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Explaining away our relationships

Does our craving for an explanation hurt romance?

(September 1998 main article)
by Janet L. Jacobsen

Did you know we have a compulsion to explain things, and it goes deeper than just a personality trait? It could be one ofour primary relationship problems.

I heard a program recently on public radio in which a scientist was discussing how the brain works. I was driving when I heard this, so I couldn't take notes, but I think I remember the general gist correctly. (If you're wondering, "Why is she writing about this?!"_stay with us_you've already proved the point.)

Our brain comes in two distinct halves, referred to as the right and left brain. In some people naturally and in some people as treatment for various mental and physical illnesses, the two halves of the brain are separated. In addition, some information comes to each half via the opposite eye.

The two halves of the brain serve somewhat different functions, which overlap in a normal brain, but can be distinctly separate in some split-brain people.   It seems that there is a portion of the brain devoted to "explanation." (It has a cooler name, which I don't remember.)  Scientists, using the effect of giving information via just one eye to a split brained person, would introduce some element to half of the brain, to which the person responded. (As I recall, it was a sign saying, "Please bring a glass of water," and the person would go out of the room to get water.)

Since the explaining part of the brain was not linked to that eye, it didn't have the information on why the person did what they did. But when asked why they had done that, they nevertheless always gave an explanation. ("I was thirsty.")

The conclusion is that we have a natural compulsion to come up with an explanation for events, even when we don't know theexplanation.

Leaping to explanations

Wow. That explains a lot of things! Why did the ancients go to all that trouble of coming up with creation theories, and witches and demons, and constellations? Because they needed an explanation for where the world came from, and why there was disease, and what they were looking at at night, so they came up with explanations. Couldn't help themselves.

We're no better today. Radio talk shows drive me crazy, having people call in with their opinions about things on which they have very little or no information. "The majority agreed that the person that none of us know should go to jail for an act that none of us witnessed, which the police haven't yet investigated." We're willing to leap to conclusions without the benefit of data, just like our ancestors.

There's an area of study of human behavior called "attribution theory," which asks: to what do we attribute other people's behavior and how does that affect our behavior in turn?

I first heard of the theory in relation to a study that included cross-cultural attribution. An immigrant family appreciates the special attention a teacher has given their child and sends a gift to the teacher. The school system has a "no gifts" policy, and the teacher sends the gift back with the child. The immigrant families "attributed" the return to several possible causes, including that the gift wasn't good enough, that the teacher had been insulted by the gift, or that the teacher didn't care about the child after all. None of those things where true, but they were reasonable explanations in the minds of the families involved and therefore true for them.

I know why you did that

So what does this have to do with solving the problems of relationships?

Two issues.

Number one: We seem to feel compelled to explain the other sex. We don't feel any compulsion to explain our own sex, you understand _ everything about us being obvious to ourselves and therefore not in need of explanation. However, when an other sex person does something differently than we might have done ourselves, it calls for an explanation and therefore we tend to lump them all together and explain things as because, "That's the way they are."

Of course, it could be that in fact that is the way just this one of them is, but since we'd have to know all of them (or a large representative sample) to know scientifically that this one is a special case, the easier explanation is, "They're all like that."

(Maybe that's why, as we get older, most folks stereotype less. They've been around long enough to have known enough people to know that this one is not like the others.)

Anyway, that's problem number one. Instead of getting to know the individual members of the other sex and being open to the unique differences between them (and us), we explain them by stereotyping them. It's so much easier, and gives us what we want: an explanation now.

Problem two. In attempting to develop a relationship, we look for explanations for everything they say and everything they do. I think women do more of this than men, but men do it too. It would be all right if we reached tentative conclusions and then waited for more information before we took action, but no, we go right off as if our explanation is the only explanation.

When you look into problems in relationships, often the issue is not so much what a person said or did, but what the other person thought it meant_the explanation they gave it, the attribution. Unfortunately, we can be so attached to our own explanations that we believe them, even based on incomplete or no information, rather than the explanation of the other person.

"Why didn't you call?"

"I got busy and forgot."

"You men are all alike, breaking our hearts!"

Maybe he did just forget, no heart-break intended.

I read a newspaper story about a man who had killed his wife because she joined an aerobics class. He had concluded that this was just the beginning of her leaving him, so he killed her.

Seemed logical to him at the time, I'm sure.

Take your conclusions with a grain of salt

So how does knowing this help, you are wondering.

First, be aware that you are constantly, even involuntarily, creating explanations, whether or not you have any of the facts or any good reason to do so. Then, when confronted with an explanation other than your own, LISTEN. Pay attention! Be open to other possibilities.

Also, do not feel compelled to defend a conclusion that turned out to be incorrect. Given how our brains function, leaping to conclusions as they do, we should probably assume that none of our attributions are correct, and proceed accordingly. (Which brings to mind the saying, "Believe nothing of what you hear and only half of what you see.")

Next, be aware that the other person is "explaining" you to themselves constantly, and are probably wrong, and that doesn't mean they have bad intentions; they just have functioning brains. I've heard people say, "Well, if that's what you think, I'm not going to discuss it." Not exactly the best way to get at the truth, is it?

The more feedback we give each other, the more information we share about our perceptions of a given situation, the better.

And when we ask for information, we can do it from an open mind, even though in there somewhere is our preconceived explanation.

Instead of saying, "You didn't call because you wanted to upset me, didn't you!"_try "I was really distressed that you didn't call. What happened?"

At which point he usually says, "I was supposed to call??"

In for a reality check-up

We also need to remember, as relationships progress, that we have been drawing, and operating on, our conclusions. Some folks, having come up with an explanation, never look back. Based on a first date that went well, they conclude that this is The One and they are headed for Happily Ever After and it's going to take a lot of bad behavior on the other person's part before they are convinced otherwise.

Remember that as a relationship develops, regular reality checks are a good thing. You may be attributing more charm to them than they deserve, pr you may be condemning them more than they deserve.

And by the way, we need to all remember that the explanations we give for our own behavior are probably wrong too. Staying open-minded and checking our explanations against the facts about ourselves is probably the most important lesson of all.