02 Feb

Making Good Decisions: Part II

This blog entry is a continuation of the previous one aimed at understanding the decision-making process, particularly with regard to conscious versus unconscious processing and the emphasis of intellectual reasoning versus intuition. In my previous entry I mentioned that we all have blind spots and have inevitable errors in judgment. But I also believe that understanding how these come about can help minimize their frequency.

Early in his creation of the discipline of psychoanalysis, Freud defined the term transference.

Transference refers to a way of relating to others based on our early relationships, primarily with our mothers, but also affected by fathers, siblings and anyone who was an early significant presence in our lives. When we make attachments to other people, they inevitably contain a core of transference—meaning we relate to people as we did to our significant caretakers, carrying the expectation that they, for better or worse, will be like our early caretakers.

And neuroscience has confirmed that we do, indeed, lay down affect patterns in the brain at an early age that are easily re-stimulated throughout our lives. The better our early experiences, the more likely we are to have positive feelings and expectations of others. And the opposite is also true, of course. Whether it seems fair or not, the better your childhood, the easier life will be for you, including greater ease in reading others’ personalities and intentions.

In psychotherapy or psychoanalysis we talk about how patients enact their transference when they attach sufficiently to the therapist. This inevitably includes positive feelings, negative feelings, a need to revisit unresolved conflicts and a de-idealization of the therapist. Over time it has become clear that all strong attachments contain transference, including not only our spouses or partners, but also the people we work with. This is why a highly intelligent leader who has built his own business or become an accomplished professor, for example, can still be prone to making unworkable decisions when it comes to choosing a person to live with or work with.

For example, if there was a feature of your mother’s personality that you really disliked, you many avoid all people who remind you of her in that specific way. It may be something quirky that became the focus of your negative feelings; it may be a physical feature; or a tone of voice or gesture. Unconsciously seeing this similarity in another person may result in not selecting them as a potential date or a potential employee. This is an example of a gut reaction that has the potential for being spot on, e.g. you would end up disliking this person and not being able to work with him or her, or a serious error, e.g. you turn down someone who is otherwise a good fit and would add to your life. The same process works in reverse, of course.

Your transference bias, that you are unaware of, causes you to select someone who superficially reminds you in a positive way of your mother, and you choose them because of this even though he or she is otherwise a bad fit. This is how our intuition works most of the time, but ultimately must fail due to biases that outside awareness and therefore outside of conscious control. My next blog will address how we can raise awareness and minimize this bias

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