“If you can’t say anything good about someone, don’t say anything at all.” I can’t tell you how many times I heard this reprimand as a kid. Little did I know, but like so many motherly rebukes, I was receiving a positive social neurological directive.
It turns out that people consciously and unconsciously judge me by what I say about others; and positive thoughts tend to enhance neurological developments, while negatives tend to inhibit. Spontaneous Trait Transference (STT) is the scientific name for the phenomenon, and how the social component works, according to Ohio State professor John Skowronski and his colleagues is very much like this:
“politicians who allege corruption by their opponents may themselves be perceived as dishonest, critics who praise artists may themselves be perceived as talented, and gossips who describe others’ infidelities may themselves be viewed as immoral.”
What we say about others says more about us than it does about them, especially what we say about our kids.
Apocaholics R Us
As an Apocaholic in some kind of half-baked recovery, I constantly find myself thinking all kinds of bad thoughts these days. One of my recurrent ones is: the Evolutionary Biologists tell us that 99.9999% of all species that have ever lived are currently extinct. Why do we homo sapiens believe we will perpetually remain exempt? The lead-eating Romans of Empire-vintage thought they too, would rule forever.
Often these bad thoughts are in response to research I read: like the hedge funds organized by Michel Milken who apparently colluded to secretly keep an effective prostate cancer treatment off the market while tens of thousands of men got sick and died a painful death (Ironically, Milken himself managed to recover from prostate cancer). This kind of thinking exemplifies Spontaneous Trait Transference at its worst. Well, perhaps not quite. It’s probably worse to think of our kids as little Michael Milken’s in the making.
Mirror, Mirror in my Mind
Spontaneous Trait Transference is probably something that I can recognize and manage when it comes to partners, friends, frauds or kids – even when it comes to those self-centered and independent-minded, smushy-faced kitties, Archie and Lulu (“Who you calling self-centered, smushy-faced and independent-minded? Have you looked in the mirror lately, dude?”). Where I begin to have trouble with STT is when I begin to have it mirrored back to me from my computer and my power tools. I shouldn’t be surprised, really, since I’ve been trained in Sand Tray therapy and have long borne witness to healing as kids worked through grief and loss using STT in the sand box. So I know the phenomenon is real and can be used for good or ill, especially ill. So does sociologist Clifford Nass. In his book,The Man Who Lied to his Laptop, Nass provides all kinds of bizarre anthropomorphizing – people who don’t want to hurt their computer’s “feelings,” kids seduced by a machine that revealed some “vulnerable” information about itself and gets them to reveal more personal information about themselves, and people who rate their machines more pleasant to hang out with than real people. Or like these patients willing to have a robot be their doctor.
What You Think is Who You Are
In order to somewhat skillfully work with Spontaneous Trait Transference and my Apocaholism, I’ve long been a fan of the teachings of Ayya Khema. She is a specialist in training the mind so as to increase optimal Executive Function. One of her guidelines that has stayed with me over many years – probably distorted by my own untrained, smushy-faced, independent-thinking mind – is: Do not think bad thoughts. Catch them before they arise. But if you do think bad thoughts, catch them before you speak them. But if you do speak those bad thoughts, catch yourself, apologize and re-commit to not thinking or speaking bad thoughts in the future. As you might suspect, I’m one of Ayya’s poorer student.
And if you DO suspect that of me, thanks to Spontaneous Trait Transference, I can point my finger at you and know that you’re a bad thought-generating poor student as well! And of course, as Swami Satchidananda likes to point out, whenever I point my finger at you, there are three fingers pointing back at me. And back and forth and back Spontaneous Trait Transference seems to go. Sigh.