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The brain is a funny thing, isn’t it?

One area that interests me a LOT is the area of cognition.  Especially in a linguistic context, but also just in a general contexty context. Although please note that ‘contexty’ is not a word.

SPECIFICALLY, the construction of NARRATIVE in cognition.

Why is this cool? Because it illustrates the POWER of storytelling.  The power of language.  The power of the way we think.

And to me this illustrates just how much control we have over ourselves.

Let me ‘splain.

No, is too much.

Let me sum up.

So when something bad happens to us, we frame it in a given way.  As in OH GOD THAT WAS TERRIBLE.

No, but let’s unpack that.

When events occur in the world, the human mind asks WHY. We like to quantify things, to fit things into heuristics, categories, explanations.  Things we can’t define unnerve us, upset us, make us feel all funny inside.

We always want an explanation.  Unfortunately, in the real world it’s very rare to find just one explanation. And regrettably most of you have to live in the ‘real world.’  That must suck.

You see, things in the real world are not smoothly and easily determined.  This is part of the reason I hate any theory even remotely deterministic with a blind and furious passion that burns like the raw untamed fury of a dying star.

Things in the real world have dozens, hundreds, thousands, millions of causes. All of reality teams with actors, events, and objects that influence everything else in reality. Everything is multidetermined, and very, very, very few things have just one cause, though we as humans tend to oversimplify our causes just for the sake of sanity.


We have many causes to choose from when we look at our lives. When we look at what we’ve done and what other people have done.  When we think about the good things and the bad things.

It is at this point that we run across the FUNDAMENTAL ATTRIBUTION ERROR, which is a VERY COMMON FALLACY in our ability to judge other people.  I’ve talked about it before, but there is an everpresent tendency in thought to overestimate the influence of internal factors on another person’s decision and to emphasize the influence of external factors on your own decision.  In other words, we assume people do the things they do just because they are that way inherently, whereas we do things in response to the world.  So thanks to the fundamental attribution error, when someone shows up thirty minutes late to an appointment, it’s because they’re an asshole, while when you yourself show up thirty minutes late to an appointment it’s because your life has been insane and you haven’t slept well in days and hey you’re a good person anyway.


When we commit the fundamental attribution error, we seek an explanation for a person’s behavior and put the emphasis on the wrong cause.  This can then color our perceptions of them in an undesirable direction, we make more assumptions and eventually people end up on fire; I’m sure you can fill in the intermediate steps without me needing to elaborate.

But we don’t just try to explain people, we also try to explain the world.  And psychology (read: my psych class) provides us with ways of sliding our explanations into categories.

Stable Unstable
Global Specific
Internal External

Let me explain the magical box here.

When we talk about these three axes of evaluation, we’re talking about the following evaluations in an objective sense:

Is an occurrence stable? That is to say, will it remain in our lives as a continual positive or negative force?  Or is it unstable, fleeting, and likely to go away soon?  Be HONEST about this.  Is dropping that coffee cup really going to affect you tomorrow? And isn’t that midterm grade just a little bit important? It’s only, like, 50% of your grade.

Is the thing global? Does it affect all of your life? Or is it specific—e.g. is it something that only affects you at work, in class, crossing the street?  Is a parking ticket going to affect your love life? Is winning the lottery unlikely to change your daily routine?

And finally, is this occurrence due to internal causes? Is there a causal link between yourself as an individual entity and this event? Or is it external, brought about by outer forces beyond your control?  Did a train hit you because you’re a terrible person?  Did that human rights activist punch you repeatedly by accident?

This comes into play when we talk about people with depression, but it applies in general to mental health and positive cognition.

People who we would ordinarily deem “optimistic” tend to classify positive events as INTERNAL, STABLE, and GLOBAL.   Good things come to them because they are good people, good things tend to last, and good things tend to brighten all of your life.

People who we would ordinarily deem “optimistic” tend to classify negative events as EXTERNAL, UNSTABLE, and SPECIFIC.  Bad luck affects us all, but it doesn’t last, and it doesn’t affect every part of our lives.

To contrast, a more “pessimistic” cognition would be to view positive events as EXTERNAL, UNSTABLE, and SPECIFIC.  To look at any good thing as not due to your own agency but as the product of pure chance, a flicker unlikely to lighten the load of your day-to-day.

And of course, the other half of this view is looking at negative events as INTERNAL, STABLE, and GLOBAL—bad things happen to you just because bad things happen to you, specifically, and they are unlikely to stop happening, because that’s how your entire life works.

So on an OVERALL AVERAGE GENERAL BASIS, if you want to be OPTIMISTIC, that’s how it’s done, according to psychology.  All you have to do is CHANGE THE WAY YOU PERCIEVE THE FUNDAMENTAL NATURE OF CAUSALITY.

It’s actually easier than it sounds.  Having this little axis helped me personally ride an optimism train into the stratosphere, because it’s nice to have a reminder once in a while that THINGS DO NOT SUCK.

Which, you know, things kinda don’t.  Life doesn’t throw things at us we can’t handle, though it might throw things we don’t want to handle.

OF COURSE, now I’m going to tell you that you can take the OPTIMISM THING TOO FAR.  Bad things are not ALWAYS due to external events.  Good things don’t only come to good people, they can come to bad people too.  SOMETIMES YOU’RE JUST AN ASSHOLE, is what I’m trying to say.

HOWEVER, if your problem is LOW SELF ESTEEM, this axis can be at least little bit helpful.  An Allen wrench in your mental tool box.  A stapler in your cognitive office.  You get the idea.  If your problem in life is NOT LOW SELF ESTEEM, then YOU MAY WANT TO RECONSIDER THE POSSIBILITY OF PERSONAL AGENCY NOW AND AGAIN.  Because everyone has a moment (usually about once per week) where they’re pretty much JUST AN ASSHOLE.  It’s part of life on earth.




But the purpose of writing is to get other people to think.


And remember.

It’s all about how you look at it.

Change your perspective, and you could just change your life.


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