Category Archives: Cognitive Approach

Items around thought-lead (rather than emotion-lead) interactions.

On Being Impressionable

The focus of my blog, and my hope, is to get more people engaging in thoughtful, civil discourse. I sometimes wonder if I am just too far out there in that hope.

lazy-babyAre we too lazy?

One of the challenges is that it takes effort to engage thoroughly and thoughtfully. Going by our gut is so much easier. And as I have stated in an earlier post, this is further undermined by the common practice of reacting instead of responding.

Stress expression on little blond kid's faceA lot of the “news” today is not about conveying facts for us to evaluate. It is about playing to our emotions. A week or so ago, I came across the item below (excerpted from an article (here) which talks about impressionability (emphasis mine):

“Voters are basically lazy,” one Nixon media adviser wrote. “Reason requires a high degree of discipline, of concentration; impression is easier. Reason pushes the viewer back, it assaults him, it demands that he agree or disagree; impression can envelop him, invite him in, without making an intellectual demand…. When we argue with him, we… seek to engage his intellect…. The emotions are more easily roused, closer to the surface, more malleable….” Nixon’s people hired advertising executive Harry Treleaven, who believed the new medium of television had changed the nature of politics. For him, politicians were no longer policy wonks; they were actors with a narrative.

Under Treleaven, Nixon’s people ignored policy positions and instead used television to create a candidate with a simple message: America was on the brink of disaster, and only Nixon could save it. They hired a brilliant young photographer to put together a series of television ads from stock photographs strung together to create a sense of doom; at the end a voice intoned “Nixon” over an iconic image of the nation. At the end of every ad ran the words: “Vote like your whole world depended on it.”

While the source article is tilted at (against) a particular political party, the cornerstone concept I am pointing to goes well beyond politics or parties. I do not want to make this a partisan thing.

Further on, in the same article, they show a path from this earlier thinking, to the philosophy and M.O. of one news organization today – though others have adopted this strategy too. If you measure success as the number of subscribers or followers, as is normal for the media, then this is a successful formula. If you measure it on how accurately informed the viewership is, then it is far from successful. Much of that viewership, regardless of the source channel, is misinformed (and misled) through, either, cherry-picked subsets of data, opinion substituting for fact, or with emotionally appealing falsehoods. And through repetition the viewership begins to accept the impressions cast by those “news sources” as truths. Using the definition right out of a dictionary, this should be labeled propaganda (not news).

Soundbyte PsychologyThe sound-bite mindset

We have become accustomed to the abbreviated form. It is all around us. Catchy advertising and campaign slogans that stick with us. One-hundred and forty byte “statements” in the form of tweets (yes, I tweet too.) Text messages, with oh so many abbreviations, and sometimes in place of more expansive, face-to-face conversations. When we actually pick up a newspaper or magazine, how often do we read the highlights, the call-outs, just the captions under the pictures, and not the full articles? We want things quick and easy. I confess, too often, and too impatiently, I ask people to “net it out” for me.

A joke made by Woody Allen years ago – fits the situation today:

“I took a speed reading course and read War and Peace in twenty minutes. It involves Russia.”

I spent a handful of years in marketing and learned about creating “tag lines” (short hand for our key message) and “elevator pitches” (intended to get your fundamental point across as concisely as possible), and the general art of spin. A former colleague used the phrase “fiction with conviction” as both a critique of the discipline of marketing and a description – ironically a sound-bite in itself. When building marketing material, we used a method where you started by defining the one thing you really want the audience to take away, and build out from there. You build out supporting arguments – but not too many. You add specific images to reinforce. You tighten it up, keep it brief, because you want to keep their attention. You hope they remember much of what you put together. But you count on them retaining the core thought or position. Trying to convey some facts, but at a minimum, focusing on leaving an impression. I understand the power of this method.

Distorted presentation with emotional appeal

God and Fence Shaded
Not a caged puppy after all.

It is not just the main-stream media or marketers either. The pervasiveness of the internet, ready access to gadgets to take pictures and video, simple editing tools, allow almost anyone to “publish” content. My blog is certainly an example. Because of this, lots of misinformation is widely available. And “spun” misinformation gets attention and sometimes a significant following.

Just last week, my son sent me a link to a post he said “proved his point” about negative repercussions in the faith community from the recent same-sex-marriage decision by the Supreme Court. The post was about a clergyman being sent to prison for not performing a same-sex wedding. I told him I would look at it later, and asked him if he knew if it was a credible source. He had assumed it was legitimate. I discovered it was a hoax. I shared those findings with him and we talked about the implications of folks reacting without verifying.

Pinochio NoseThen shortly after that, a highly misrepresentative, heavily edited 8 minute video, surfaced – slamming Planned Parenthood. It gained a lot of attention for its provocative headline and premise. It was a very effective in its’ deception. Because of scrutiny and public pressure, the whole 100 plus minutes of raw video were released. From inspection of this raw footage, by multiple groups, it was determined that many of the clips in the edited version were used wholly out of context, and others portions of the edited video actually represented the complete opposite of the truth, of what was said and meant.

Yes we (may) have busy lives and it is convenient to get the synopsis. But have we become too accustomed to this shorthand? I think we have. Can’t we set aside a little time to look a little deeper into important matters? I think we can. I hope we do.

Multiple Issues
Various issues to evaluate

Issue by issue

Stealing a comment I heard on a radio show, when asked which way do I lean (politically), I respond “on what issue?” (yes, I get the irony of echoing the external source). FYI – I have been registered as an independent my entire voting life.

I think the increasing feeling of polarization in our country, is based on the false premise that we need to subscribe to, to lean, right or left, to choose a side. There seems less tolerance for agreeing-to-disagree.  I see this as just another form of convenience, simplification. We can quickly slot another into the group of those we like (us) or those we dislike (them) based on how they lean. And, we probably find it easier to slot ourselves into a group, than to define our views issue-by-issue.

More independents
Reproduced from CNN Graphic

Many polls , of late, suggest that an increasing portion of Americans are identifying as independents (rather than Democrat or Republican). I find that encouraging. I hope some portion of that is attributable to folks wanting to exercise personal judgment per issue, rather than voting the party line.



Am I too far out there in my expressed hope? You’ll have to decide for yourself. Since I am an optimist, and I believe we can be rational creatures, I will continue to post. I will encourage people to look beyond the sound-bite, and not to be too impressionable.
I will encourage people to put in some effort, to engage others, to verify, to adjust and expand what they know, and to decide for themselves.

Minion-ReadingFinally, if you have read all the way through this post to this sentence, it shows you exerted effort and expended time trying to understand someone else’s point of view. Encouraging – Thank you for doing so.


Thought Precedes Reaction

The following content is pulled, and updated, from a piece I assembled a few years ago. I think it is a fair companion to my previous post – Responding over Reacting. I feel it could play an important part in the arena of civil discourse – in much the same spirit as ideas in previous posts, which ultimately put some burden on each of us, personally, to engage better.

I’ll start with the framing points I used in the original content.

  • The following outlines a simple concept – yet it is not common
  • It suggests we have a choice in our reactions and emotions
  • It outlines a sequence
  • Understanding the sequence gives us a chance to do things differently

Common PictureMost believe that our reactions are largely automatic, and that we have little control over most of our emotional responses, which can be represented by a simple sequence: 1) Something occurs; then 2) We feel/react in response.

But I would like to suggest to you that there are more steps in the process and we have more control over our response than is commonly believed.

While certainly not a detailed scientific model, I would like to suggest 4 steps.

Home Run

FirstAn Event Occurs. Lets say a baseball player swings and connects, driving the ball over the left field fence – a home run.


Home Run on TV
SecondYou become aware of it. Lets extend our example with you witnessing it via a live broadcast on a TV at a sports bar where you are watching with some of your coworkers.


ThinkingThirdYou Interpret it. Now that you are aware of it, you process it. Things including your like or dislike for the team or player, how invested you are in the sport in general, if you have a bet with a friend on the game, for how much money, and more, shade your opinion of the event. In this case it is your team, and you stand to collect $20 from your friend.


ApplauseFourthYou act/react in response. Your response flows from your intepretation. And how you feel about it too. Your glad. You and your coworkers cheer and applaud and some cash is coming your way.


So far, nothing substantially different from the two-step sequence. I will expand on the significance of the distinctions shortly.

Lets change the scenario just slightly. Same baseball game, same player, same home run – the same event occurs (first step). You are in the same sports bar with the same coworkers and witness the hit in the same way. Second Step– You become aware in the same way.

UpsetHowever, it is not your team – it is the opposition. That means you will lose the bet. Third Step – You’re going to have a different opinion, and then, fourth step – a different feeling flows. You are upset or angry.

Steps 1 and 2 are the same. Steps 3 and 4 are different.
This demonstrates that the event (step 1) is well separated from our response (step 4).

Now, let’s suppose you don’t follow baseball, did not go out with your coworkers, and never placed a bet. You don’t watch the game at home either, because you have no interest. You know nothing of the game or home run. It never comes into your awareness. If you are not aware of it, Steps 3 & 4 never take place (for you) – no interpretation, no associated happiness or anger. This further demonstrates the separateness of the event from the other steps.

MailboxesLet’s change the second scenario only slightly. Instead of experiencing the home run via TV, you find out about it, after the fact, from your neighbor, and friend, who lives in the same apartment complex, when you are collecting your mail. Let’s say your interpretation and reaction are essentially the same. And since your neighbor is a friend, you blurt out an expletive. This separates the event (step 1) further in time from the successive steps. The awareness step is similar – though not identical.

From these examples, it is reasonable to conclude that the event is not directly responsible for your reaction. We can also see that your biases and interests are the basis of your opinion and the source of your reaction – not the event itself.

Now, another small adjustment. Same as just above, except the neighbor is someone you find attractive, a romantic possibility. Instead of an expletive, you soften the descriptor(s) you use to convey how you feel about the event.

AvoidableThis demonstrates an important idea. You chose to handle your response differently. In fact, you paused during step 3, if only so briefly, and decided that it would be better for you to say something gentler on the matter. The trigger-event has not changed, nor the awareness.
But, you invoked a change at step 3 – which affected what followed.

Shading PerceptionColoring our opinion

As an event seeps into our awareness (step 2) we engage our memories, biases, concerns, expectations, prior feelings, other sensations, etc. Blended together they color the formation of our perception (step 3).

Setting aside, for now, reactions to genuine threats of imminent danger driven from our reptilian brain, I submit that we have the ability to exercise more control over the shading we apply to events than we give ourselves credit for.

Here is an alternative example. Let’s say a person says something about us (step 1). And we hear it (step 2). We decide (step 3) what we think of the comment and thus how we feel about it (step 4).

It is OKShade greenTo tune this, let’s say the person is a friend. We (decide to) give credence to their statement because we know them, they have some acumen in the subject area, and they know us. We color our perception accordingly and feel OK.

Now let’s add a twist. Assume no difference in the words or style of delivery (step1 is the same) and we hear it in the same way (step 2).

Shade redUmbrageThe person is not familiar to us, or with us, and we know little of their credentials. We shade it differently (step 3) and take umbrage (step 4).


We own how we feel

The actual message content (the same in both cases) is not responsible for our resultant feeling. It starts the process, but our perception, and our coloring of it, the feeling from it – we own. It is incredilbly common, in our society, to say and hear “they hurt my feelings.” And it may seem like splitting hairs to some – but that common utterance is not accurate. Being more precise – they said something, and we decided to let it bother us (or not). Because steps 3 clearly belongs to us, we consequently own how we feel about it.

An opportunity

So, all this leaves us with an opportunity. An opportunity to step-up on our own behalf. To pause and adjust at step 3. If we think back, many of us may have been taught, when we were young, to count to ten before getting angry. Good advice – because, in the intervening seconds, we can (if we try) get a hold of the thoughts stirring our (potential) anger, check them for accuracy, and also weigh the options, before getting to anger or an alternative state.

How about memories?

Again, trying to keep it simple, let’s say a memory is a combination of steps 1 & 2. It gets conjured into our awareness. We could have guided our thoughts toward remembering, or something else could have triggered the memory. For now, let’s leave it at that.

Baseball MemoryLet’s say we recall that home run six months later. Then we ponder it (step 3) and our feeling follows (step 4). We may likely have a very similar reaction to the original one. But, maybe not – time may have provided distance and perspective.


As expressed earlier, the event of six months prior does not trigger our response directly. The memory is the beginning of the process. Again the event is well separated from the reaction. We cannot truly say that the home run is responsible for how we feel now. Our recollection (step 2) then our perception (step 3) is the source of our emotion (step 4). We own how we feel about the memory too.

If we so choose, we have the ability to adjust our perception (step 3) about that past event in a broader context of other things and much that has happened since.


zen1Perhaps not easy – but worth it

I’m not suggesting this is necessarily easy. Especially if we are like many — practiced in just reacting. I say practiced meaning having done it over, and over, again.

I am suggesting it is both possible and beneficial.

For many, my spelling this whole thing out comes to “duh – we knew that” or “we already do that.” To them I say “Terrific.” Like I said when I started, it is a simple concept that I think is not commonly followed. And I think showing the distinct steps is worthwhile.

Learning PianoFor those to whom this is foreign, getting from an inability to do so, to an ability, will also take practice, repetition. With practice this can become like second nature (as we may have previously assumed automatic reactivity was).

I think it is worth it. First, for our own sake, and more broadly for our relationships and exchanges with others. Even if they do not choose to temper (interesting word in this context) their thoughts and response, our doing so might help keep a tense dialog from getting worse – and possibly help steer it back toward a productive end. If both parties can leverage it, imagine how much more we might advance instead of spinning in circles.

It can help in day to day living. And it can help civil discourse.

Responding over Reacting

Emotional Response 5As a society, I think we have gone overboard on the “let them have their feelings” thing. Please allow me to qualify that position.

First, I believe we are feeling creatures. And, we are absolutely entitled to our emotions. What I want to explore, is how we process events and feelings and how that affects civil discourse.

Young Man Having Counselling SessionIn recent decades, psychology and therapy have made great strides in qualifying the importance of acknowledging feelings and working with them. In order to help a person in emotional pain, first empathy then exploration. Sometimes just being empathetic will suffice. In order to help ourselves, first identify how we feel, then explore to see if the feeling has a valid, or false, underpinning. I am a strong proponent of these things and the cognitive therapy model. More on that in a future post.

Mic and HeadphonesAlso in recent decades, TV & radio, talk shows, movies, court cases and such, have increased public awareness to the first half of this dynamic – the importance of acknowledging feelings. By itself – not a bad thing. Unfortunately, in my opinion, the other half of the equation – personally owning how we feel and then act – has not been given the same attention, emphasis or depth of consideration.Imbalance 1 Admittedly, it is the more complex half. I think the result of this disproportionate emphasis, is lots of people acting in highly-charged ways and justifying their behavior as a natural, even unavoidable, byproduct of their (hurt) feelings.


I believe that this imbalance is undermining civil discourse (and relationships).

So, I would like to continue to expand using two cornerstone concepts:

  • Our feelings flow from our perception of events.
  • We have the ability to pause when an event (or comment) occurs, before responding.

Let me work backwards with those concepts. First, in most cases, and there are exceptions, we have the ability to gather our thoughts about an event or comment and sculpt a considered response, instead of just automatically reacting. Yes, we have lower brain functions (reptilian brain) that instinctually drive immediate reactions to real, imminent danger. But we have higher brain functions that allow for reasoning before reacting. In my opinion, we do not consistently teach or enforce this notion. I think the imbalance mentioned above, and longer held (inaccurate) social assumptions, has a lot to do with it. Some suggest this pause could equate to suppressing our “true” emotions. I disagree. I do not suggest suppressing or stuffing down our emotions. I do suggest we can actively manage them.

That leads to the first cornerstone concept – our emotions come from, flow from, our thoughts. They are not automatic. There is a sequence:

  1. an event occurs
  2. we perceive the event (or not)
  3. we process the event (thinking)
  4. we then feel as a result of that internal processing

In step 1, the event is a thing unto itself. It could be something happening outside of us, like a person running by. Or it could be something inside us, like remembering the taste of a slice of fresh peach pie. In the first instance, if the person running by were not in our field of vision, we may never have perceived, or been aware of, that occurrence. If we are not aware of the runner (step 2), then steps 3 and 4 never occur. We don’t have a feeling about something completely outside our awareness. On the other hand, if we do come to awareness of the event, because we turned and saw them as they ran by, or someone tells us about the runner, we move to step 3.

ThinkingIn step 3, we digest the information about the runner, and form an opinion about it. The opinion can range from a simple acknowledgement of “some people run”, to a critique or liking of their outfit, to disapproval because this is not a place where someone should be running, or some other conclusion. Our opinion is often, but not always, based on the context of the event, AND most certainly based on our past experiences which affect our opinions. Once we have formed our opinion, which is likely to be very rapidly, we move to step 4.

In step 4, we transition from our opinion to how we feel about it. There is an emotion, and possibly a physical sensation, associated with our distilled perception of the runner. If we liked the outfit, we have a particular feeling (I’ll let you label it for yourself). If we disapprove of their actions, then some form of negative feeling (mild or otherwise) is associated with that disapproval. Or if disinterested, our emotion might just be a very mild and very brief “hm.”

The time span from the beginning of step 1 through the end of step 4 may be infinitesimally small. But it is not instantaneous nor is our resultant feeling unavoidable and automatic. We have the ability, during step 3, to intervene, to elongate our evaluation and shape our opinion. You may have been exposed to this if you were taught “count to ten when you are angry” when you were young. In elongating our evaluation, maybe we realize we don’t have the full context of why they were running, or why in this place, or other factors. Perhaps there was a valid, urgent, matter to which they needed to attend. That context could make the difference between a comment of derision, and a sense of concern for their well being. We also have the opportunity, during this pause, to challenge our assumptions about the event or person, and shape our conclusion, and the resultant emotion and response.

In the case of recalling the piece of pie, or pretty much any memory, it is sort a combination of steps 1 and 2. Once there, we precede to steps 3 and 4 – we form an opinion about the memory, then a feeling ensues. We can shift our perspective of that memory in different ways. And, in so doing, affect the resultant emotion. We could gather a pleasant feeling because it was yummy. Or we feel sadness because the person that makes it is no longer with us. And we could do both. We can actively choose to spend time in one emotion more than the other.

We own how we feel

Look in the Mirror PauseA crucial point, in all this, is that we, each, personally own steps 3 & 4. We cannot blame another for how we feel. We form the opinion (not them) and that leads to the emotion. So the expression “he said X and made me angry” is a misplacement for the anger. He may have indeed said X (step 1, the event), and that can be labeled as the trigger. We were aware he said X (step 2), and that may lead (via steps 3 & 4) to us feeling angry. But we own that anger. We can pause at step 3 and decide it is less egregious than our “visceral” reaction suggests, and respond with less anger or no anger. Or, with consideration, spawn a line of inquiry to negotiate with the other instead of becoming embattled. Regardless, the event, and the other person, is separate from the feeling. The emotional response is up to us.

That is how I see this folding into civil discourse – and more civil behavior. There seems to be far too much heated, reactionary behavior, in what could be civil discourse today. I choose not to elaborate, here and now, on the potential reasons why such unreasoned conflict is encouraged. That is for another post.

Calm Face to Face 3So I circle back to conclusion on the premise and title of this post. Imagine two or more parties, engaged in a difficult conversation, with deeply held opposing points of view, conducting themselves in this way – responding to each other rather being entrenched and reactionary. I firmly believe, that if we learn, practice and encourage this discipline, we can improve our dialogs, advance our points and causes (and society) more effectively, more rapidly and more often.