Lessons from Sherlock Holmes Pt.I: Paying Attention to What Isn't There

Pay attention to what isn’t there, not just what is. Absence is just as important and just as telling as presence.

Today, we begin with the first in a brief series of lessons from Sherlock Holmes on the importance of true observation, of using our senses to their fullest potential to be fully mindful as we make our decisions. The first lesson is, perhaps, the most difficult to apply on a regular basis: pay attention to what isn’t there, not just what is. Absence is just as important and just as telling as presence.


The curious incident of the dog in the nighttime: what doesn’t happen matters as much as what does

It is precisely on this distinction that Holmes bases his insight in “Silver Blaze.” When Inspector Gregory asks, “Is there any point to which you would wish to draw my attention?" Holmes responds, “To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time." But, protests the inspector, "The dog did nothing in the night-time." To which Holmes delivers the punch line: "That was the curious incident.”

For Holmes, the absence of barking is the turning point of the case: the dog must have known the intruder. Otherwise, he would have made a fuss.

For us, the absence of barking is something that is all too easy to forget. We don’t even dismiss things that aren’t there; we don’t remark on them to begin with. But often, they are just as telling and just as important—and would make just as much difference to our decisions—as their present counterparts.

How asking what isn’t there can help us make better decisions

Take, for example, a decision to buy something. Some information will be there, right up front. But some will be silent. And marketers have spent countless hours and dollars figuring out how to get you to buy what they want you to buy—and not, perhaps, what you might want to buy for yourself—by presenting the information in a highly strategic way. The tricks are endless (and each one could merit a book chapter on exploiting the irrationalities of our decision making). What you present first, where it is positioned, what it is next to: all of this will influence what you buy.

Numerous studies have illustrated that our brains are quite faulty when it comes to processing information in a way that adequately takes into account what is and isn’t there. We systematically undervalue high probabilities and overvalue low; we confirm what we want to see and discredit what we don’t—and the strategic omission of information plays into every single one of these tendencies. In other words, marketers like to exploit what’s called omission neglect: they omit, we neglect; they win, we lose.

The pantyhose study: strategic presentation of information biases judgment

An effect in isolation can be minor, and not really malicious. Take, for instance, this simple study. In 1977, Nisbett and Wilson ran a series of experiments in a shopping mall. They placed four pairs of pantyhose on a table and asked participants to choose one. In reality, the pairs were identical. However, participants overwhelmingly chose the rightmost pair – and refused to believe the experimenter when told that position might have influenced their choice. The original omission: the pairs were the same. The effect of the mindless choice (i.e., a choice that didn’t really look at the pantyhose to see that they were, in fact, the same): even when told of the omission, in essence leveling the playing field—something not often done in the real world—participants refused to believe it, clinging instead to confirming the choice they had already committed to.

Such minor effects add up and can even mask defects or information that is omitted on purpose because it might detract from the appeal of an item. Your job is to look beyond what is presented and to actually, mindfully interact with it. In a purchase: ask, what aren’t I being told that might be important, even if all the things I am being told are fantastic? Dig deeper and probe for what isn’t there. It’s likely that you actually have more information that you know (in the pantyhose example: your senses should tell you all pairs are identical, and you shouldn’t dismiss that information; in that case, what ‘isn’t there’ is actually right in front of your eyes).

Or, how about a decision to accept a date with someone, or to decide, after a date, whether to go on another one? People present themselves strategically, too. Wouldn’t you want to ask what isn’t there—both what is omitted on purpose and what may not be there at all that you might actually want—and not just focus on what is?

Non-choices are choices, too

Finally, let’s go back to that curious dog. He could have barked or not. He didn’t. One way to look at that is to say, as the inspector does, he did nothing at all. But the other is to say, as Holmes does, that’s not true. He did something. He actively chose not to bark. The result of the two lines of reasoning is identical: a silent dog. But the implications are diametrically opposed: passively doing nothing, or actively doing something.

As I wrote in my first-ever Artful Choice post, non-choices are choices, too. And they are very telling choices at that. Take the well-known default effect: more often than not, we stick to default options and don’t expend the energy to change, even if another option is in fact better for us. It’s simply easier to do nothing. But that’s doesn’t mean we’ve actually not done anything. We have. We’ve chosen, in a way, to remain silent.

Pay attention to it all. Actively engage and never just assume an absence means nothing. While it’s easier by far to assume it doesn’t, or ignore it altogether, easier doesn’t mean better, especially when it comes to your own, personal decisions.

[image credit:Sherlock Holmes revealing the murderer of the trainer, John Straker From "The Adventure of Silver Blaze" By Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, originally published in Strand Magazine in 1892, Sidney Paget]

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Freud is renowned, but his ideas are ill-substantiated

The Oedipal complex, repressed memories, penis envy? Sigmund Freud's ideas are far-reaching, but few have withstood the onslaught of empirical evidence.

Mind & Brain
  • Sigmund Freud stands alongside Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein as one of history's best-known scientists.
  • Despite his claim of creating a new science, Freud's psychoanalysis is unfalsifiable and based on scant empirical evidence.
  • Studies continue to show that Freud's ideas are unfounded, and Freud has come under scrutiny for fabricating his most famous case studies.

Few thinkers are as celebrated as Sigmund Freud, a figure as well-known as Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein. Neurologist and the founder of psychoanalysis, Freud's ideas didn't simply shift the paradigms in academia and psychotherapy. They indelibly disseminated into our cultural consciousness. Ideas like transference, repression, the unconscious iceberg, and the superego are ubiquitous in today's popular discourse.

Despite this renown, Freud's ideas have proven to be ill-substantiated. Worse, it is now believed that Freud himself may have fabricated many of his results, opportunistically disregarding evidence with the conscious aim of promoting preferred beliefs.

"[Freud] really didn't test his ideas," Harold Takooshian, professor of psychology at Fordham University, told ATI. "He was just very persuasive. He said things no one said before, and said them in such a way that people actually moved from their homes to Vienna and study with him."

Unlike Darwin and Einstein, Freud's brand of psychology presents the impression of a scientific endeavor but ultimately lack two of vital scientific components: falsification and empirical evidence.

Psychoanalysis

Freud's therapeutic approach may be unfounded, but at least it was more humane than other therapies of the day. In 1903, this patient is being treated in "auto-conduction cage" as a part of his electrotherapy. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

The discipline of psychotherapy is arguably Freud's greatest contribution to psychology. In the post-World War II era, psychoanalysis spread through Western academia, influencing not only psychotherapy but even fields such as literary criticism in profound ways.

The aim of psychoanalysis is to treat mental disorders housed in the patient's psyche. Proponents believe that such conflicts arise between conscious thoughts and unconscious drives and manifest as dreams, blunders, anxiety, depression, or neurosis. To help, therapists attempt to unearth unconscious desires that have been blocked by the mind's defense mechanisms. By raising repressed emotions and memories to the conscious fore, the therapist can liberate and help the patient heal.

That's the idea at least, but the psychoanalytic technique stands on shaky empirical ground. Data leans heavily on a therapist's arbitrary interpretations, offering no safe guards against presuppositions and implicit biases. And the free association method offers not buttress to the idea of unconscious motivation.

Don't get us wrong. Patients have improved and even claimed to be cured thanks to psychoanalytic therapy. However, the lack of methodological rigor means the division between effective treatment and placebo effect is ill-defined.

Repressed memories

Sigmund Freud, circa 1921. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Nor has Freud's concept of repressed memories held up. Many papers and articles have been written to dispel the confusion surrounding repressed (aka dissociated) memories. Their arguments center on two facts of the mind neurologists have become better acquainted with since Freud's day.

First, our memories are malleable, not perfect recordings of events stored on a biological hard drive. People forget things. Childhood memories fade or are revised to suit a preferred narrative. We recall blurry gists rather than clean, sharp images. Physical changes to the brain can result in loss of memory. These realities of our mental slipperiness can easily be misinterpreted under Freud's model as repression of trauma.

Second, people who face trauma and abuse often remember it. The release of stress hormones imprints the experience, strengthening neural connections and rendering it difficult to forget. It's one of the reasons victims continue to suffer long after. As the American Psychological Association points out, there is "little or no empirical support" for dissociated memory theory, and potential occurrences are a rarity, not the norm.

More worryingly, there is evidence that people are vulnerable to constructing false memories (aka pseudomemories). A 1996 study found it could use suggestion to make one-fifth of participants believe in a fictitious childhood memory in which they were lost in a mall. And a 2007 study found that a therapy-based recollection of childhood abuse "was less likely to be corroborated by other evidence than when the memories came without help."

This has led many to wonder if the expectations of psychoanalytic therapy may inadvertently become a self-fulfilling prophecy with some patients.

"The use of various dubious techniques by therapists and counselors aimed at recovering allegedly repressed memories of [trauma] can often produce detailed and horrific false memories," writes Chris French, a professor of psychology at Goldsmiths, University of London. "In fact, there is a consensus among scientists studying memory that traumatic events are more likely to be remembered than forgotten, often leading to post-traumatic stress disorder."

The Oedipal complex

The Blind Oedipus Commending His Children to the Gods by Benigne Gagneraux. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

During the phallic stage, children develop fierce erotic feelings for their opposite-sex parent. This desire, in turn, leads them to hate their same-sex parent. Boys wish to replace their father and possess their mother; girls become jealous of their mothers and desire their fathers. Since they can do neither, they repress those feelings for fear of reprisal. If unresolved, the complex can result in neurosis later in life.

That's the Oedipal complex in a nutshell. You'd think such a counterintuitive theory would require strong evidence to back it up, but that isn't the case.

Studies claiming to prove the Oedipal complex look to positive sexual imprinting — that is, the phenomenon in which people choose partners with physical characteristics matching their same-sex parent. For example, a man's wife and mother have the same eye color, or woman's husband and father sport a similar nose.

But such studies don't often show strong correlation. One study reporting "a correction of 92.8 percent between the relative jaw width of a man's mother and that of [his] mates" had to be retracted for factual errors and incorrect analysis. Studies showing causation seem absent from the literature, and as we'll see, the veracity of Freud's own case studies supporting the complex is openly questioned today.

Better supported, yet still hypothetical, is the Westermarck effect. Also called reverse sexual imprinting, the effect predicts that people develop a sexual aversion to those they grow up in close proximity with, as a mean to avoid inbreeding. The effect isn't just shown in parents and siblings; even step-siblings will grow sexual averse to each other if they grow up from early childhood.

An analysis published in Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology evaluated the literature on human mate choice. The analysis found little evidence for positive imprinting, citing study design flaws and an unwillingness of researchers to seek alternative explanations. In contrast, it found better support for negative sexual imprinting, though it did note the need for further research.

The Freudian slip

Mark notices Deborah enter the office whistling an upbeat tune. He turns to his coworker to say, "Deborah's pretty cheery this morning," but accidentally blunders, "Deborah's pretty cherry this morning." Simple slip up? Not according to Freud, who would label this a parapraxis. Today, it's colloquially known as a "Freudian slip."

"Almost invariably I discover a disturbing influence from something outside of the intended speech," Freud wrote in The Psychopathology of Everyday Life. "The disturbing element is a single unconscious thought, which comes to light through the special blunder."

In the Freudian view, Mark's mistaken word choice resulted from his unconscious desire for Deborah, as evident by the sexually-charged meanings of the word "cherry." But Rob Hartsuiker, a psycholinguist from Ghent University, says that such inferences miss the mark by ignoring how our brains process language.

According to Hartsuiker, our brains organize words by similarity and meaning. First, we must select the word in that network and then process the word's sounds. In this interplay, all sorts of conditions can prevent us from grasping the proper phonemes: inattention, sleepiness, recent activation, and even age. In a study co-authored by Hartsuiker, brain scans showed our minds can recognize and correct for taboo utterances internally.

"This is very typical, and it's also something Freud rather ignored," Hartsuiker told BBC. He added that evidence for true Freudian slips is scant.

Freud's case studies

Sergej Pankejeff, known as the "Wolf Man" in Freud's case study, claimed that Freud's analysis of his condition was "propaganda."

It's worth noting that there is much debate as to the extent that Freud falsified his own case studies. One famous example is the case of the "Wolf Man," real name Sergej Pankejeff. During their sessions, Pankejeff told Freud about a dream in which he was lying in bed and saw white wolves through an open window. Freud interpreted the dream as the manifestation of a repressed trauma. Specifically, he claimed that Pankejeff must have witnessed his parents in coitus.

For Freud this was case closed. He claimed Pankejeff successfully cured and his case as evidence for psychoanalysis's merit. Pankejeff disagreed. He found Freud's interpretation implausible and said that Freud's handling of his story was "propaganda." He remained in therapy on and off for over 60 years.

Many of Freud's other case studies, such "Dora" and "the Rat Man" cases, have come under similar scrutiny.

Sigmund Freud and his legacy

Freud's ideas may not live up to scientific inquiry, but their long shelf-life in film, literature, and criticism has created some fun readings of popular stories. Sometimes a face is just a face, but that face is a murderous phallic symbol. (Photo: Flickr)

Of course, there are many ideas we've left out. Homosexuality originating from arrested sexual development in anal phase? No way. Freudian psychosexual development theory? Unfalsifiable. Women's penis envy? Unfounded and insulting. Men's castration anxiety? Not in the way Freud meant it.

If Freud's legacy is so ill-informed, so unfounded, how did he and his cigars cast such a long shadow over the 20th century? Because there was nothing better to offer at the time.

When Freud came onto the scene, neurology was engaged in a giddy free-for-all. As New Yorker writer Louis Menand points out, the era's treatments included hypnosis, cocaine, hydrotherapy, female castration, and institutionalization. By contemporary standards, it was a horror show (as evident by these "treatments" featuring so prominently in our horror movies).

Psychoanalysis offered a comparably clement and humane alternative. "Freud's theories were like a flashlight in a candle factory," anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann told Menand.

But Freud and his advocates triumph his techniques as a science, and this is wrong. The empirical evidence for his ideas is limited and arbitrary, and his conclusions are unfalsifiable. The theory that explains every possible outcome explains none of them.

With that said, one might consider Freud's ideas to be a proto-science. As astrology heralded astronomy, and alchemy preceded chemistry, so to did Freud's psychoanalysis popularize psychology, paving the way for its more rapid development as a scientific discipline. But like astrology and alchemy, we should recognize Freud's ideas as the historic artifacts they are.

Photo by Alina Grubnyak on Unsplash
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