Invalid Attribution

A hungry man is an angry man.


You’ve probably heard that saying before, and experienced short-temperedness yourself when hungry.

The feeling of hunger originates from within, but is experienced as anger when attributed to an outside source. This is a simple example of invalid attribution.

The angry person could go on an anger management course to learn to better suppress those feelings. Or they could learn meditation to not mind feeling hungry. Or they could just eat, and the problem disappears.

We could also no doubt model the anger in evolutionary psychology terms, and say something like, “Anger arising from hunger was likely an adaptation to remain competitive when resources were low.” That might be an interesting intellectual exercise, but tricking yourself into believing you understand the problem does not solve it. Eating does.

These are examples of the kind of hoops the thinking mind will have you jump through when, for whatever reason, it is out of touch with the true nature of the problem.

With regard to eating, the inverse can also happen. Someone might comfort-eat to make themselves feel better when they have some other need not being met — maybe social, or lack of a sense of purpose. They invalidly attribute the source of their emotional discomfort to hunger.

This goes far beyond eating. This kind of misfiring circuitry resulting in invalid attribution seems to operate in all areas of life, especially with today’s runaway thinking minds becoming more and more out of touch with basic human emotional needs.

Some invalid attribution is even intentionally created to get you responding in the interests of other parties. Advertising relies on it. “Feeling inadequate?” (Yes, because you just told me I am) “That’s because you need to buy our product!” Let’s not get started on how governments create fear they then attribute to foreign powers they wish to invade.

I will however list some examples of common invalid attributions which may affect you on a more personal level:

  • Bad posture creating patterns of muscle tension across the body, compressing nerves and sending ongoing low-level pain signals to the central nervous system. These signals are interpreted as stress and invalidly attributed to external sources. They become thoughts regarding how to “fix” those perceived problems in the external world. No amount of fixing the outside will relieve the nerve compression, however. Furthermore, the stress of trying to fix the stress will actually increase muscle tension, thus propagating the problem.
    Since developing bad posture is usually a gradual process, these pain signals will tend to accumulate slowly over time so their true source is not readily identifiable; thus the thoughts that result are taken for granted as being caused by outside problems, or sometimes even attributed to a personality problem within the individual.
    As someone who has successfully corrected bad posture, I can attest that the reduction in overall number of thoughts is profound.
  • In the same vein as the above, a diet which is mismatched to the individual’s genes can cause chronic low-level pain signals emanating from the gut which similarly creates negative thoughts. The thinking mind is always trying to interpret signals from the feeling body; when it fails to identify a source, it just makes one up — usually whatever it is looking at or thinking about at that moment.

The two points above both have in common that the problem has been going on for so long that it makes up part of the “background noise” of that individual’s conscious experience. It is invalidly attributed as an inherent personality trait rather than having a distinct physiological origin.

Modern life potentially creates many such problems by virtue of how our lifestyles have moved further away from ancestral ones. Yet these problems tend not to be seen or even considered when lifestyle changes, usually driven by technology, are wrapped in the cloak of “progress”. That is not to say I disdain modern life or technological innovation, either; I don’t. The message here is to try to see the whole picture.

  • I’ve noticed that people are more calm if they’ve had sex recently. Lack of sex appears directly to correlate with anger, anxiety and even a sense of hopelessness in the long term. Failure to meet the needs of the sex drive can be invalidly attributed to all sorts of external life circumstances and can become plans, schemes and causes often completely undirected towards meeting the need itself. Think of people flying planes into buildings to get their 72 virgins.
    Physical contact and knowledge of acceptance by another person seem to be as important if not more so than an orgasm itself. Hence, masturbation alone rarely sates, especially in the medium to long term.
  • Lack of social contact appears to correlate with anxiety and depression. These emotions can end up being invalidly attributed to a wide range of other unrelated life circumstances. They may even be invalidly attributed to some vaguely defined mental health disorder and suddenly that person is on pills for no reason. In the hands of the avid over-thinker, these emotions can even become thoughts of paranoia, conspiracy theories and other steps away from the true nature of the problem.
  • Lack of a sense of purpose, or connection and contribution to something bigger than the individual, appears to correlate strongly with depression. There are a lot of lost people out there regarding this one, and no shortage of salesmen telling them what they need to fill that hole, whether it’s a product, service or ideology. This depression due to a lack of connection with a higher purpose will also often be invalidly attributed to a mental health disorder.

The point of this article is that the problem you’re trying to solve might not be the problem at all. When in doubt, try and bring it back to some more basic human need.

There is often a swirl of emotion, different drives combining into one indeterminate blob. It is your job to separate that blob out into individual, simple, cogent thought streams. Make simple verbal statements in your mind about each stream. Say, “I am feeling [this emotion].” If necessary, make a simple reason based on your most honest, straightforward assessment. “I don’t know” is completely acceptable if you can’t find anything better. Then, if necessary, decide a simple action as an end point of that thought. It could be, “Eat.” It could be, “Wait to see what happens.” It could be, “Do it at 4 o’clock.” It could be, “Do nothing.” By simplifying your internal dialogue right down to this level, you will find actions which are far more in touch with the simple nature of the emotional drive. I am currently writing an e-book about this very topic, and will post an update when it is ready.

Finally, to help you make better, more accurate attributions about the source of emotions you are truly confused about, or which play out over longer periods of time and are therefore more difficult to analyse, keeping a journal is a powerful method. Let’s take diet as an example. If you write down everything you eat, every day for a month, and also chart your mood over the course of each day, you might be able to determine that a negative mood regularly follows consumption of some specific food. I was able to notice that I get depressed for a couple of days after eating curry. The persistent gut irritation gets translated into a general discontent with whatever it is I’m doing. That’s a shame because I really love curry, but is 30 minutes of pleasure really worth two days of the blues? No, so I’ve stopped. I’ll still probably have one once a year or something, though. 🙂

Need help with your meditation? Book a Skype coaching session →

You may also like...

4 Responses

  1. Vysotsky says:

    Nice! I like the new manifesto, but …

    “I’ve noticed that people are more calm if they’ve had sex recently. Lack of sex appears directly to correlate with anger, anxiety and even a sense of hopelessness in the long term. …”

    “Lack of social contact appears to correlate with anxiety and depression. …”

    Actually, Sleazy wrote just the opposite of this:

    “… I was a very happy person when I was a virgin. If anything, women introduce chaos into your life, and this may or may not affect your happiness. In fact, there is research showing that the least sociable people are the most consistently happy subgroup of all.”

    “However, once you have had sex, you realized that it isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Sure, it’s nice, but it’s hardly a step up from masturbation. I’d argue it’s different, but not better or worse.
    Sorry, that wasn’t quite right. Sex can be worse than rubbing one out. I’ve had “lays” that were infinitely worse than my worst wank. I don’t think I ever failed pleasing myself, but that’s not something I could say of all the girls I’ve met.”

    “… I completely agree with your view that socializing is just some kind of shared fantasy, where at worst everybody thinks that everybody else is having such a great time. Yet, not many people are really having fun out there. Most are “just there” and merely fill the club. They are the background for the crazies who really want to let off steam. Even in the trendiest clubs I never saw many happy faces. Plenty of people in the “in crowd” just felt they had to be there. …”

    So maybe you’re right and maybe Aaron is right. … Or both of you. 😀

  2. Illuminatus says:

    Hi Vysotsky,

    Sleazy not being too impressed with sex is not going to affect my perception that people generally feel calmer after engaging in it. I highlighted physical touching and acceptance by another as more important in that regard than orgasm itself. What do you think? Are you calmer after having sex?

    Regarding socializing, his comment does seem to pertain to nightclubs, which I am not specifying in my post. In fact, I don’t like nightclubs.

  3. Illuminatus says:

    Also please note my article is about the theme of general drives and how they can be misappropriated, rather than about specific people or situations.

  4. Vysotsky says:

    Thanks for the feedback!

    “Also please note my article is about the theme of general drives and how they can be misappropriated, rather than about specific people or situations.”

    I think he spoke in general terms, too, just my quotes were short.

    Look at his “Compulsive Socializers” article.

    Or this:

    Or here, the last reply: (IMO the club was just an example.)

    It seems to me that Aron wrote about “sex isn’t better than masturbation” as a general rule.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *