Here’s some interesting new insight into the human mind: first perceptions are even harder to overcome than most people had realized. According to research conducted on an international scale, our first impression of a person, place or idea becomes our brain’s default perception. If we later learn information that contradicts that perception, our brain categorizes it as an exception, rather than using the information to alter the rule. Specifically, we associate the exception with the context of that new information; all other contexts get the ‘default’ association. Say, for example, your first impression of a new coworker is negative, but you end up having a pleasant conversation when you run into him or her at the gym and change your mind. In the context of the gym, you’ll see the person more positively, but anywhere else (be it work, or even a new environment such as a restaurant), you’ll still be guided by your first impression.
This insight is especially interesting for therapists and counselors who help clients overcome phobias, said lead author Bertram Gawronski. “If someone with phobic reactions to spiders is seeking help from a psychologist, the therapy will be much more successful if it occurs in multiple different contexts rather than just in the psychologist’s office.” A similar pattern may be relevant for people struggling with profound anxiety and even PTSD. Learning healthy coping strategies in the therapist’s office can be helpful, but the idea of concept-based perception may explain why people sometimes feel less confident in their ability to apply those strategies in their daily life.
Marriage and family therapists can also gain insight from this research. It’s not uncommon for struggling couples to try and ‘fix’ their problems by taking a trip, moving into a new home, or adopting a new pet. It could be that by doing this, they’re trying to create a new context with a new dynamic, one that will ‘stick.’ But it’s still the exception, not the rule. So to really heal, we need to override and rewrite the default by dismantling it and replacing it with something healthier. It’s certainly possible, but it takes more time and patience than simply trying something new does.
© Copyright 2011 by By Noah Rubinstein, LMFT, LMHC, therapist in Olympia, Washington. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.
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