Do We Go Through Anything Anymore?

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I just read an interesting article on how to make friends when you’re a grown-up. Pulling from social psychology studies conducted in the 1950s, here are the three key ingredients the article points to as far as making friends:

  1. proximity
  2. repeated, unplanned interactions
  3. a setting that encourages people to let their guard down and confide in each other

The article goes on to point out that college is one of the best places to find an ample supply of all three ingredients. “This is why so many people meet their lifelong friends in college,” reveals the article. Here are just a few of the reasons the article provides for why having close (as opposed to casual) friends is important:

  • your friends help you find jobs
  • your happiness comes from friends
  • you get ideas from friends
  • studies show that you live longer if you have close friends

I agree with all of the above, but I think there is one important ingredient missing from the above ingredient list: going through. In the rest of this post I’d like to talk about “going through” using social psychology studies from the 1990s (I believe) as a background.

I heard about going through studies when I was a counseling graduate student back in the mid-1990s. Let me describe the research design to you.

Researchers used college students for their study subjects. College students are probably the most studied species known to man (or at least known to social psychology researchers). One by one the researchers would tell a group of college students that they are studying physical attraction patterns in humans. The researchers would then ask the students to keep an attractiveness diary of sorts in which the students would simply write down the name of anyone they found attractive as they walked around campus and attended classes. After about a week or so, the researchers would visit with each student, collect their diary, and then ask them if they would like to volunteer for a separate unrelated study. Well, of course the two studies are related, but social psychology researchers are notorious liars, but they lie in the name of science.

The second study is billed as a physical dexterity study. The researchers would construct a rope bridge in such a way that the opposite side cannot be seen. They then would send a student across the rope bridge and tell them that they will be timed. What they are not told is that a student of the opposite gender (yes, there is a heterosexual bias to the study) will be sent across the rope bridge from the opposite side at the same time. The real objective of the study? to create a going through event. When the two students of opposite sex meet at the middle they have to go through or navigate the challenge of getting past each other on a rope bridge.

After the rope bridge study, the students are called back and told that the data set from the attractiveness diaries was lost, and would they please record their attractiveness responses for another week. Here’s what the tricky researchers found: a statistically relevant number of students reported in their second attractiveness diary that they found the person they encountered on the rope bridge as attractive. That’s probably not startling. But here’s the kicker: very few students found the “encounter person” attractive as reported in the first attractiveness diary. Now, you could argue that maybe the encounter person was not seen while the first attractiveness diary was being kept. Apparently the researchers were able to account for such things. Bottom line: what the researchers found was that when we go through a physically challenging experience with another person (one that has a bit of risk to it) attractiveness levels increase. OK, you know me, I would frame it a bit differently and suggest that attachment levels increase. Let me explain.

My father would often tell me that he had a bond with the men he served with in WWII that was unique. He went through very challenging physical experiences with his fellow soldiers that involved high levels of risk.

In 1972 a plane carrying a rugby team crashed in the Andes. This incident was portrayed in the 1993 movie Alive. The survivors were forced to resort to cannibalism in order to stay alive. The survivors went through unimaginable experiences, and, as a result, remained close to each other for years after (many living in the same small town) in part because they knew that no one else would have those same going through experiences.

A whole nation can experience going through as the US did following the 9/11 bombings.

Women seem to have a special bond with other women who have gone through the experience of giving birth.

Communities will often organize going through experiences centered on initiation rites: going through to a new level of development. I would suggest that high school and college experiences are significant because they tend to be associated with so many experiences of going through to a new level of development—as sexual beings, as reflective beings (as the upper brain comes online), as adult beings, as productive beings, etc.

So, the question becomes: what has happened to going through experiences? Initiation rites are going through experiences. Where have they gone? Collective mourning represents going through experiences. Where have they gone? I mean no disrespect but didn’t the second President Bush ask us to go shopping after 9/11? I’m not sure I see shopping as a going through experience.

As talked about in the book On Killing, the British government sent troops home on transport ships at the close of the Falklands War. Why? Because they wanted their troops to experience a long going through process of mourning, and bonding, and confiding (recall the list of making friends ingredients above). The British government did not want a repeat of Vietnam where soldiers in most cases were sent home individually and quickly using transport aircraft, and, as a result, experienced higher than normal levels of PTSD. As I have blogged about before, the current trend within the military to use private firms to set up camps, provide food, provide entertainment, provide cleaning services, etc., has had the net effect of reducing going through experiences.

There simply are times when we need going through experiences. They change us. I guess you could say that you really don’t know someone until you have gone through something with them. I think we all want to know how another person will act under fire so-to-speak. This begs the question: are there any going through experiences in virtual worlds? Is posting a Facebook update a going through experience? How about posting an Instagram photo? I guess we will not know until it is time to go through something with another person or group when it really counts: death of a loved one, going off to college, going off to war, heck, maybe just simply going off or leaving one’s home, one’s comfort zone. Are we really going off when we enter a virtual world ensconced in the warmth and comfort of our own living room?

Maybe we want our going through and our comfort too. Not going to happen (from a Bowlbian attachment theory perspective of course). Remember what Bowlby told us: when it comes to attachment, it’s not about risk alone: it’s about the “risk of risk.” What did Bowlby mean? In life there are times we take on risk: going off to college, going off to war, moving across the country for a new job, etc. When that primary risk exceeds our capabilities, a second risk kicks in: can we import new, typically social resources into our personal system so that we can met the demands of the primary risk? In my opinion, going through experiences not only allow us to assess how well we deal with primary risk, but also the risk of risk: how well we are able to import social resources into our personal system when the need arises. Simply put, are we able to ask for help? As military science tells us (see the book On Killing mentioned above), unit morale is about recognizing and addressing the risk of risk. When morale falls apart, the unit falls apart as well. Simply, going through experiences have the potential to increase morale (which is one of the main effects of experiences like boot camp, college orientation, various support groups, outward bound experiences, corporate team building, etc.). Suffice it to say that as we become more atomized, more removed one from another, the risk of risk goes up. As the risk of risk goes up, and, correspondingly, morale goes down, I will then agree with the second President Bush: shopping may be the only recourse left open to us.

PS – I just thought I’d mention that in many ways archetypes record shared or collective going through stories. According to Jungian analyst Marion Woodman, archetypes rise and fall depending on what we are going through at any point in time. Some are concerned that the current robot or AI (artificial intelligence) archetype may be our last. Maybe the robot or AI archetype is about going through to a state of being posthuman or post-biology. In his last book Flying Saucers: A Modern Myth of Things Seen in the Skies (executive summary available), Jung in part viewed UFO sightings as expressing a desire to see where the current trend (as of the 1960s) toward transcending biology would ultimately take us. Alien abduction stories (which appeared on the scene after Jung’s death) up the ante on this desire to see into our posthuman future. For more on all of this, see Francis Fukuyama’s book Our Posthuman Future or James Barrat’s book Our Final Invention.