The Continually New You

Finding something new in psychology is always easy. The journals are overflowing with reports of gripping new findings, many of which invite continued reflection. But a problem has recently come to the fore: Many of these findings probably won’t replicate. In fact, many of the findings already in the literature have turned out not to replicate—they were statistical flukes, not accurate insights into the nature of the mind and behavior. But this does not mean that we should throw up our hands and walk away from the field. Rather, many findings have turned out to be robust, and many have deep implications that will continue to stimulate and inform.

In this piece I reflect on one such set of findings that has deep implications and will ensure that we will always be presented with something new.

My reflections begin with one of my undergraduate mentors, who was a very senior scientist nearing the end of his long and distinguished career. He once commented to me that even after an extraordinarily close marriage over fifty years, his wife could still think, say, and do things that surprised him. With a little reflection, I suspect that he could have extended the observation: For better or worse, even after a lifetime of living you can still learn something new about yourself that will surprise you.

In my view, this observation is going to be true for all of us. Who and what we are will always have an element of something new, simply because of how the brain works.

Here is the structure of the thinking that led to this conclusion:

  1. The way we respond to objects and situations we perceive or to ideas we encounter (e.g., via speech) depends on our current cognitive state. Depending on one’s current thoughts, feelings and experiences, different concepts are “primed.” Primed concepts are activated in our minds, and tend to take center stage in how we interpret and respond to current situations. A huge literature now documents the effects of such priming.
  2. The way we interpret new stimuli or ideas relies, at least in part, on chaotic processes. Here’s my favorite analogy for this: A raindrop is dribbling down a window pane. An identical raindrop, starting at exactly the same spot on the window at another time, would trace a different path. Even very very small differences in the start state will affect the outcome (this is part and parcel of what it is to be a chaotic system.) The state of the windowpane (which depends on ambient temperature, effects of previous raindrops, and other factors) is like the state of the brain at a particular point in time: Depending on what one has just previously encountered and what one was thinking and feeling, different concepts will be primed. And this priming will influence the effects of a new perception or idea.
  3. Over age and experience, the structure of information stored in long-term memory will become increasingly complex. Hence, priming can have increasingly subtle and nuanced effects, which become increasingly difficult to predict.
  4. In short, each of us grows as we age and experience more and varied situations and ideas, and we will never be able to predict perfectly how we react to a new encounter. Why not? What we understand about ourselves depends on what we paid attention to at the time events unfolded and on the highly imperfect conceptual machinery we have for interpreting ourselves. Our understanding of ourselves will not capture the subtle and nuanced effects of the patterns of priming that affect our immediate perceptions, thoughts and feelings.

In sum, although we cannot be forever young, we can be indefinitely new—at least in part.

Why is this important? This reasoning suggests that we should give others and ourselves some slack. We should be forgiving when friends surprise us negatively—the friends may be surprised themselves. And the same is true for ourselves.