Seeing a small child versus an adult navigate through a house and you can immediately tell the difference. For example, when a toddler approaches a door they may look puzzled as they try to assess how to get passed this barrier. They may reach up for the doorknob and jiggle it. After a few attempts, they may realize it turns. Then they have to figure out if they need to pull or push.
Once they make it through that door and come to another door, in some cases they will repeat the behavior they used to achieve their prior outcome or they start over. But soon after a few doors, the behavior will get generalized.
Generalizations is the First Way We Process the World.
As adults you don’t question how a doorknob works. You grab and turn. If that doesn’t work, you run through all the patterns of generalizations you have learned throughout your life of how a doorknob should work. And this process usually occurs in mere seconds. Only when all those generalizations fail do you pause step back and re-examine the door through child eyes.
Many years back some researchers did a study about this. They made a door where the hinges were on the same side as the doorknob. So imagine a door that you would push open. You are on one side of the door where the doorknob is. The doorknob in on the right side of the door as you are facing it. On the other side of the door, the hinges are on the same side as the doorknob. Well these guinea pigs also known as undergrads were asked one by one to come open the door. They would pull and push and jiggle as best they could but not a single one of them could open the door. And bear in mind that all they had to do was gently push on the left side of the door where there were no hinges and the door would have easily opened. But that would require them to question their generalization of how a door should open.
The Next Way Humans Process the World is Through Distortions
Our generalizations are maintained by distorting the current reality. For example, you may say to yourself “this is just a bedroom door — it should open like all the others”. In fact, this recently happened to me. My wife had gone to bed early. When I came to bed I noticed the door was locked which was strange. I went to find a skeleton key from above one of the other doors. When I went back to my bedroom door to insert it, it wasn’t going in. Since I still had the hallway lights off, I rubbed my finger on where the hole was supposed to be and lo and behold, it wasn’t a hole as I expected. This was a full key lock like you would find on an external door. We have lived in this house for almost 2 years and never once locked the door so I never noticed that it required a key. In fact the doorknob is not even shaped like any of the other doors. I had been distorting my reality every time I touched that doorknob expecting it to feel like all the other round interior doorknobs instead of an exterior doorknob.
Lastly, to Make Absolute Certain Our Reality is Kept Intact, We Delete Things
Speaking of doorknobs, the most common deletion is our keys. How many times have you looked for your keys expecting them to be where you left them but you didn’t see them yelling for your spouse to come help you look and they walk up to exactly where you are standing reach down in the exact same spot and pick up your keys and hand them to you. Where were those keys?
Humans have an amazing ability to hallucinate things away. Think for a moment all the areas of your life that are impacted by your generalizations, distortions, and deletions. Many achievements have been a result of this process. However, the breakthroughs come from challenging them. Both are useful.
For example, beating the four-minute mile. Roger Bannister had to breakthrough the generalization that a four-minute mile could be beat. And soon after he proved it, a new generalization was formed and many others broke that barrier in the same year after him.
So as small children we start forming generalizations about ourselves, about others, about how the world works to be able to survive in the world. We then become a bit lazy and don’t question our previous generalizations. We start using distortions and deletions to maintain our generalizations. If you ever feel inclined to question one, start with something simple.
For example, how many of you still don’t eat a food that you didn’t like to eat as a child? Next time you have the opportunity to eat that food, go for it. You’ll be challenging the long held generalization. You may then decide to form a new one. I like X now or maybe it’s I still don’t like X. Either way it gives you an opportunity to make a new decision all the while questioning long held generalizations. And who knows, you may just surprise yourself.