How to live with consciousness – Chapter 2: how values determine perception

In this series of articles, I am trying to elucidate the links between consciousness, goals and goal hierarchies, and the mode of being that allows thriving in life. In this chapter, I will examine the relationship between consciousness and goals, and explain how goals, and ultimately values, are one of the fundamental mechanisms for attention.

We process information using a frame

Is our vision objective? Generally, are our perceptions objective? They aren’t. When we look out at the world, we don’t directly perceive what is “out there.” Information about the world is processed through a frame, presenting to our awareness a model of the world and not the world itself. Consider the famous checkerboard illusion.

Figure 1: Checkerboard illusion and proof that squares A and B are the same color.

In the image above, squares A and B are the same color. Looking at the image on the left it seems impossible, but on the right both squares are connected by a line and the illusion becomes apparent. The reason for this illusion is that visual system evolved to be capable of accurately detecting colors, even those in the shadows. In this artificial scenario, the visual system gets tricked and therefore corrects the perceived color to make it seem brighter than it actually is.

Consciousness is an error detecting mechanism

Sometimes, the information – be it visual, auditory, or conceptual – fails to fit in the frame. When this happens, the frame breaks and we become aware of the error.

Recall the three questions that concluded chapter 1? Did you answer them correctly? Here they are again:

  1. How many animals of each kind did Moses bring on the Ark?
  2. In the Biblical story, what was Joshua swallowed by?
  3. What is the nationality of Thomas Edison, inventor of the telephone?

Did you notice anything strange about these questions? Read them again and you will notice that they contain a mistake. It wasn’t Moses who brought animals on the Ark, it was Noah. It wasn’t Joshua who was swallowed by a whale, it was Jonah. And Thomas Edison didn’t invent the telephone, he invented the lightbulb. When trying to answer these questions, your frame became focused on numbers, animals, and nationalities and not on examining the correctness of the questions. It’s only when there is a large discrepancy between our frame and the incoming information that we notice an error.

Usually, our frames are sufficient because they are refined with each experience allowing us to do many things automatically and unconsciously. Developing muscle memory is an example of the development of a frame of movement. Hence the difficulty of learning to drive a stick-shift because we must consciously think about every action, which takes time and energy. Once muscle memory is developed, we can move unconsciously which is much more efficient and sometimes more precise.

Your goals determine your frames and therefore perception

If we perceive the world through frames, what is it that sets these frames? We’re goal directed creatures. Humans do things for a reason and it’s precisely these reasons that set the frames. Your reasons for action, your goals, are therefore critical because they will determine what you see. If we go back to the questions, our goal was to answer the questions correctly and we did not notice the mistakes. If I had told, can you see anything wrong with these questions? You would have surely found the mistakes immediately. We can see also that goals come with a certain set of assumptions, which set the boundaries for the frame. If I ask you if there is anything wrong with these questions, you assume something might be.

If we generalize to more complex goals closer to those we have in real life, it looks something like this. You set a goal, perhaps to do well at university, which comes with a set of assumptions: attend class, study regularly, and don’t party too much. These assumptions determine the frame: classes are opportunities to learn, your free time is a chance to study, and parties are mostly distractions. A different goal would lay out the world differently. Say your goal is to make friends. Classes may now be an opportunity to talk, your free time an opportunity to see friends, and parties a place to meet new people. The same things take on a very different meaning. Neither of these goals are good nor bad. In fact, we all surely have both.

Goals must be organized in goal hierarchies

We are complicated creatures. We have basic needs like food and water and complex needs like love, socializing, and achievement. All these needs need to be satisfied and so we set goals for them: drink water, eat food, find a partner, make friends, and get a good job. One problem is these goals cannot all be satisfied at the same time. Goals need to be prioritized. We all want to make friends, but we all want to get a good job too. When accomplishing a goal, we have a frame, which is a theoretical amount of progress we should be making. We compare the theoretical progress to the actual progress we are making and much like before, if the discrepancy is too large, the frame breaks. Either our frame was wrong, and we expected too much of ourselves, or our behavior was wrong, and we procrastinated too much. The opposite may also happen, and we may well be before schedule. In any case, when a discrepancy occurs, our awareness comes online, and we begin paying attention to our goals. Either we readjust the frame, or we prioritize one goal over another.

All these goals also necessitate subgoals. To drink water, you must go to the sink, take a glass, and fill it. Drinking water is a simple goal, finding a partner is a much more complicated goal. Accomplishing this goal might require getting a haircut, learning to flirt, going to social events, and much more. These subgoals are organized in a goal hierarchy like that of figure 2.

Figure 2: Example of a goal hierarchy (from Carver & Scheier – On the Self-Regulation of Behavior)

Values are at the top of the hierarchy

At the bottom of the hierarchy, we have motor goals, which determine movement: slice broccoli, go to the sink, take a glass, and so on. Above, we have “do” goals. These goals do not determine movement per se, but movement is required to accomplish them. These are goals like: prepare dinner, get a haircut, go to a social event. Above “do” goals, we have “be” goals, which are more abstract: be thoughtful, be nice, be a hard worker. A whole network of sub-goals is required to accomplish any “be” goal.

At the very top of the hierarchy, we have our ultimate goal: to become our ideal self. Our ideal self is an assemblage of fully realized values: if I value achievement, my ideal self will be the fullest achievement I can imagine. Since values are at the top of the hierarchy, they will affect how I choose my goals and therefore how I see the world. For example, if I value achievement, I will look for situations in which I can achieve and set related goals. I will discriminate between tasks relevant to my achievement goals, find ways to measure my progress towards these goals, set ever higher achievement goals and be more committed to these goals that people who do not value achievement.

Our values are therefore of utmost importance. A natural question is: what should my values be? This is probably one of the most complicated questions there is, and humans have been trying to answer it since the beginning of time. I definitely do not have the answer. However, what I will try to do in the next chapter is to describe the way of being that will allow you to realize your own ideal self.

Tyler Kleinbauer
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