In the movie “Cast Away,” Tom Hanks portrays a character who, upon being stranded on an island for several years, forms a deep relationship with a volleyball. The depth of this connection is hugely disproportional to the objective nature of the object in question. A volleyball is quite incapable of interactive communication, however strong a desire exists during a game to be able to do so. Despite this fact of reality, Hanks’s character draws a face on the ball and proceeds to converse with it, forming a bond that, when the ball is lost at sea, results in profound emotional pain. Whatever can be said about this Hollywood depiction of human psychology, the need to have relationship bonds is something we all share due to our inalienable humanity. Further, that need can and will, when unfulfilled, push us to project a connection that exists only in our imagination, even to our detriment.
Research out of Dartmouth College, published in Psychological Science, notes that a belief in loneliness or isolation lowers the threshold at which people declare the presence of animation or humanity in slowly morphing facial images. Confronted with the same progressively morphing images, those who believed they possessed secure attachments required far more human features in the morphing images before declaring they were alive. The alarming part of this was that typically people are far more cautious when declaring the existence of a face being animate or alive. The strength of this finding is that regardless of the people’s real-life relational world, the mere projected belief that such was absent caused this caution to diminish. This says a great deal about how powerful the stories we tell shape our perceptions.
What is not explored are the ramifications for negatively impacting the ability to discern the existence of empathy in others. Empathy is the felt feel of another’s experience. It is the grounding, combined with imagination, of the ability to be conscientious of another’s suffering and react accordingly. Generally speaking, the existence of empathy is negatively associated with behavior that is harmful or negatively impacts another. Further, empathy and its accompanying imaginative component combine to create a resonance or atunement within a relational context. Not being able to sense the depth of someone’s empathy can lead to catastrophic results including abuse, neglect and falsely associating a positive feel to a relationship form that is anything but.
The Relational Principles of RDIIT (Relational Dynamics In Identity) I’ve developed, help in broadening the understanding of human relational reality. In this case, two Principles concern the subjective nature of perspective and how relationship is the foundation of our existence. Put together, these lead to a recognition that our relationships form out of the contextual nature of the stories we embody. From this, the practical result in everyday living is that our relationships are only as honest, open and beneficial as the breadth of our stories allows. At face value this may not seem all that big of a deal, but when relationship is considered as the foundation of our existence the ripple effects are indeed enormous. There is never a moment in our lives that we are not in relationship to something or someone. While it is socially acceptable, even mandated at times, to speak of relationship as only pertaining to the romantic and/or sexual, the fact remains that as a general term for a connection between two objects, we are always in relationship. All that changes is the form such takes.
Let’s bring this back to the research. Regardless of objective reality, the mere projected story of loneliness or lack of emotional attachment leads people to see human-ness in faces where few real characteristics are actually present. When it comes to judging empathy, when it comes to determining the safety or care that another person is giving, the accuracy of such judgment becomes less and less as we do so from a place of loss or lack. The question of “how did I not see it?” in relation to abuse, neglect, or the myriad iniquities that occur in our relational lives is here answered. We don’t see it because of the story we are living from within.
Caveats are plenty of course, notably that our personal stories are not the only variable involved when it comes to falling for unhealthy relationship forms. That there are many aspects of any context is simply a part of living, but with each variable being better understood we become better at constructing the lives that lead to growth and expansion of our selves. The rush of a new relationship bond is certainly not helpful in allowing the cool quality of rationality to intrude, but by reminding ourselves of the reality of our relational existence and the power of our stories, we can begin being more careful in our decision-making when dwelling in narratives that lead us astray.
© David Teachout