How Disorienting Dilemmas Provoke New Ideas

PUBLISHED: Dec 17, 2019

In This Episode.

“Disorienting dilemmas” are events that can’t fit in our existing paradigms or worldviews, and they force the brain to restructure its conception of the world in order to make sense of things again.  Sometimes, that new conception can create powerful new ideas, and sometimes they can create terrible ideas like the “jump to conclusions” game from the movie, Office Space.

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Podcast Transcript

Voiceover: They’re here to do two things. Chew bubble gum and make you smarter, and they’re all out of bubble gum smarter with Dave and Steve today on Smarter.

Steve Pearlman: We’re going to contend with a fancy term coined by a guy named Jack Mesereau. And that’s called a disorienting dilemma and a disorienting dilemma is something you’ve certainly experienced in your life and you’re going to experience again, and we’re going to teach you how to deal with it through the power of critical thinking. What a disorienting dilemma is, in a nutshell, is you encounter something that happens in your life that causes an upheaval in some way that’s distinct or different or troubling, such that none of your existing ways of understanding your world suffice any longer. Suddenly, you have to rethink how you’ve been looking at your entire life, what your paradigm is about yourself and your world, and rethink everything around you. That’s the gist of a disorienting dilemma.

Dave Carillo: My whole life is a disorienting dilemma. These things exist, and there are ways to handle them that will get you through to the other side.

Steve Pearlman: Let’s get into this by giving you a more authoritative understanding of exactly what a disorienting dilemma is from experts who talk about it perhaps a little bit more specifically than we are so far. I’m going to reference a couple of times today an article by KC Maliki called Rethinking Disorienting Dilemmas Within Real Life Crises, The Role of Reflection and Negotiating Emotionally Chaotic Experiences and what you did, which I really like, is sort of examine what kind of reflection is actually prompted and positive out of a disorienting dilemma. But point is that what a disorienting dilemma creates, as she writes, is quote in a sense, a vacuum of meanings. Figuratively speaking, there are no ready made labels or concepts to give meaning to one’s experiences. And her point there being that every framework you had, every way you had to make sense of the situations you were in prior to this disorienting dilemma, hitting you no longer function

Dave Carillo: Right to go back to Jack Mesereau. He puts this kind of situation into a really helpful light for us by articulating the stakes and how the brain works. I wrote this down a while back. I think it’s from an article called Learning to Think Like an Adult. But Mesereau writes, a defining condition of being human is our urgent need to understand and order the meaning of our experience to integrate it with what we know, to avoid the threat of chaos if we are unable to understand. We often turn to tradition thoughtlessly, seize explanations by authority figures or resort to various psychological mechanisms, such as projection and rationalization to create imaginary meanings.

Steve Pearlman: Let’s bring Ezra’s point down to brass tacks. We are meaning making creatures. You are always trying to make sense of your world. You have no choice but to try to make sense of your world in some way. Every day, all the time and whatever you’re doing, we’re not saying you’re always successful. I’m not always successful. The world makes very little sense to me, Dave,

Dave Carillo: But I see evidence of that all the time.

Steve Pearlman: But I try. You wonder, which is why? Yes. What happens, though, is that when you get hit with one of these disorienting dilemmas, you no longer have the frameworks in your life. The things you’ve relied upon no longer make sense of the world, so you’ve got to make sense of it in some way. And then there’s sort of this split. On the one hand, you could try to actually create a new, better paradigm that legitimately makes meaning and makes sense of the world based on evidence and new perspective that’s really going to function. Or conversely, and much worse, you can fall back on tropes you can rely on authoritarian explanations of things. You can go off the deep end in some way that makes absolutely no sense necessarily to anyone else in the world or from any objective perspective. But your brain has nevertheless found some way to try to make sense of it, and our job here today is to make sure that you do it in a good paradigm shift instead of in an unsuccessful off the deep end nonsensical paradigm shift.

Dave Carillo: Part of this trick is being able to stop your brain from automatically moving in the direction of those rationalizations,

Steve Pearlman: And that’s why you are fortunate to be listening to the Smarter podcast because we are going to give you some strategies today for making sure that you don’t rationalize your way into a new paradigm, but rather that you grow your way into an authentic new paradigm. And the way we’re going to do that is by referencing a clip from the movie office space, and this clip is about someone who has lost their job. And one of the reasons we chose this clip is because losing your job is one of the most classically used examples of a disorienting dilemma.

Dave Carillo: There’s a lot of moving pieces in this clip, but essentially what’s going down is that a coworker of the folks in this movie lost his job and lost all hope and ended up getting into a car accident that matched him up pretty good. He is in any number of neck, braces and plaster, and he’s got IVs and he’s got all sorts of stuff.

Steve Pearlman: There’s some kind of gunk coming. Out of him, it’s unidentifiable.

Dave Carillo: Right, right. And although he’s completely shattered, he apparently wins this big settlement, so he’s got this money, so he doesn’t have to go back to work. And when this clip winds down, you’ll start to hear him rationalizing to his coworkers. He’s invited them to this big celebratory party. You’ll hear very clearly at the end him rationalizing his way through this very disorienting dilemma. Losing your job, getting mashed by a car, not being able to get out of his wheelchair.

Steve Pearlman: You’ll also hear him referencing a prototype, and the prototype he’s referencing is his idea for a get rich quick scheme that he had when he was trapped in this terrible job in cubicle. Dumb. And what this thing is is a jump to conclusions mat, which is basically like a hopscotch board, except each of the squares has a conclusion that you could jump to if you want to make a decision. And obviously, it’s just absolutely stupid because you can control where you’re going to land on the conclusion. So it’s not even something random, nor is it even something that is actually proven to work perfectly, which is like a Ouija board. Dave, I mean, any question you have a Ouija board is clearly the go to

Dave Carillo: Do you want answers? You have to do the Ouija board. We’re magic eight ball or a demon board. Actually, I hear those conjure up even more powerful and nicer spirits or more evil spirits. I can’t remember one or the other.

Steve Pearlman: Well, I think it’s important to know though, isn’t it?

Dave Carillo: Oh, well, maybe we’ll do that next time anyway.

Steve Pearlman: So you get the sense that this isn’t the brightest guy to start with, and then you’ll see him trying to rationalize his way into why being broken in just about every way is a good thing. So here’s the clip from the classic movie office space. See you later, honey. Love you!

Office Space: But then as soon as he backs out of his driveway. Did slam big time by a drunk driver, see, OK?

Office Space: Sort of broke both his wrist, lags a couple of ribs, is back. But check it out. He’s going to get a huge settlement out of this, like seven figures. Let’s get out of the hospital tomorrow. He’s going to throw a big party this weekend and celebrate. We’re all invited.

Office Space: Peter, how are you? I’m glad you could make it, Tom.

Office Space: Hi, this is somebody I’d like you to meet. This is Joanna.

Office Space: Hi. Hi. Forgive me for not getting up. Oh, Peter, Peter, come here a minute. I want to show you something. Well, what do you think? It’s a prototype, huh?

Office Space: That’s that’s exactly as you described it. Listen, I heard about your your settlement. Congratulations.

Office Space: Well, thanks, Peter. You know, I’m glad you’re here because I wanted to talk to you. I know how you get depressed about your job and all, and I just wanted you to know that I know how you feel. I used to be the same way. Really? Sure. Well, maybe I didn’t whine as much, but I bet I hated my job even more than you. And I’ve been doing it for over 30 years. Wow. Just remember, if you hang in there long enough, good things can happen in this world. I mean, look at me. Thanks, Tom.

Steve Pearlman: Oh yeah, good things can happen.

Dave Carillo: I think that’s the morphine talking. I think one of those drips is a morphine drip.

Steve Pearlman: It’s it’s morphine, some kind of opioid something, right, that’s working for him, at least at the moment.

Dave Carillo: Pretty much anything is good on morphine. I think that’s what I hear.

Steve Pearlman: So we see him struck by this disorienting dilemma. He loses his job, but he rationalizes the breaking of his body into something positive. And so what we see again is he’s thrown out of his normal way of looking at the world. And that’s where disorienting dilemma gets interesting because it can either have a negative effect or it can prompt this kind of reflection and growth in us. It can prompt us into a new paradigm. And so in that sense, it can actually be an opportunity, right?

Dave Carillo: Because if everything’s moving along in the normal way, you don’t necessarily have any reason to pause and reflect on how you’re interpreting the world. And it’s only at the point where you are broken out of the norm and face something that your normal, unconscious or subconscious interpretive frameworks can’t make any sense of that. You’re then in a position to have to question the kinds of things that otherwise worked so well for you on a day to day basis for making meaning of the world.

Steve Pearlman: And so what we’re talking today about is how to recognize a disorienting dilemma when you’re experiencing one and how to extract value from that disorienting dilemma and turn it into a positive and let your brain do positive work in that respect. And how to use critical thinking to process those situations better than the poor son of a bitch we saw in the wheelchair. The only way he had to rationalize that experience was to think that he had this false alternative of either having to go to work at that same company every single day or having most of his bones broken and being stuck in a wheelchair for the next six months.

Dave Carillo: He also tells Peter that good things will come to him, to which just basically amounts to a cliché. And you start to pull out all those moments in your life. You hear someone using a cliché to explain a reason for something or a situation. Cliches sound good because they’re so general. They apply to everything or anything. But when you get right down to it and start looking at those situations that really mean something, the cliches start to fall apart pretty quickly. Just like jump to conclusions. I don’t think any of those squares actually were conclusion. I have to go because I think again or something. I think that was part of the joke, too, is that he doesn’t even know what a conclusion is to the research, Steve.

Steve Pearlman: So what this Mallick article did, and I actually think it’s really interesting, and it’s one of those times where we find these nuggets in research, they’re actually kind of exciting to talk about out in the world. The author interviewed women who were not able to become pregnant and talk to them about what that experience was like as a disorienting dilemma and what kind of reflection they actually engaged. So what cognitive moves? What critical thinking moves did they make? And what’s interesting here is that a disorienting dilemma, at least based on this research, doesn’t prompt the kind of reflection and learning that we might think of in an academic context or where you’re just trying for growth. It’s rather more of a meaning making experience. It’s finding a framework to make sense of that thing that happened and turn it somehow into something constructive or something that could advance us moving forward. Namely, she writes, reflection appeared to enable meaning making in a chaotic situation not understandable from within existing meaning frameworks, meaning that people who go through this find a different paradigm through which to view the world in which to exist so that the world again has meaning to them and they feel value again and see a way through. And finally, I would add, she says, look, the thing about a disorienting dilemma is it’s unquestionably going to be emotional. And if it’s not emotional, it’s probably not a true, disorienting dilemma and we should wreck. Ignores the factor that emotion plays in this, and that’s something we talked about in previous podcasts with respect to the amygdala and how it can turn a situation into a threat which can shut down your thinking or how we can view it as a challenge.

Steve Pearlman: And finally, and this is, I think, the most interesting thing here. She writes these differences in how they saw things before relative to how they saw things after reflection became evident through unpleasant feelings, which in turn may trigger further reflection in terms of these breaks in communication. This may be seen as a second wave trigger for reflection, as the results of reflection bring about new disorienting dilemmas, triggering further reflection both on one’s own and other people’s assumptions, as well as on relationships. So basically, look when you experience a disorienting dilemma. What’s great about it, and this is where we want to turn it for you into something that’s a positive cognitive act. It’s this recursive process. You’re going to find a new paradigm in which to exist that makes better meaning of the world. You’re going to find that thing that you really wanted to do anyway with your life. You’re going to find alternative things to go do when you lose your job that are better. Hopefully not a jump to conclusions mat, but it’s a cyclical process. They’re going to be layers of reforming your paradigm, forming new questions and assumptions within that paradigm, and then restructuring that paradigm over and over and over again.

Dave Carillo: So what Steve’s trying to say with this fancy research is this throughout life, we’re going to be faced with these kinds of disorienting dilemmas. They’ll be big and traumatic. And when we do face them and the normal frameworks and structures and moves that our brains make in order to make sense of the world and to stave off that chaos are going to become useless. And what we want you to do is say, Look, I can either make my way through with a normal cliché, such as you just hang in there and everything’s going to be OK, or you can start to critically reflect in order to get something out of it. That lets you not just make sense of that one situation by rationalizing or applying some sort of cliché to it, but make sense of the situation such that you can use it as a way to move forward.

Steve Pearlman: You have this vacuum and something’s going to have to fill that vacuum and make some meaning of it. And it’s either going to be some kind of bullshit that is cliche. Like if you just hang in there, good things can happen in this world. Like, he says, from the wheelchair staring at his jump to conclusions mat. On the other hand, you can go into some deep reflection really question what were your presumptions about the world yourself, your life and what else can fill that void that would be meaningful rather than just bringing in a bunch of cliches? So to use critical thinking to turn disorienting dilemmas into something positive into an opportunity, the first thing is, most importantly, recognize when you’re in a disorienting dilemma. And again, remember those will probably have an emotional component, or they’re probably not really a disorienting dilemma in the first place. And the second thing is, make sure that you take the time to really pause and seriously reflect. And not just if I may, Dave, not just jump to conclusions.

Dave Carillo: I like how you did that.

Steve Pearlman: Thank you. You are welcome, sir.

Dave Carillo: You reference the part earlier in the podcast. I love it. One of the things that the brain is going to want to do is say, Wow, that’s a terrible thing, and let’s get through this as quickly as possible. So here’s how I’m going to do that with some rationalization or something. But once you’re in that disorienting dilemma and you can slow things down, try to do these kinds of things to reflect on where you are and how you might get through it. The first thing to do is just understand it beyond what just happened. Try to piece together as fairly as you can how this dilemma came about, because understanding it beyond just what happened is a huge part of thinking critically about anything.

Steve Pearlman: And one way to do that is think about what presumptions did you have about the world? What presumptions did you have about yourself? How are you defining yourself or your world based on that job or whatever it was? You’re looking at the way that you were defining yourself, the way that you were defining your world prior to that disorienting dilemma to identify why losing your job or whatever happens was disorienting in the first place because it doesn’t necessarily had to have been disorienting. It’s only disorienting because it’s challenging certain presumptions and paradigms that you held. So try to identify what those paradigms and presumptions were. Write them down. Make them very clear to yourself.

Dave Carillo: The next thing you can do is don’t. Well, again, I guess jump to conclusions as you’re making your way through this dilemma, start to take a look at alternative perspectives. In other words, don’t just stay on one single path. Open yourself up to thinking about as many different factors as you can that may help you get through this.

Steve Pearlman: And in that sense, delve a little deeper into yourself. If you lose a job that had been something that you loved your teacher and maybe you lost your job as an educator and say it wasn’t just teaching broadly that I enjoyed. There were facets of that that are particularly meaningful to me, so it’s helping people or it’s education, but it’s not necessarily have to be in the setting that you were. You’re looking for the. Ways to rediscover yourself in very material, ways that get deeper into your thinking about how you see the world and want to take action in it.

Dave Carillo: And one last thing that you can do as you’re starting to reflect, is to see if you can start to articulate the things that you don’t know or the gray areas or the uncertainties. Because if we’re aware of the kinds of things that make us uncertain, if we’re where the gray areas we can factor those in as we make our choice such that we can make a smarter decision.

Steve Pearlman: You mean a smarter decision

Dave Carillo: Or a decision? I guess that’s what I meant. I meant that.

Steve Pearlman: And the more you recognize your uncertainties, the less likely you are to be struck by a disorienting dilemma in that context. Again, please like our podcast, share our podcast. Tell your friends about it. If you’re enjoying it and whatever you do, make sure you get those TPS reports in.

Speaker5: We have sort of a problem here. Yeah, you apparently didn’t put one of the new cover sheets on your TPS reports. Oh yeah, I’m sorry about that. I, I forgot. Hmm. Yeah. You see, we’re putting the cover sheets on all TPS reports now before they go out. Did you see the memo about this? Yeah. Yeah, yeah, I have the memo right here, I just forgot, but it’s not shipping out till tomorrow, so there’s no problem. Yeah, if you could just go ahead and make sure you do that from now on. That would be great. And I’ll go ahead and make sure you get another copy of that memo. Ok, yeah. No, I have the memo. I’ve got it. That’s right.


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