The Filtering Phenomenon
When unfavorable things happen back-to-back or repeatedly it’s easy to get discouraged and begin to look at the world through a pessimistic lens or filter. Filtering
is a cognitive distortion, or unhealthy way of thinking, that skews how a person views the world and causes everything to be perceived from a negative bias.
Life experiences go through a sieve that withholds the good and only what is negative comes out and is brought to one’s attention. Common everyday examples include:
Getting angry with your child when he or she generally gets good grades, but slips up and gets a poor grade.
Becoming upset with a friend, who is generally reliable and kind, when they make a mistake.
When a person has a history of trauma, an internalized filter can be even more painful than it is for the average person. Traumatic events leave bigger impressions on the mind and body and cut into the soul in a deeper way. Some of these examples include:
A person might generally have good relationships, but after a rape begins to fear that most people are out to hurt him/her because danger seems to present everywhere.
Someone who was physically attacked because of their religion may begin to think all negative interactions with others have to do with their faith, although most experiences in their day-to-day life are neutral or positive.
Over time, the filtered thoughts develop into more intricate frameworks, which impact how the overall environment is experienced. A filter blocks positive stimuli and allows only the negative to come through. This filter, along with each person’s individual temperament, experiences and circumstances lead to the development of biases. Biases are patterns of thinking that form over a period of time and impact how the world is seen.
Some of these biases include:
Failure is inevitable regardless of hard work or effort—therefore, there is no point in trying.
Humans are selfish, and you should never let your guard down because people will hurt you.
Humans are unreliable and you can’t depend on family and friends for anything.
Patience is the best recourse no matter what, even if others hurt or abuse you.
When more than one person hurts you it’s because there is something wrong with you and not them.
It’s better to be with others who hurt you than to be by yourself.
Once a filter and biases are in place it can be difficult to break free from those thought patterns. These cognitive and emotional biases are like colored glasses and can affect how we see everything unfolding in our lives, ultimately influencing our decision-making. Before we delve into how biases affect our decision-making let’s discuss why or how people form filters and biases in the first place.
Contributors to the Development of Filters & Biases
Disappointment is uncomfortable, and sometimes very painful. When a person is let down often, whether through events or people in their life, the healthy thing to do is to adjust expectations, try something new, or view the situation differently. Another option is to stop expecting good things to happen altogether—this prevents future disappointment since one is not hopeful that good things will happen in the first place. The logic is: If I don’t expect good things to happen to me, then I won’t be be disappointed when I don’t succeed or good things don’t come my way. This unhealthy and maladaptive way of looking at the world is initially developed to protect oneself; however, long-term it does much more harm than good. Over time, this way of thinking builds deep-rooted pessimism and a very reactive (instead of proactive) way of addressing concerns.
Parents, teachers, and caregivers play major roles in how we view and interact with the world. When we have role models who are pessimistic or have unhealthy ways of looking at things, we are susceptible to internalizing the same ways of thinking. Let’s take a very common example of striving for good grades. Imagine a child who worked hard all quarter to get good grades. This child did their homework, tried their best in class, and looked forward to their report card coming home to show their parents. This child turned out to be successful in making the honor roll with all As and one B. They are excited and happy with the results of their hard work, but when they show the report card to their parent, the first thing the parent says is, “Why do you have that B?” This unexpected reaction instantly deflates the child’s pride in their hard work over the course of weeks in just seconds. This reaction not only teaches a child to focus on negatives and shortcomings, but that their efforts, feelings, and thoughts are not valid or valuable. When a child thinks or feels something only to have an adult say their experience is wrong (not just about school but any life experience) it creates self-doubt, anxiety and a lack of security.
A study conducted by Todd et al. in 2013 suggests the inclination for pessimism may be partially genetically based. Researchers are exploring whether a person’s genetic makeup may make them more susceptible to perceiving the glass as half empty. If this is the case, then individuals with this gene may have to try a little harder than others to practice looking on the brighter side of things.
Implications of Having a Negative Filter
According to cognitive behavioral theory, thoughts impact our feelings, which in turn influence how we behave, ultimately having big implications for our filters and potential biases. If a person has a skewed way of thinking about the world, whether through a particular filter or bias, it’s inevitable that feelings and behavior in that subject area will be affected as well. If someone thinks they will not succeed, they will feel as though they have already failed, and will not take the appropriate steps to become successful. As a consequence, they will not be successful. This is called a self-fulfilling prophecy.
There are two kinds of self fulfilling prophecies: self-imposed and ones imposed by others (also known as the Pygmalion effect). Self-imposed prophecies are internal, coming from within ourselves and can be about ourselves or about other people. If a man thinks all women are irrational, he will behave in ways that will substantiate this through his interactions with women; he will speak to women in a condescending and offensive manner and will interpret their responses as irrational when they get upset, ultimately validating his initial perception. Similarly, if a woman thinks poorly about herself, she will interact with others in a way that will eventually cause them to view her in the same light, thereby substantiating her low-self esteem (e.g., she will be overly critical of herself when speaking with others).
The Pygmalion Effect occurs when a person behaves in ways that meet others’ expectations of them. In the famous Rosenthal and Jacobson (1966) study, researchers described certain students as “ready to bloom” and realize their potential.
Unbeknownst to their teachers, the students were labeled in this way at random, rather than based on their intellectual abilities. Students believed to be on the verge of academic success by their teachers performed in accordance with these expectations as seen by substantial gains in their IQ at the end of the study. Students not labeled as “ready to bloom” did not have similar IQ gains. Further research has supported the conclusion that teachers’ expectations can have a substantial effect on students’ academic performance due to children fulfilling the expectations of those around them—in essence, a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Beginning to Change a Filter or Bias
Once you have identified a negative filter and unhealthy biases, it’s important to look at what learned responses you have developed as a result of your cognitions. If you are seeing a pattern in life problems or interpersonal conflict, meaning the same problem keeps coming up in different ways, it’s important to not just reflect on the biases contributing to your thoughts, but your learned behavior as well.
Why do certain people end up being in the same situation over and over again? Why do some women keep finding themselves in abusive relationships? Why do some men keep losing their jobs over and over? Why are some families in one financial hardship after another? Most of the time these situations do not happen coincidentally, but due to a negative filter and learned maladaptive patterns of behavior. Let’s look at some theories as to why we subconsciously (not fully aware) or unconsciously (completely unaware) find ourselves in the same predicaments over and over again.