The cycle of not-learning

Now that I’ve mentioned mental traps, here’s one particular pattern that I’ve observed in myself and others. It seems like a very powerful device. Once constructed, it can hold in its grip not just one person, but entire polities – for years and perhaps for centuries.

The components of the trap form a circle. They are actions that are, if taken separately, aren’t necessarily reflections of good character, but aren’t trappy in themselves. However, if they are connected via particular habits, the trap emerges in its full force. As they say, one thing leads to another. I’ll describe the trap by tracing the circumference of the circle these habits and actions form, stopping briefly at each action. It’s a whistle stop tour of sorts.

We’ll begin the tour at the Lament station. Usually, we find ourselves here when something has gone terribly wrong, and all we have left is to grieve for the future that could have been, of the promise it held. There’s some possibility that is no longer available to us, and it hurts. These are the times for taking stock and asking – over and over – the question “why”. The Lament phase of the cycle is the most uncomfortable and uncertain. We are looking around and there aren’t any clear answers to the source of our pain.

This is where the first connecting habit shows up. It appears that, in the raw uncertainty of flux, by far the easiest way to ground ourselves is to look at those around us. And when we orient outward like this, a spark of an idea ignites a new-found understanding: we can shed the burden of ambiguity if we just point our finger at someone else. Welcome to the Blame station. This phase is characterized by certainty suddenly snapping into a comforting shelter around us. It is the others who are to blame for our woes, and it is their thoughts and actions – not ours! – that caused the pain we’ve felt at the previous stop.

The next habit is something that happens so naturally that we often miss how. It turns out, our brains are incredibly good at recognizing those who are in our in-group and those who are out. And we tend to do this amazing thing where we drastically simplify — flatten — our perception of those in the out-group. Without even thinking, we view them as caricatures of human beings, the “scumbags” or “worms” whose sole purpose in life is to cause us suffering. The trip to the Resentment station is so quick that we don’t even realize when we’ve arrived there, turning those whom we picked as targets of our blame into disgusting effigies that are only fit to burn.

The key habit that takes us to the next step is walling up. It could be simply due to us trying to follow some social cues. It could be that somewhere deep down, we may recognize that the sequence of steps we’re taking is not where we need to go, so we try to “keep a lid on it”. These walls create a cauldron, where our resentment stews, anger growing brighter and brighter, and the socially-appropriate facade begins to crack. What happens next feels almost inevitable. The logic feels foolproof. Of course, if the other is an insect that occupies an otherwise lifeless human body, the only reasonable action is to destroy it. At the Confrontation part of the circle, our certainty and inner clarity reach their zenith. Our only choices are in how to carry out our vengeance in the most effective way. Is it a toxic verbal jab that teaches them what’s what? Or an all-out violence?

It is here where the sharp downturn of certainty is encountered. Inevitably – yet in the moment, still so unexpectedly – our invasion of the other’s boundaries backfires. Sometimes we are repelled by them directly in a devastating way. Sometimes we see their suffering and stagger back in horror at what we’ve done. The moment we thought would be a triumph turns into sorrow and shame, bringing the tired train to the last station in the circle. At this stage, the habit that exacerbates the already-awful situation is denial: we prolong our own suffering by refusing to give up on the idea that we can relieve our pain through application of sharp instruments to others — until there’s ruin all around us. At the Fallout station, we reap what we had sown, and the force of the pain that comes with it sets up a new revolution of the circle.

It’s always surprising to me how, when back at Lament, we grapple with the same “How did this happen?” question. A habit that makes this merry-go-round-of-suffering endure is our desire to escape these steps where uncertainty rules. We want to do so as quickly as possible and return back to clarity and predictability. This is probably the most important habit to watch for. If I squint a bit, I can see that this circle of suffering looks very similar to the learning loop: we form a mental model of what’s happening (there’s a poopy head standing in my way), we come up with a solution (punch them on the nose), and grapple with the outcome (poopy head cries, making me feel really bad). Yet when the prediction error rate spikes proving our solution ineffective, instead of learning (oh no! am I the poopy head?), we do something different – we try to escape from this place of misery as quickly as possible (of course not! look! it’s another poopy head).

A repeating presence of the “how did this happen?” question is a strong indicator that instead of enriching our mental model, we have formed a vicious cycle of not-learning: the pain of the experience prevents us from enriching our mental model or reframing the problem. Most commonly, we do this by trying to reset the model to some state in the past, where we still could make sense of the world without this much suffering – and start the vicious cycle again. This can show up as “return to our roots” or “remembering who we are” in our language with a certain lust toward the past. Knowing history isn’t enough to avoid repeating it. If we are to untangle ourselves from this trap, we are better off listening very carefully to our internal monologue. It could be that we’re resetting ourselves in the endless time loop of self-inflicted pain.

This cycle may manifest vividly and undeniably as physical violence, or it could be as subtle as feeling constantly annoyed over things that other people keep doing. Though the two occurrences may seem so far from each other in the intensity of their outcomes, the same dynamic undergirds both: individually or collectively, we are failing to learn despite recurring experiences.

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