The Representativeness Heuristic is at the heart of much of the shitty things we suffer from. Yep, to the extent that you, and those you care about, have struggled with relationship problems, addictions, emotional issues, and other crappy things, this BOOOOOORING sounding nerd-speak Representativeness Heuristic thingy probably has played a key role in that suffering.
Why? Well, you could write a whole book about this, but let me give you the quick & dirty version, with just one example — child abuse.
What does child abuse “look like” to you? What mental image comes to your mind when you think of a child being abused? Probably things like craaaaaaazy fighting, beatings, cruelty, humiliation, sexual abuse, constant criticism, lots of anger, stuff like that. Right? And yes, for sure, these things constitute abuse.
But what about growing up in a home where the parents were pretty checked out, self-absorbed, caught up in their own lives, etc., and the kids just didn’t get a whole lot of attention? I mean, it’s not like the kids were locked in a basement catching rats for food or something. They just didn’t get much attention from Mom, Dad or whoever the caregivers were. Is this “abuse”?
Well, yes. Because growing up feeling invisible, like what you’re doing doesn’t really matter to anyone, like you only get attention when you do something Good (like get straight-A’s or behave properly while visiting the grandparents), or something Bad (like don’t get straight-A’s, or make loud noises at the dinner table, or scuff your feet while walking down the street, or get bored in church, or fight with your sibling, or talk too loud, or say “no” when you are told to do something, or have a messy room, etc.), feeling like you aren’t really allowed to speak out and voice your opinion because Mom/Dad are too busy, too stressed, or have already told you what to do, etc., is a shitty way to grow up. Even if it seems “pretty normal” to you as an adult, the little kid you once were didn’t understand that, and your budding emotional system, INTENSELY dependent on loving feedback from your caregivers, definitely didn’t like it.
“Come on!” you say, rejecting this. “My childhood wasn’t all that bad! It’s not like my parents were abusive or something! I know they loved me. I know they did their best.”
That’s great. If you “know” they loved you, and did their best, that’s cool. But that’s not the point. The point is, when you were a child, did you FEEL like you were enough? Or did you always have to “please” your parents to get affection? Did you FEEL securely cared for, attended to, safe, listened to, empowered? Did you FEEL like you had a voice in decisions that were made? Did you FEEL that you were okay, just as you were? Because if you didn’t feel these things, as a child, then you very likely internalized a feeling of “not being good enough”.
Do you struggle with feelings of not being good enough? Do you know anyone who does? It seems pretty likely. Brené Brown’s TED talk on Shame has more than 50,000,000 views. That’s greater than the entire population of Canada. Shit, eh? There seems to be a lot of people who feel like they’re not good enough….
Now, obviously, if your childhood WAS overtly, obviously abusive, then you probably have struggled with feelings like this. But even with what “seems like” mild neglect, these internalized feelings of “not being okay as you are”, creep in, and can easily, subtly, invisibly become the organizing nucleus around which your self-concept grows.
So, what are the consequences of a not-overly-secure sense of self? Well….everything bad. Seriously. Everything.
- Substance abuse
- Imposter syndrome
- Being pressured into sex you don’t want or aren’t ready for
- Having “poor boundaries”
- Religious/ideological extremism
- Giving up when things get hard
- Low motivation and being a slacker
- Obsessive need to achieve
- Being targeted by bullies, recruited by cults, or sucked into shitty relationships
- Unstable relationship patterns
- Being a “people pleaser”
- Coasting through life because you don’t know what you “really want to do”
- Feeling empty
- Feeling that life is meaningless
- Addictions (e.g., drugs, exercise, sex, social media, work, video games, food, gambling, etc.)
- And yes, even suicide
ALL of these things stem from an insecure sense of self and a deeply internalized feeling of unworthiness. And in general, THAT comes from having your emotional needs neglected or interfered with as a child.
Go read that list again, please. These are the things we struggle with and suffer from, for years, decades, even our entire lives. These are the things that re-traumatize us as adults who repeatedly get into shitty circumstances and make bad decisions for ourselves. These are the things that undermine our success, get us in all sorts of trouble, suck away our joy, limit our opportunities, and basically, turn us into people who never end up fulfilling our potential and living the great, awesome lives we once dreamed we would.
Now, after people have wasted a good chunk of their lives living sub-optimally, struggling, harming themselves, limiting their success and growth, and potentially causing harm to other people, they find themselves in a mental health crisis, in a therapist’s office, with health problems, maybe even in jail. And it’s a loooooooooong road, usually, to healing. One of the first things people REALLY learn on this road to healing is that their “not so bad” childhood was, in fact, “not so good” either. It’s just that when they compare it to their mental image of “abuse”, it doesn’t “seem like abuse”.
Obviously, this plays a huge role in preventing people from truly healing, and instead, perpetuating their dysfunctional coping strategies and ways of being (i.e., the list above). Because until you SEE that your problems are, in fact, due to your emotional needs being neglected when you were a wee little vulnerable still-forming being, it is virtually impossible to heal. You can’t fix what you don’t even know is broken.
This is the Representativeness Heuristic at work. This cognitive bias, this mental rule of thumb, controls so much of our lives, perpetuates so many of our problems, and leads to so many of the poor decisions we make, that it’s really bloody important to take it seriously, understand it, and then learn to be better reasoners.
Because we CAN BE much, much better reasoners, if we understand some basic Psychology, like the Representativeness Heuristic. Boring-sounding, complicated-seeming stuff CAN BE really important. Common sense CAN BE really dumb sometimes. But learning how to use better reasoning can actually save someone’s life and will almost certainly improve your own.