Recursive Traps


"It is often possible to discern a structure to people's difficulties,
in which internal states and external events
continually create the conditions
for the recurrence of each other."

 — Paul Wachtel

Blushing is an example of a recursive structure. If blushing is embarrassing for me, then any feedback that I am blushing enhances the physiological reaction. The more obvious the blush, the more embarrassed I feel, and the more embarrassed I feel, the more I blush.

Recursion, in mathematics and computer science, is a method of defining functions in which the function being defined is applied within its own definition. The term is more generally used to describe a process of reciprocal feedback; for example, when two mirrors face each other a recurring sequence of nested images appears in each.

Positive Feedback

When the mirrors are parallel, the nested reflections do not go on forever, because real mirrors are not perfectly reflective. Pathogenic structures have no such limitation. In fact, some produce amplification or positive feedback—analogous to a microphone that has gotten too close to a speaker causing a rapid and relentless magnification of the sound to the extreme.

Positive feedback of the fight-or-flight response to threat is the cause of panic attacks. Specifically, the symptoms of fear, such as rapid heartbeat, are perceived as threatening ["perhaps I'll have a heart attack"], and so trigger the body to secrete more fight-or-flight hormones, which exacerbate the fear reaction, thereby causing increased heart rate, and so on.

Recursive Cognitive Structures

Some of life’s problems are self-correcting. You catch a cold, and the body’s immune system learns to recognize the pathogen and eventually defeat it. A child learning to ride a bicycle may fall a few times but will ultimately get it. People who have developed a pattern of self-sabotage may never self-correct, because the source of their emotional reaction is a belief within themselves that is often confirmed by the way things play out.

Some beliefs are special because they cause one to act in ways that confirm the original belief - even when it was not initially valid.  For example, the belief that you will not be able to cope with a challenge tends to impair performance and make the unwanted outcome more likely.

Because the negative expectations promoted by the belief tends to exert a handicapping influence on performance, Self-Confirmatory Bias often becomes a Self-Fulfilling Prophecy, so once established a Pathogenic Belief can continue to diminish the quality of life indefinitely. Consider the effect of Barry's belief that he is socially awkward:

Barry's Self-Confirmatory Beliefs

Barry, a clever but socially anxious engineer, can be very funny but is inarticulate in social settings in which he feels like a loser. The appraisals: “I’m a loser,” or “I am a witty guy” exist only in Barry’s mind and not in the objective world. Nevertheless, his subjective reality influences how he behaves in social situations.  Whether he reacts to the snide insult at the office party with a witty come-back or with a humiliating silence depends to a large extent on his state of mind at the time. His retort is more likely to be clever if he is feeling confident than if he is in his “loser” trance.

He wants to bring on the clever version of himself and enjoy a social victory, but he expects to be intimidated. Observers who know Barry have their own predictions, but these are just the creative fictions of their minds.  Only the actions Barry performs become part of objective reality; the other expectations and possibilities will fade into oblivion.

There is a battle between the creative fictions that will determine Barry's psychological state at the critical moment. On one side is his intention to be the cool and clever Barry, on the other is his expectation that he will be tongue tied.  The winner of the battle will determine which version of Barry gets to be part objective reality.  From our dispassionate perspective we can see they are both creative fictions, which are neither true nor false until Barry performs and actualizes one of them.

Barry’s story illustrates the cause-and-effect relationships that tend to result in self-confirmatory bias. Barry’s belief that he is socially inept sabotages his social performance, which confirms his handicapping belief. His social life is continually influenced by his expectation of social failure. The objective evidence that Barry does, in fact, perform poorly in social situations continually validates this expectation. Because it has a recursive structure, it can persist indefinitely and continue to have a negative impact on Barry’s actions and how his life unfolds. [Fortunately for Barry, once he appreciated how his trap worked he was able to use his problem-solving ability to develop a more self-serving cognitive structure.

Barry’s limitation does not come from outside of him, nor is it due to a slow wit.  He is handicapped by his own self-sabotaging suggestion.  In contrast to injuries that tend to heal with time, the source of Barry’s misery is the perspective from which he views social challenges.

A wide range of negatiave beliefs — including many of the Popular Thinking Errors — cause people like Barry to feel threatened in social situations. The state-dependent distortions associated with this defensive perspective is not as conducive to a clever come-back as a confident "let's have fun with this" perspective.

By acting as if the "socially awkward" perspective was valid he reifies and thereby strengthens that Barry is socially awkward. The tragedy is that Barry wants to be more socially successful and has the natrual gifts of a quick mind and great sense of humor. But his acceptance of the "Barry is socially awkward" fiction continually recreates the conditions that make his sad and diminish the quality of his life.     

Another example of the power of a self-confirmatory bias is the fact that Bernie, who believes that everyone is trying to screw him so he better screw them first, is surrounded by people who are, in fact, trying to screw him. If you knew Bernie, you'd probably be trying to screw him too. In fact, Bernie does not want to be a bad guy. It is just that his beliefs about other people's motivations tend to elicit antagonistic behaviors toward them, provoking them to behave in ways that reify his negative beliefs.

The Consequences of Bernie's Expectations

Bernie reported: “During a chaotic situation at an airport ticket counter someone kicked me in the back of the leg. When I turned around to confront the asshole I saw a handicapped girl in a wheelchair, which had evidently rolled, out of control, down a ramp and into me. She was terrified by the rage on my face. I felt terrible.”

Bernie still cringes over this memory several years after the incident took place.

The facts that Barry often behaves incompetently is social situations, and that Bernie is continually surrounded by people who are angry at him confirms their pathogenic beliefs and thereby increase their certainty that the belief is valid. To escape this trap each will have to experiment with trying on different perspectives and acting as if they were valid.

Other people's thinking errors are more obvious than our own. Like Barry's friends, I see him as a successful and clever guy. Sadly, Barry resists their encouragement and my arguments. The handicapping self-fulfilling profesies of the past have reified the idea that he is a "loser." As long as buys into that creative fiction, he will continue to sabotage his social performance. It would be better for Barry if he could see things from my perspective.

As dispassionate observers, we can see things from a different perspective than Barry does. If you knew Barry you would agree with me that he is not defective — except for his belief that he is defective. Happily, beliefs are relatively easy to change [especially when compared to the work required to change behavioral and emotional reactions to the things that happen].

If you have not already reviewed the list of Popular Thinking Errors, now is a good time to do so. Below are some examples that relate to the social issues discussed above:

  • Fortune Telling [the belief that you can predict the future] —  for example, "I will fail," "They are not going to like me" —  generally decreases the quality and perseverance of your performance, thereby reifying this self-fulfilling profesy.

  • Mind Reading [the belief that you know what the other person is thinking] can have relationship-enhancing or -destroying effects depending upon the motivations you attribute to the other person. "She does that because she loves me" versus "She does that because she wants me to suffer."
    • Note: Even when you feel certain that you know what another person is thinking or what is driving their actions, you are probably wrong and almost certainly missing some key elements of their experience. Nevertheless, attributing negative intent toward you by a lover can do permanent damage  — even when the belief was initially incorrect

The Recursive Trap of Addiction

Binge eating illustrates the recursive trap that maintains most addictive disorders. In this case the pleasurable activity of eating is used to escape self-awareness — 

being overweight and feeling like a failure. The eating episode is interpreted as a failure which increases the motivation to escape self-awareness, which strengthens the entrapment mechanism.

Bonnie hates being fat

Whenever she thinks about her obesity or sees herself in the mirror, she thinks self-critical thoughts and experiences shame. She can escape these unpleasant subjective phenomena by becoming absorbed in the pleasurable experience of eating. Once she stops eating, her awareness shifts to the perspective of the critical observer, she perceives the episode from a different perspective. She is no longer the creature driven to escape the pain of shame, she is now the self-critical observer who supports the self-loathing. The worse the self-criticism and shame, the more she seeks relief from self-awareness through escape into mindless eating. The more she follows this sequence the more she accepts it as the way things really are: "I am a shame-worthy failure." The more this concept is reified the worse grow her problems.

Recursive traps lie within the person. To appreciate your trap you have to step outside yourself to view it from the dispassionate observer's perspective. This is suprisingly difficult to do, because from your perspective the most compelling thing to think about is yourself.


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