Sometimes, you just know what you need. But maybe you don’t know why or how you know that. Sound familiar?
In psychology, we call this intuitive thinking. This is what we “just know”. We know it immediately and we know it with great confidence. Unfortunately, this type of certainty are also prone to error. Psychologists call this type of thinking System 1. The alternative mode of thinking, the mode that is slower, rational, typically more accurate but less confident, is called System 2. As Daniel Kahneman explains in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow, System 1 thinking is quick and easy while System 2 thinking is more difficult. System 1 is our default for day-to-day decisions because it relies on the patterns with which we have learned to interpret the world. When we have a hard problem to solve, though, our slower, more rational System 2 takes over. Together, Systems 1 and 2 comprise the Dual Process Model of thinking and decision-making.
System 1 was talking when I knew, I just knew, that I needed to cycle to the beach on Monday night. Had I thought about it a little longer, System 2 might have reminded me that I’d had a late meeting at work and didn’t have any food prepared for dinner, so biking the hour to the beach might not be the best use of my time.
But that’s not what I was thinking about. Instead, I was thinking about how the beach smells and what it sounds like. I was thinking about how it feels to ride there and about sitting up on the rocks to watch the waves. Or, maybe I was feeling all of that instead of thinking at all.
A friend volunteered to come with me and off we went.
I may not have been thinking slowly or rationally, but as soon as we left the main road and entered the park, I knew I’d been right. My breathing came more easily, cycling felt smoother, and my head cleared. As soon as we scrambled up the rocks to hear the water and watch the sunset, I realised I’d been right. I may not have known why, but the beach was the right place to be.
Sometimes it’s okay to do follow an impulse. Sometimes, something deep inside of you knows what you need. It’s okay to learn to listen.
“How much is a taxi to the airport? I have to pay it myself. My school doesn’t give me a per diem.”
“Oh that’s too bad. Why not?”
“It’s a Jewish school so they’re stingy.”
“Well that’s how they make all their money.”
And then we made eye contact and she looked away.
My only contribution to this conversation was the interjection, “Hey!”. I’m not sure whether it was enough. I’m never sure.
I’ve spent the last three days at an IB professional development workshop for the DP Psychology course that I teach. People came from all over – Singapore, Indonesia, China, Nepal, India, New Zealand, Hong Kong, and Abu Dhabi were represented among 24 psychology teachers. And that’s just where they teach now; where they’re from is a completely different list.
Context is important here. What I like most about the IB, and what gives me legs to stand on when discussing controversial topics, is its mission:
The International Baccalaureate aims to develop inquiring, knowledgeable and caring young people who help to create a better and more peaceful world through intercultural understanding and respect. . . . These programmes encourage students across the world to become active, compassionate and lifelong learners who understand that other people, with their differences, can also be right. (emphasis added)
To this end, the IB highlights international-mindedness throughout its programs, though the way this actually looks is heavily discussed and debated. The point, however, is that this is who we’re supposed to be as an IB community. We’re supposed to be internationally minded, emphasize intercultural understanding and respect, and accept difference.
I’ve seen antisemitism all over the world and it no longer surprises me. But I was taken aback to see it in a woman about my age, also a traveler, who teaches a psychology course that includes a sociocultural unit. She’s obviously frustrated at having to pay for what was likely a required workshop, so I’m not questioning that. Frustration is why she made the claim – we blame others when things that we don’t like happen to us. My question is why the claim was antisemitic in the first place.
Since she teaches at a Jewish school, she knows more than nothing about Judaism and she knows Jewish people. She likely has Jewish friends, even if they’re friends just at work. This means that I can’t use ignorance as an explanation, which is usually the excuse that I give people. Ignorance is lack of knowledge or lack of information and that’s clearly not the case.
As a teacher of psychology, she is familiar with Henri Tajfel’s work on social identity theory, which, ironically enough, stems from his experiences of persecution during the Holocaust. In short, we compare ourselves to others and categorize ourselves into groups in order to boost our self-esteem. “We” are the in-group and “they” are the out-group. “They” are this and “we” are not. “We” do this and “they” do not. Etc.
Much of our group categorization is unconscious. We are not necessarily aware when this happens because the brain naturally categorizes things in order to simplify and streamline our thinking. As a teacher of psychology, she knows about cognitive biases, which are mental shortcuts that the brain uses to make sense of the world around us. We’d never be able to make any sort of decision if the brain first had to process every possible option.
Stereotypes are also linked to implicit associations, generalizations that the brain makes based on patterns. Again, we don’t realize this is happening. Harvard University’s Implicit Association Test, which I do with my students, can be enlightening. Sometimes these associations, or biases, have little impact on our interactions with others but sometimes they can be quite significant. As I discuss with my students, having implicit biases is normal. Checking yourself when you come to a snap judgement is what it means to be mindful before acting.
To summarize, it is troubling to me that a psychology teacher in a global program with a mission to value international-mindedness, intercultural understanding and respect, and acceptance of difference made an antisemitic comment. I don’t have an explanation for this teacher. She should know and teach everything I’ve just described. And if she hasn’t been doing that, we just spent three days discussing it. She should understand this in her own life and adjust accordingly. And maybe she will.
So why the antisemitic comment? The nagging voice in my head says that some people are just antisemitic. Some people are just racist, biased, discriminatory, prejudicial, xenophobic even when they know better. Sometimes this comes from fear or uncertainty. Sometimes this comes from prior negative experience. (As one of my friends would say, “Sounds like textbook human.”)
Haven’t an explanation doesn’t rectify or excuse the behavior, but perhaps it can suggest ways that allow us to respond constructively. And perhaps, since this woman didn’t check herself but was ultimately checked, this particular comment can be a learning experience.
It is heartening that no one else in the room engaged with her comment at all. The conversation moved on immediately, which is a perfectly appropriate response once someone speaks out and the other backs down. It seems plausible that most people in the room recognized the bias, prejudice, and stereotype behind this comment and knew it to be wrong. In light of that, maybe we’re doing okay at building a better, more peaceful world.
But in light of that, we cannot pretend the work is over.
Courage is the price that life exacts for granting peace. – Amelia Earhart
I’m teaching the culture part of a unit on sociocultural psychology. We talk about values and norms and the ways that people in different cultures remember, learn, and express what they know. We talk about learning how to behave in our own cultures and becoming part of new cultures. We talk about expectations. We talk about what it means to be happy.
Most of the time, happiness for me actually means contentment. It means feeling okay with and good about what’s happening immediately around me. Less “Wow, how awesome!” and more “This is really nice.” In the book How Emotions Are Made Lisa Feldman Barrett explains that there’s a difference between North American “happy happy joy joy” and East Asian tranquility and equanimity. We don’t all conceive of happiness in the same way and those differences are very important for the way we view the world. I was in the musical You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown back in high school and the closing number, “Happiness,” got me every time.
Though we sometimes forget it in the age of Instagram, Buzzfeed Top Ten lists, and selfie sticks, happiness is in simplicity.
I’ve been thinking about that a lot recently. Several times over the last few weeks, a conversation from half a year ago has returned to mind. I was with a friend who I’ve only seen once or twice since, neither of us speaking much that day. We were both concerned with and unsettled by the future. We were uncertain. Jobs, choices, change, moving, moving on. After some moments of silence, my friend asked, “What makes you happy?”
I remember it took me several seconds to respond. I remember the knot in my stomach and how I had to acknowledge it, experience it, and admit to it before I could let it go. I was not feeling happy in that moment and answering the question took time.
“Lots of things,” I replied, intellectually knowing this was the right answer even if I couldn’t quite feel it.
“Oh, you know, things.” It took a moment, but there’s a lot to be said for state-dependent memory (and learning). Once the ideas came, they came quickly. “The smell of coffee. Sunny mornings with a breeze. Being outside. Books. Writing. Taking pictures. Being with friends and family. Intimate moments. Traveling. Learning new things. Delicious vegetables. Making food for people.”
That conversation has come back to me strangely often in the last few weeks. I’ve been experiencing a sort of mental shift, I think, one that started when I was in Europe at the beginning of April. Over the last month, I’ve grown more accustomed to the calm and quiet that my mind has found. Sometimes I find myself feeling okay in a situation or with thoughts that would have bothered me just weeks ago. This is good.
Maybe this is what it means to grow up. Maybe there’s wisdom in letting go, in observing, and in accepting today without judgment. There certainly seems to be freedom there. The only thing I know for sure is that a better version of myself is one who sees happiness in all the small moments that occur every day, and I’m glad to be there right now.
Photos, travels, musings, and ideas on education by a twenty-something teacher trying to make the world a better and more peaceful place