By: Marilyn L. Davis
Associations are Everywhere: Pavlov’s Dogs, Little Albert, You and Me
Do you often like or dislike people when you first meet them? Association connects how you feel and what you think about one person projected or put on another. It does not have to happen consciously. This reaction to someone occurs because, in some way, the new person reminds you of someone from your past. In psychological terms, it’s called transference.
What about other types of connections that form associations? Classical conditioning is an example of association learning. Pavlov’s dogs learned and then responded accordingly to the bell. Whether rewarded with food or punished, each set of dogs associated the sound of the bell with a particular outcome.
John Watson further refined this conditioning in his “Little Albert” studies. Initially, the nine-month-old did not react to the stimulus of rats, burning paper, a monkey, and a mask. However, when loud noises accompanied seeing the list, the child got fearful of rats. At a point, the loud noises stopped, but he still was afraid when he saw a rat. But it went beyond the white rats; it then extended to Santa’s beard and Watson’s white hair. See how far the transference went? It’s the same with us sometimes.
The dogs and Little Albert did not need to explore their associations. However, to communicate better, enjoy positive relationships, and move beyond a knee-jerk, mechanical reaction to people in our recovery support meetings, we do. Click To Tweet
Six Degrees of Separation? Creating Chaos or Authentic Communication?
An as yet proven theory proposes that each person on the planet is connected by five to seven intermediaries or degrees. In other words, the friend of a friend of a friend joins us all.
In 2001, Duncan Watts, a professor at Columbia University, continued his research based on the phenomenon and recreated Milgram’s experiment on the Internet.
Watts found that the average number of intermediaries or degrees of separation was, indeed, six. While it is fascinating to think that any president of the United States connects to a factory worker in Vietnam who is an intermediary of a tulip grower in Holland, personal connections can create chaos in our relationships and affect our communication and how we hear others.
The Messenger is Like My Mother
We are sure to find someone who reminds us of someone else in our expanding world now that we’re in recovery. Remember that association is the connection between thoughts and feelings about someone, including ourselves, that we project or put on another person. Yes, we are aware of this if we point out to someone who looks like a relative or acts like someone from our past. We typically share the association with the new person if it is positive. For instance:
- “You look like my sister.”
- “You remind me of my aunt.”
- “My dad acted like you.”
- “When you talk, I hear my mom.”
- “You dress like my old school teacher.”
However, we usually don’t share the association if it’s negative. Would you say?
- “You look like my sister, and I can’t stand her.”
- “You’re mean and lazy like my aunt.”
- “You act like my dad, rigid and unbending.”
- “You sound like my mom, the authority on every subject.”
- “My old teacher had negative opinions about everything, too.”
I suppose you could make these pronouncements when you’re first introduced, but I’m betting that most people will answer, “No, I wouldn’t say those things.” But you might be thinking them.
Connections that form these associations are about:
2. Tone of voice
3. An accent
Associations Are Not Gender Specific, Either
One interesting aspect of association is that they do not have to be gender-specific. I might meet a man who reminds me of my sister, or my father’s traits show up in a new female boss.
It is the connections and subtle triggers, not the gender, that generates the association.
Take a person who had a mother who didn’t seem to show love; no hugs and pats on the back for accomplishments or saying, “I love you.” Your new male boss looks cold and aloof. There’s an emotional distance when you communicate, and he seems unfriendly and unsociable.
You react to this behavior and decide that you do not like him. Instead of processing any association with your mother, you play out the same types of interactions, thoughts, and feelings about her with him. For instance:
- You keep waiting for praise
- Every slight reinforces the connection and message that you are undervalued
- This hypervigilance only focuses on the negative aspects
Unfortunately, you are operating from a script your boss has never seen. It’s in your mind and your association with your mother.
What is Reality?
“Transference is that set of ways of perceiving and responding to the world which is developed in childhood and which is usually entirely appropriate to the childhood environment (indeed, often life-saving) but which is inappropriately transferred into the adult environment.”
Looking beyond the association is the fact that your new boss uprooted his family and moved 3,000 miles to take this job. His children are struggling with leaving friends and are mad and think he’s cruel to make them move their senior year in high school. His wife gave up a promising career, and she feels undervalued.
He’s been accused of abandoning his aging parents by his siblings with this move. They think he’s selfish and self-centered. All of the other people in his life demand that he make them feel better or do something. Now you are doing much the same thing – demanding that he make you feel better.
See how associations can create false impressions and chaos?
Mirror, Mirror on the Wall: An Association with Myself
Do you dislike others’ behaviors, attitudes, and actions that you know you operate from as well? Are they objectionable in others? Are there just some people who “rub you the wrong way”? Look at the aspect, attitude, or behavior that gets under your skin and see if you take part in the same thing, like:
- People-pleasing or can’t say, “No.”
This Jarod Kintz quote sounds amusing; however, there is much truth in it. “When I compliment you, I compliment myself because I am who I associate with.” We tend to react both positively and negatively when we meet people who remind us of ourselves on some level.
When I was in substance abuse treatment, one of my first goals was, to be honest in recalling the past. If I was at fault, I acknowledged my responsibility. I found myself annoyed at another participant’s refusal to entertain the idea that she had any responsibility for her life outcomes.
I would fidget, purse my mouth, or in some way convey that I didn’t like what she was saying. One of my counselors took me aside and asked why I reacted so unfavorably to her.
Without knowing what to call it, I told him that it irritated me that she tried to manipulate her way out of her outcomes. I was upset that she tried to deflect responsibility for her choices and continue to change her story if confronted.
His first question was, “Who does that remind you of?” I immediately recognized myself.
Reflecting On the Associations
After I had returned to my room, I thought about why it bothered me so much. What I realized was that I disliked these behaviors in others and that it set up more problems. If we dislike the actions of others that are part of our makeup, it sets up specific, predictable outcomes:
1. Competition: “Oh, you think you’re good at manipulation, watch me.”
2. Fear: “If I hang out with dishonest people, might I revert to that?”
3. Smug and Self-righteous Postures: “I used to be that way, but I’m better because I changed.”
4. Jealousy: “I’m jealous that she seems to get away with this behavior in the group.”
If these reactions have happened to you before, explore some of the other unsaid thoughts and see if there’s association.
Other times, the association is to a title, position, or past experiences that were embarrassing. While I liked my counselors, there was one who seemed to take pleasure in reprimanding participants.
Oh, No, We’re in Trouble Associations
Each of us in that small group commented at lunch one day that we thought going to this particular group was like going to the principal’s office. We were in trouble.
Unfortunately, this association meant that most of us were defensive even before we got to the group. Rather than present alternative behaviors that would produce better outcomes, this counselor told us what, how, and why to change and then told us when. It was this lack of choice that fostered some of the resistance to authority.
Since we had other groups together, it was clear that a defensive posture was not always the norm, yet in this group, even I found myself wondering what I would have to defend.
Different Associations for Positive and Negative Reactions
Ever had someone break up with you and then list all the things wrong with you? You might already be reeling from the breakup and now heaped upon the hurt are all your negative qualities. Then, you don’t get a job promotion and feel ashamed and sad when your supervisor tells you why. A recent romantic breakup might magnify your emotional reaction to this seeming slight.
Age is also not a determining factor in the association. The illustration by Octavio Ocampo demonstrates how within each of us is a memory or illusion of what was. Hidden at first, we have to change our perspective to see the younger versions, but they are there. We sometimes have to look carefully to recognize our distorted perception of people in our associations as well.
Often our attitudes about people are like the illustration, some see an old couple, and others see the younger version. In a work environment or with extended family, it is good to check your perception if others do not have the same communication issues. If you dislike someone, but everyone else does like them, there may be an association for you that is not about the other person.
When our perceptions and relationships are negative, asking others for their opinion on how they see us interacting with someone might help process the reactions better and label the personal association.
Be Mindful: They Are Not Someone From Your Past
We are going to run into people in every aspect of our lives that we like and dislike. Another way to decide if there is an association is to reflect on how you would feel if someone you liked said the same thing to you.
- Would you process the information differently?
- Are there people who you just tune out and dismiss?
- Would you listen if you liked the person saying something?
- Do you judge certain people as more credible than others?
If you answered yes to any of these, then you may be associating.
What are You Missing When You Associate?
Just as the king killed the bearer of bad news, we can bypass the message and focus on the messenger. There are two primary problems with this. When you are dismissive of information based on the messenger, you might be missing something helpful. Jeffrey Wigand spoke out about the dangers of smoking. A PR firm hired by Brown & Williamson mounted a ruthless smear campaign designed solely to discredit Wigand. Why believe a raging alcoholic, wife-beater, and pathological liar?
Many whistleblowers lose their careers and their families from the relentless attacks upon them, focusing our attention on perceptions of their character and not their message.
The opposite association is valid, as well. Just because you like the messenger, the information may not be correct. Take that American staple of cookie lovers everywhere and that iconic baby, Nestle. A few marketing companies have specialized in “disinformation.”
Nestles hired Abelson Taylor to silence the facts about exporting infant formula to Africa that could not sustain life. Nestle had a campaign in Africa claiming that their formula was better for babies than breast milk. Hundreds of thousands of infants died from this deficient formula.
Better Outcomes without Association
To break down associations, identify who the person reminds you of, then make a conscious effort not to filter the message by the association or past connection.
Tell yourself, “It’s not my mom, dad, boss, or ex that is speaking to me; it’s _____.”
When you deliberately and intentionally refer to the new person, it helps remove the association. Don’t get swayed by outward appearances only.
When you look deeper into an association, you may find that your associations are preventing you from giving a new person in your life a chance to show their qualities, not what you projected onto them at the first meeting.
The added benefit of identifying your associations is that if you learn to communicate and process information better with the new person, it will probably help your old relationships as well.
So, the next time that old-timer speaks – listen to the message, not the messenger – it might just save your life.
Writing and recovery heal the heart.
Marilyn L. Davis is the Editor-in-Chief at From Addict 2 Advocate and Two Drops of Ink. She is also the author of Finding North: A Journey from Addict to Advocate and Memories into Memoir: The Mindsets and Mechanics Workbook, available at Amazon, Books A Million, Indie Books, and Barnes and Noble.
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