Pain Is the Universal Constant
One by one, the researchers shuttled the subjects down a hall and into a small room. Inside was a single beige computer console with a blank screen and two buttons, and nothing else. The instructions were simple: sit, stare at the screen, and if a blue dot flashes on it, press the button that reads, “Blue.” If a purple dot flashes on the screen, press the button that reads, “Not Blue.” Sounds easy, right? Well, each subject had to look at a thousand dots. Yes, a thousand. And when a subject finished, the researchers brought in another subject and repeated the process: beige console, blank screen, a thousand dots. Next! This went on with hundreds of subjects at multiple universities. Were these psychologists researching a new form of psychological torture? Was this an experiment into the limitations of human boredom? No. Actually, the scope of the study was matched only by its inanity. It was a study with seismic implications, because more than any other academic study in recent memory, it explains much of what we see happening in the world today. The psychologists were researching something they would call “prevalenceinduced concept change.” But because that’s an absolutely awful name, for our purposes, I will refer to their discovery as the “Blue Dot Effect.” Here’s the deal with the dots: Most of them were blue. Some of them were purple. Some of them were some shade in between blue and purple. The researchers discovered that when they showed mostly blue dots, everyone was pretty accurate in determining which dots were blue and which ones were not. But as soon as the researchers started limiting the number of blue dots, and showing more shades of purple, the subjects began to mistake purple dots for blue. It seemed that their eyes distorted the colors and continued to seek a certain number of blue dots, no matter how many were actually shown. Okay, big deal, right? People mis-see stuff all the time. And besides, when you’re staring at dots for hours on end, you might start to go cross-eyed and see all sorts of weird shit. But the blue dots weren’t the point; they were merely a way to measure how humans warp their perceptions to fit their expectations. Once the researchers had enough data on blue dots to put their lab assistants into a coma, they moved on to more important perceptions. For example: next, the researchers showed the subjects pictures of faces that were some degree of threatening, friendly, or neutral. Initially, they showed them a large number of threatening faces. But as the experiment went on, as with the blue dots, they showed fewer and fewer — and the same effect occurred: the fewer threatening faces subjects were shown, the more the subjects began to misread friendly and neutral faces as being threatening. In the same way that the human mind seemed to have a “preset” number of blue dots it expected to see, it also had a preset number of threatening faces it expected to see. Then the researchers went even further, because — fuck it, why not? It’s one thing to see threats where there are none, but what about moral judgments? What about believing there’s more evil in the world than there actually is? This time, the researchers had the subjects read job proposals. Some of these proposals were unethical, involving some shady shit. Some proposals were totally innocuous and fine. Others were some gradation in between. Once again, the researchers began by showing a mix of ethical and unethical proposals, and the subjects were told to keep an eye out for unethical proposals. Then, slowly, the researchers exposed people to fewer and fewer unethical proposals. As they did, the Blue Dot Effect kicked in. People began to interpret completely ethical proposals as being unethical. Rather than noticing that more proposals were showing up on the ethical side of the fence, people’s minds moved the fence itself to maintain the perception that a certain number of proposals and requests were unethical. Basically, they redefined what was unethical without being consciously aware of doing so. As the researchers noted, this bias has incredibly upsetting implications for . . . well, pretty much everything. Governmental committees designed to oversee regulations, when provided with a dearth of infractions, may start to perceive infractions where there are none. Task forces designed to check unethical practices within organizations will, when deprived of bad guys to accuse of wrongdoing, begin imagining bad guys where there are none. The Blue Dot Effect suggests that, essentially, the more we look for threats, the more we will see them, regardless of how safe or comfortable our environment actually is. And we see this playing out in the world today. It used to be that being the victim of violence meant somebody had physically harmed you. Today, many people have begun to use the word violence to describe words that made them feel uncomfortable, or even just the presence of a person they disliked. Trauma used to mean specifically an experience so severe that the victim could not continue to function. Today, an unpleasant social encounter or a few offensive words are considered “trauma,” and necessitate “safe spaces.” Genocide used to mean the physical mass murder of a certain ethnic or religious group. Today, the term white genocide is employed by some to lament the fact that the local diner now lists some of its menu items in Spanish. This is the Blue Dot Effect. The better things get, the more we perceive threats where there are none, and the more upset we become. And it is at the heart of the paradox of progress. In the nineteenth century, Emile Durkheim, the founder of sociology and an early pioneer of the social sciences, ran a thought experiment in one of his books: What if there were no crime? What if there emerged a society where everyone was perfectly respectful and nonviolent and everyone was equal? What if no one lied or hurt each other? What if corruption did not exist? What would happen? Would conflict cease? Would stress evaporate? Would everyone frolic in fields picking daisies and singing the “Hallelujah” chorus from Handel’s Messiah? Durkheim said no, that in fact the opposite would happen. He suggested that the more comfortable and ethical a society became, the more that small indiscretions would become magnified in our minds. If everyone stopped killing each other, we wouldn’t necessarily feel good about it. We’d just get equally upset about the more minor stuff. Developmental psychology has long argued something similar: that protecting people from problems or adversity doesn’t make them happier or more secure; it makes them more easily insecure. A young person who has been sheltered from dealing with any challenges or injustices growing up will come to find the slightest inconveniences of adult life intolerable, and will have the childish public meltdown to prove it. What we find, then, is that our emotional reactions to our problems are not determined by the size of the problem. Rather, our minds simply amplify (or minimize) our problems to fit the degree of stress we expect to experience. Material progress and security do not necessarily relax us or make it easier to hope for the future. On the contrary, it appears that perhaps by removing healthy adversity and challenge, people struggle even more. They become more selfish and more childish. They fail to develop and mature out of adolescence. They remain further removed from any virtue. They see mountains where there are molehills. And they scream at each other as though the world were one endless stream of spilled milk.