Filtering Out the Irrelevant Garbage
What animals can show us about how to feel less rotten about ourselves.
Posted November 6, 2019
Predictability can be a tricky thing. We all look for predictability in our lives to help us feel safe. And we all look for predictability to make us feel adequate. If we know what to expect then we feel like we can make sense of the world.
Humans look for patterns in our environments. This helps us feel that there is predictability because we can group things together in ways that make sense—or at least in ways that “seem” to make sense. Just because we seem to see a pattern in how things relate does not mean that they “actually” group together in any sort of meaningful way.
Having a need for predictability is at the very heart of our human development. Humans and animals share this need. Animals also look for predictability in their environments. Animals’ survival in often hostile environments depends on them being able to find patterns for predicting what will happen. This allows them to prepare for what they need to do and how they need to react in different situations. In fact, being able to learn different aspects of their environments and use that information for handling future situations is at the heart of what can look like very high-level consciousness in animals (Wechsler, 2019).
Our need for predictability can cause problems for humans just as much as it can create a sense of safety. When animals look for predictability they look for patterns of how and when things occur. But animals tend to focus only on what is necessary for their survival. They tend to factor out much that is irrelevant to their immediate needs. This may sound very limiting, but it actually has quite an impact on animals being able to function effectively. By focusing only on what is needed for learning about their environments, animals filter out material that simply confuses their understanding of what is happening. They seek out what is actually important information for predictability rather than assuming that everything they take in helps them understand important patterns.
Humans don’t always do this. We actually take in and process a whole lot more information about what is going on around us than animals do. But much of that information is unnecessary. Taking in information that is irrelevant to what we need for understanding our environments leads us to make some very bad decisions. We see connections between different information that we take in that are not really useful connections. That is because we assume that what we take in “must” be important and part of some pattern. But that is not true: Much of what we take in is irrelevant to any decisions we need to make.
One very good example of irrelevant information we take in is negative comments from other people. People say a lot of negative things to us and much of it is not really based on their understanding of anything important. Someone saying to you “look out for that chair” is useful, because you would have reason to expect that they might be able to see something specific from their perspective that you do not see. But someone saying “you’re an idiot” is actually something that you have no reason to expect they actually understand. There rarely would be a reason to expect that someone would know enough about you to actually make an accurate judgment about whether you are an “idiot” or not. The reason to ignore their statement is not because it is negative. It is something to ignore because it is likely irrelevant. Their statement is just some words that really have no connection to the person actually knowing anything about you or your abilities. It is a statement that has no usefulness for understanding anything important about your world.
One of the reasons why negative input from other people becomes so much of a distraction is that the negative things people say are only words. There is rarely any way that we can gauge how much weight should be given to those words. Animals respond to words but usually only when they are in the form of some brief instruction. They are not impacted by statements indicating any sort of judgment about their quality as an animal. Even a statement like “good boy” is usually only useful as a reinforcer of positive behaviors rather than some measure of the dog’s qualities or abilities.
In this way, animals are not distracted by useful and irrelevant material that often impacts humans. Someone calling you “stupid” is not necessarily someone who would know whether you are “stupid” today or not. But we often take in what people are saying simply because they say it to us and say it with such authority that we have reason (or think we have reason) to listen to them.
This is all an example of how unnecessary information tends to have a considerable impact on what happens to us and on the judgments we have about ourselves and our abilities. Rather than focus only on necessary information that gives us a real understanding of what is going on, we tend to give weight to a lot of information coming at us. This includes negative statements and negative reactions from other people that may not actually be material we should be giving any weight or consideration.
A lot of this comes about because we have a need to feel like we understand what is happening in our environment. As a way of a feeling that we can predict and understand what is going on we take in a lot of information and then try to group it together in some sort of pattern. What we really should be doing is simply canceling out a lot of information that is unnecessary.
This is actually more like what animals do in that they will not give any weight to material that is unnecessary to their survival. They do not judge such material as good or bad. They just simply ignore it as unnecessary. This is something that may seem like an example of animals functioning on a more basic level than humans but it actually is a much more effective way of taking in information.
What can be useful to keep in mind here is that just because information is coming at you does not mean that it is relevant or even necessary. Words can just be words and they do not necessarily reflect that the person saying those words has anything particularly useful to contribute. Being able to cancel out information that is not relevant and particularly helpful for you is an important skill to help with getting a real understanding of what is going on.
Helping people who feel negatively about themselves often involves helping them filter out negative statements that have no particular relevance. It is not that you look to convince them that the negative things other people say are right or wrong but, rather, that what they say is probably irrelevant. Very often people who are the most depressed or anxious have a strong need to feel like everything that they take in has some particular relevance to understanding themselves and understanding what they should be doing. But the reality is that most of the information that we take in is not particularly relevant for helping us understand more about ourselves.
Very often the best way to handle negative thinking is to consider it as just words that do not necessarily reflect important information that needs to be processed. When someone says something to you that suggests a negative impression of who you are or of your abilities it is useful to keep in mind that person very likely does not know enough about you to make any sort of evaluation. Considering that what they say are just words that do not need processed way can be helpful in being able to discard the words as irrelevant.
Finding predictability in our environment is important. But often what we also need to learn is what information to discard so as to understand what we need for accurate predictions. This is something animals do very effectively for survival and something that can be very useful for us all to learn.
Wechsler, B. (2019). Three levels of consciousness: A pattern in phylogeny and human ontogeny. International Journal of Comparative Psychology, 32.