Wednesday, February 9, 2011

How People Sleep At Night

You often hear the expression, “How does (so-and-so) sleep at night?” We wonder how people who do wrong things manage to live with themselves. At the height of their wrongdoing, how did Bernie Madoff, or Saddam Hussein, or Joseph Stalin sleep at night?

I'll tell you how they slept: Just fine, I'm sure.

People have the ability to shape the subjective reality that they live in — the world in which they see themselves embedded — however they see fit. Let me rephrase: All people actively shape their subjective reality, all the time. It is a part of human nature; there is no escaping it. For most people this isn’t a big deal. For others, it’s a very big deal, because it’s what lets them sleep at night.

I first came upon this idea right after the O.J. Simpson trial in the ’90s. Here was someone who had almost certainly murdered two people, but the murderer himself seemed to have no knowledge of this fact. At press conferences, incredibly, he would talk about how he planned to devote his life to finding “the real killers.” It didn’t make sense; I believed that O.J. himself believed that he was innocent. It seemed as if he had rewritten his internal history, the memories in his brain (which at some time had to be incredibly vivid), to the point where Nicole Simpson and Ron Goldman were killed by totally different people.

Bingo. That is exactly what Mr. Simpson did, although consciously, he has no idea what he did. Subconsciously editing a murder out of one’s memory is extreme; it’s difficult to believe such a feat of selective memory is even possible for a human. But this is merely an extreme case of something that happens all the time, in all of us. I started calling it the O.J. syndrome.

More recently I’ve come to call this effect the everyday Stockholm syndrome. The Stockholm syndrome is what happens when someone is captured against their will by a group, and then over time, they come to identify and cooperate with that group. (Patricia Hearst is the classic example.) The Stockholm syndrome is recognized as a defense mechanism for people under tremendous stress or duress — but again, it’s just an extreme example of something that routinely happens to all of us.

My friend Vivian is a good case of the everyday Stockholm syndrome. She was, and is, idealogically a liberal person — the kind who would volunteer for an environmental cause. But then she got married, her husband was hired by an oil company, and they moved to Houston. Although she is still socially and politically progressive, when it comes to climate change and energy regulation, she can rattle off all of the conservative arguments. It isn’t that she doesn’t believe them and she’s just “acting.” It probably isn’t even that she independently changed her mind on these issues, based on some enlightenment. It’s that she found herself in an internal conflict, what psychologists call cognitive dissonance, and this was the way out. Subconsciously she became motivated to experience a shift in the way she saw the world. If her subjective reality didn’t undergo this transformation, she’d literally be sleeping with the enemy, the man she loves, and that just wouldn’t do. So gradually, her subjective reality changed by just a small amount, and once that happened, the life she lives became completely fine. And she’s sleeping at night, no problem.

I noticed this myself a few years ago. I got a boatload of work animating promotional videos for Verizon Wireless. Mind you, normally I’m about as anti-corporate as anyone, vehemently so. I kind of had to grit my teeth to make these videos pimping a huge phone company and its celebrity affiliations. But after a couple of weeks, I caught myself thinking, “Verizon is actually pretty cool.” NOOOOOO! There was nothing about Verizon’s inane promotions that made me feel this way. But in the immersion of it all, I noticed a slow change in my perspective.

Nowadays I smile when someone brings up this question. “How does Glenn Beck sleep at night?” Very well, I’m sure! Many people would like to think that on his way to work, Glenn is psyching himself up for another hour of cynical lies, and on his way home he’s wondering how he could have done such a thing, perhaps pleading with God for forgiveness. But, that is a liberal fantasy! No matter what his personal idealogical history might be, I guarantee you that anyone in Glenn Beck’s position, making that much money and with that much fame and influence — and all of the faithful followers constantly validating his opinions — will go to work telling himself, “I am going to be telling the truth today! People need someone like me to tell them the truth! I am doing the right thing!”

Because that’s what Glenn Beck needs to do to sleep at night.

The “everyday Stockholm syndrome” fits well with other ideas I’ve written about. Each individual’s view of the world is always filtered through a subjective reality that sees and ignores whatever aspects it desires, at times embellishing life with experiences which (apparently) aren’t a part of objective reality. Many people live a “fake life” because it’s comforting to believe that praying works and dead relatives are looking down on them from Heaven. And full-on sufferers of the “Bullshit Syndrome,” such as creationists and 9/11 Truthers, have placed themselves in a bubble so profoundly impenetrable, the evidence for their position seems to be overwhelming; meanwhile there is zero conflicting evidence, so dissenters must all be mindless zombies who will believe anything that authorities tell them. (Actually, someone who thinks the government is out to get them probably doesn’t sleep so well at night.)

All of these ideas are brought together in an excellent article that a reader recently forwarded to me — thanks, Ian.


  1. After watching Glenn Beck's documentary on George Soros, I get the feeling Beck doesn't believe everything he says. Several quotations of George Soros books and interviews were so dishonest and out of context, it simply doesn't seem possible to me that Beck deluded himself to believe his quotations are correct.
    Probably, by now, he has convinced himself that his constant fear-mongering serves a noble purpose, such as freeing America from a communist muslim president. However, I'm sure he's aware that every statement he makes is meant to scare people into thinking everything is worse than it really is. If he would be so scared himself, he wouldn't look so calm.

  2. You're very welcome--glad you liked the article :-)

    If you're interested, the same person wrote another article about our tendency to see patterns that aren't really there. It's just as interesting as the first one.

    This whole "O.J. syndrome" concept is why I hold a metaphysical position that I call "polyphonic realism," in which a better model of reality is a bunch of overlapping subjective realities or "umwelten" rather than a single, objective reality. The "objective world" is just where our "bubbles" overlap.

  3. Interesting comments Ian. I love to contemplate these topics as well.

    I think of 'objectivity' as a concept that we can all try to conceive based on our experiences, and what we can perceive from the connection of our experiences with that of what we 'see' as others experiences. (We can only TRY to be objective.) So your 'bubbles overlap' comment was great! The problem is that some people have a clouded perspective based on this or that. So for them there isn't even a clear concept of objectivity. I only have a problem with the use of the word 'better', which itself is subjective as you go on to state in a way. With this in mind we must remember that we can only recognize this for ourselves if we learn about ourselves and our own biases and learn to 'put those aside'. I'm not sure if I agree with the analogy of Stockholm syndrome because this only supports the phenomenon of a type of brainwashing, but I understand your use Eddie. :) Elizabeth Smart comes to mind. In Glenn Beck's case I think he is hostage to his own ego. His audience holds him captive, and in return he holds them captive. A form of 'Groupthink' comes to mind.

    I need to read these two articles. Thanks Ian. And thanks Eddie.

    I think people are predisposed to think of others as having the same qualities as they have. This allows for mental masturbation, as well as mental rape.

    O.J. is such a strange case... I learned so much about law during his trial when I was supposed to be learning engineering. :-)