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Brian Burke: About Your Divorce (Letter 147) — Identify Heuristic You Learned as Child

Oblique Strategy #41 — “I before E except after C” except as in “science,” “weird” and about 60 other words, including some for which the heuristic does and does not work. It’s a bad “rule,” but it’s a pretty good “hint.” What other ‘rules of thumb’ have you learned and abandoned?

The term “heuristic” is often explained as a “rule of thumb.” I discovered it in 1998 when I heard about the academic discipline called “decisional science,” which interested me enough to get a couple of its foundational texts.

One of them, called Thinking and Deciding, by Jonathan Baron, attributes the use of the term to a Stanford mathematician named George Polya. Polya’s project during the 1940s was the creation of a general methodology for solving problems in a variety of mathematical fields.

Polya’s method called for deliberate, self-conscious use of heuristics, or “working assumptions,” by someone who understands that those working assumptions could be false.

I’ve mentioned the 2002 Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman and his book, Thinking, Fast and Slow (2011), in this column before.

Baron cites a dozen scientific articles written by Kahneman between 1972 and 1992. Some of those articles acknowledge the importance and usefulness of heuristics, while also identifying them as a source of bias that may lead to bad decisions.

Polya prescribed the use of heuristics that resulted in explicit [known and recognized] bias, while Kahneman recognized that the way humans use heuristics in decision-making can result in implicit bias — a kind of unconscious prejudice.

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Divorce involves change. Change in thinking is required to work through impasses.

Impasses are frustrating and sometimes frightening. But, when encountered, they provide — sometimes compel — a change in the way you think. Thinking originates in fundamental ideas (abstract) and beliefs (concrete “facts”).

One way to think about the way you think is to identify some of the “heuristics” you’ve been using for as long as you can remember. This is sometimes called a “second order” exercise; first order is thinking and second order is thinking about thinking.

Thinking about thinking is also described as “going meta.”

After explaining what I mean by “heuristics,” I’ve asked clients if they have identified and changed a “heuristic” during the course of their divorce. Here are 10 answers I’ve received:

1. I’m a bad speller and was delighted when one client said: “The rule – heuristic – I learned in elementary school — I before E except after C or when sounded as a as in neighbor or weigh — is meant to make bad spellers very bad spellers.

"When we realize what the rule has done, it subverts our willingness to obey any rules. Consider: science, vein, weird, ancient, their, heir, species ...” His list went on and on. Finally he said, “It’s no doubt turning kids into anarchists.”

2. Treat other people as you want to be treated yourself. This is a pedestrian version of the Golden Rule from the Sermon on the Mount. It’s one of the major foundation premises of Western morality.

My client said she had come to believe it was for a “poor man’s ethical system.” After she took and considered the MBTI, she felt comfortable in her assigned type, which included less than one percent of the population.

But if she treated others as she wanted to be treated, she would not treat 99 percent of the population as they wanted to be treated. She said she had a lot of work to do to try to understand how the preferences of others differed from her own.

3. You can do or be anything you want. My client had been hearing this her entire life, and she rejected it in her mid-40s. She said, “For a long time I got confused and thought they (various members of my family) were saying I could do or be anything I wanted to be at the same time.

"I jumped from one major to the other in college and started and transferred from three graduate programs. I can do a lot of things, but only one at a time, and damn it, there are a lot of things I can’t do or would never do well, and I need to stay away from them."

4. If I get into serious difficulty, my dad can sort it out. My client, a man of about 45 said, “It took me a long time to realize I believed this was true, probably because I always tried hard to please my father.

"I started to realize I was carrying around this belief when I was about 40. When I realized this is what I believed, I qualified it by adding, ‘He could fix it, but he’d add so many strings and conditions that I would rather take the consequences than enlist his help.’

"That was just an interim step before I realized that my dad can’t fix anything important to me. It’s my life and not his. In fact, the things I’m likely to have the most trouble with are probably things that still challenge him. I’m not a daddy’s boy and I’m not going to live like one.’”

5. Revenge is best served cold. The client said, “I like the fantasy of revenge. I read The Count of Monte Cristo in Vietnam. The injury is so deep, and the consequences dealt back to the villains are so sweet, that it could be the best revenge story ever.

"The ending, however, leaves the reader in a state of cognitive dissonance. For Dantés to have his revenge against the worst villain, Fernand, he would have to injure Mercédès, the one person in the world he loves. It ruins the idea.

"Much later, I read about relatives of murder victims who observe the execution of the person convicted of the crime. It’s absolute revenge, which would haunt me for the rest of my life.

"Honestly, I harbored ideas of revenge as a part of this divorce, but that’s nonsense. It comes from a part of me I don’t want to nurture.”

6. What goes around comes around. “This might be a good thing to believe — to have faith in — because 1) you would not do harmful things if you expected a consequence and 2) you believe that others will suffer a consequence if they wrong you.

"It’s a nice idea, but it isn’t true. People get away with really bad stuff – and it happens all the time. It’s sad but true.”

7. If you don’t do it right, don’t do it at all. “This is the curse of the perfectionist. It can cause you to do nothing, or it can cause you to spend far too much time and energy trying to ‘get it right’ when ‘good enough’ is enough.”

8. I’ll believe it when I see it. This client realized she was more likely to: “See it when I believe it.” This is an encapsulated version of the confirmation bias in action. When we believe something is true, we attend to the information that supports our opinion and disregard information that doesn’t support our opinion.

9. I know what I know turned into, “I don’t even know what I don’t know.” This turned into skepticism about the ability to determine what facts are.

10. If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. “For me,” my client explained, “this gave way to, ‘Insanity is doing the same thing over and over, expecting a different result.’”

Next column: Oblique Strategy #42 — Identify a heuristic you’ve learned during divorce.

— Brian H. Burke is a certified family law specialist practicing family law and mediation in Santa Barbara. A researcher and educator in the field of divorce and family conflicts, he is also the creator of the Legal Road Map™. Click here for more information, call 805.965.2888 or e-mail [email protected]. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.

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