The New Yorker magazine had an interesting article in the December 13th issue which was titled “Truth wears off.” In this article, the author, Jonah Lehrer, describes the fact that experimental studies may show an effect at first, but often this effect, this “truth” declines over time and in subsequent studies. One of the examples he gives is the declining effect of anti-psychotic drugs. We want to believe that the results we get from rigorous studies are a kind of certainty, and, according to Lehrer, it is difficult to let go of these ideas, even when subsequent studies do not support them.
In a similar way, I remember attending a conference where a very well-known psychotherapist described how he had evolved over his career, using first one approach and then another. “The odd thing,” he said, “Is that each approach worked for a time. And then it didn’t. So I looked for other ways.” So the effectiveness, even of psychotherapy techniques wanes over time. Why? Why do experiments fade and psychotherapy techniques lose their power?
I think we are going to find that our methods of measuring things, and therefore the things we try to measure, will appear extremely primitive to scientists of the future. What these two examples have in common is that the perception of a truth began in a small, personal way. And at that level, it was true. But as soon as it was generalized in a larger, more impersonal way, it did not work any more. I think the reason it works on the small level is because of the personal, specific, attentive nature of it, and not the technique or thing itself. In other words, it is the people doing the work that matter and their involvement affects the outcome.
This has been called the “Hawthorne Effect” in some studies because the very fact of being closely observed affects people’s behavior. But the fundamental fact of that discovery is that being seen has a powerful impact, because what is working is the relationship between the two people, not the mechanism.
Some years ago, I worked with troubled children and began to notice that the children engaged in what I called “connected gazes.” Connected gazes, as I defined them, were where the children looked at another person to see if that person was looking at them. In other words, they wanted to confirm whether they were seen, and recognized as themselves, by someone whom they recognized, or cared about. Even children who had difficulty relating to other people in any way, began to look at me to see if I was looking at them. The more they became familiar with my presence, and the more I concentrated on paying close, genuine attention to them, the more connected gazes they directed toward me.
That “aha” moment of connection with another person is an indescribable moment of satisfaction. We need to be recognized in a specific way by people whom we recognize in a specific way. This human need is deep. It goes all the way down.