984, just when it as moving into its second, more violent phase, a miner’s wife came on television to tell her story. Her husband had been on strike for months and they had no money. While he supported the union, and agreed there should have been a strike, he thought Arthur Scargill had led the strike badly. Anyway, along with a minority, he had gone back to work. A gang of miners had broken this couple’s windows, smashed up the inside of their house, and beaten up the man. The woman said she knew who these men were. It was a very tight community, she said. She recognized them. They were friends. She was stunned and bewildered. She could not believe that decent mining folk could have done such a thing. She said that one of these men who had been in the gang greeted her when he was alone, ‘just as he always had done,’ but when he was with his friends, she was invisible to him. She simply could not understand it, she said. But I think – and this is absolutely my point – that not only should she have understood it, she should have expected it; that we should all understand and expect these things, and build what we know from history and from the laws of society we already have into how we structure our institutions.”

Community life imposes high transaction costs on dispute arbitration, costs that can drive effective crime reporting underground. It takes considerable resources to build consensus in a jury pool about what passed between an alleged victim and a defendant. There may be no innocent witnesses, if the crime was sensibly planned and carried out behind closed doors.

A selective memory can be temporarily adaptive, similar to compartmentalizing, a way around gnawing frustrations with the silences (or lies) of others. In a way it’s just a matter of putting an isolated incident in perspective and choosing not to dwell on it. But in other ways it’s escapist and dissociative, an unsustainable reprieve.

“So tie me to a post and block my ears”

It’s a stop gap solution to the disappointments of political process, in the end.

In Bad Men Do What Good Men Dream, there is an anecdote about a concentration camp survivor from WWII who “had been waiting for years to testify against [Eichmann], yet when he stood before Eichmann at the tribunal, the former inmate unexpectedly passed out. Upon being revived, the would-be witness explained his fainting at such a crucial moment by saying ‘Eichmann looked so normal!’”

This is the trial that provoked the study of Nazi bureaucracy as a social psychology problem and gave us the discouraging conclusion that “the banality of evil” is indistinguishable from the aspects of our own lives that cause us uncertain moments of squeamishness but ultimately, give us only pause. The book attacks the popular preference for believing that there is something fascinating and unusual about the ability of a serial killer to hide in plain sight, as if there were a stroke of genius involved or a monstrous special ability like that of Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde.

Being two-faced is a mundane and commonplace human trait, not the special purview of storybook monsters. Allowing the lies of others to haunt you seems naive and self-defeating, even when they hit close to home. Will it happen again? Perhaps, but probably not today. You have to keep going.

One Response to “Selective memory and transaction costs”

  1. bloodfreak Says:

    Thank you for the reminder of why I hate us all.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: