Pulling the Threads

Cobweb from threads with unsharpness

A few years ago I was scheduled to meet with a colleague. He asked for the meeting to review some rather routine organizational work and set some plans in motion for the coming year. I did not see him often apart from these annual sessions and the occasional social event during which a bit of small talk would emerge. I knew very little about his background. I recall the region he was from and a bit about his professional experience. In truth, I could not have filled a 3×5 card with the amount of information I had gathered about his life and work. Based on previous experiences, I assumed this would be a cordial conversation regarding a few anticipated projects.

As he entered the room he offered a friendly greeting and a warm smile. Following a cordial exchange of trivial remarks about the weather, our work began. Something was different, however. He appeared a bit nervous. As he fumbled through some papers, I noticed he was having difficulty focusing his attention. He was not finishing sentences and seemed to be repeating himself. His notes appeared to be little more than pen scratches. His face was flushed and I noticed he was perspiring, though the room was not unusually warm. We had not completed our agenda, but before long he seemed eager to finish the meeting. With a handshake I wished him well and watched him walk down the hallway.

I sat for a few minutes wondering if I was misinterpreting his behavior, but I could not avoid the feeling that something was wrong. Many thoughts ran through my mind – maybe he ran up the stairs on his way to the meeting – perhaps he just realized he was doubled booked – there could be conflict within his organization – he might have received a bad performance review – maybe a family problem. My inclination was to ignore the whole thing and move on. And, as my next appointment stepped into the office, my busy schedule took over.

Recognizing patterns is a form of learning. In fact, we count on experts everyday who have amassed knowledge and experience that will inform and guide us individually and collectively. The National Research Council has published a report on learning entitled, How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School (National Academy Press, 2000). The authors note the following about the differences between novices and experts:

People who have developed expertise in particular areas are, by definition, able to think effectively about problems in those areas. Understanding expertise is important because it provides insights into the nature of thinking and problem solving. Research shows that it is not simply general abilities, such as memory or intelligence, nor the use of general strategies that differentiate experts from novices. Instead, experts have acquired extensive knowledge that affects what they notice and how they organize, represent, and interpret information in their environment. This, in turn, affects their abilities to remember, reason, and solve problems. (p. 31)

The report also indicates, “Experts notice features and meaningful patterns of information that are not noticed by novices.” (p. 31).

The shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords is the latest reminder that when the consequences of an action surface before the recognition of a pattern, the results can be devastating. The outcry is understandable. Motivated by agonizing pain for the loss of life and the damage to our society, we pound our fists and demand to know why the threads of an individual life were not pulled in time to prevent disaster. Too often the threads become apparent in the aftermath, long after they began to surface in subtle ways. We look to the officials in our organizations and decry a system that can’t seem to identify risks before they emerge. Who is responsible for this outrage? Where are the experts?

When it comes to those who surround us in everyday life, we are the experts. We are constantly amassing information, observing patterns and measuring results. As we live among those who share our workplaces, classrooms and communities, a vast reservoir of experience continues to grow. The question is: Can we differentiate patterns that are common and harmless from those that are rare and threatening? More importantly, when recognition of a pattern surfaces, will we endeavor to pull the threads or point them out to those who may be in a position to act?

We hear the stories of those who have been defrauded by illegal and unethical investment schemes and wonder why such an obvious offense wasn’t apparent.  Friends and family fall prey to the immense challenges of addictive behaviors and we realize that the signs were there, but we did not seek to intervene before the consequences were too powerful to avoid. Perhaps our tendencies to ensure privacy, preserve individual freedom and avoid personal involvement have unintended consequences we may need to reconsider.

As the day wore on, I could not shake the feeling that my colleague’s behavior was not only unusual, but also troubling. I decided to phone someone I knew could be in a position to act on the information I could provide. After relaying the story, I was told my call was indeed very important since a few other manifestations of a serious problem had begun to surface. And, my call was just one piece of the puzzle. It took a team of community members to act and assist with the process, jump-started by sharing information with those in positions to respond. My colleague was suffering from a deepening mental illness. I have no reason to believe he would have become a danger to himself or others, but we will never know for sure. The intervention was in place before a more tragic consequence emerged.

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7 responses to “Pulling the Threads”

  1. Tej Dhawan says:

    Mark – interesting post and one that instantly brings to mind the book Blink, by Malcolm Gladwell.

    Though the NRC report conjectures that experts may be able to notice the features and patterns of information that novices could not, Gladwell urges us differently with the notion that we are all programmed to recognize the patterns, the details and, sometimes, even the outcomes.

    Our shared human and perhaps the longer animal experience over our long history has given us the markers, clues and patterns to observe and synthesize complex issues, yet our education and culture have taught us to set the gut reaction aside, to replace it with research and trials, peer review and comment and ultimately a presumed superior decision marker, one that occasionally arrives too late.

    The challenge is ours – do we test and validate our initial, natural instinct or do we follow nature. When do we extend the principles behind Good Samaritan Laws to other parts of life and step-in?

    • Keith Jones says:

      Tej, you raise a question to which numerous lines of psychological research lead. What do we do after we notice (or describe) a pattern of behavior?

      Social cognitive research, for example, shows that people typically are “cognitive misers” using as little cognitive effort to process the world around us. A key point driving Gladwell’s assertions is that we process and assess the social world automatically or without awareness. That pattern of thinking is thought to be a pragmatic development in our ability to navigate a complex social and natural world. Yet, that pattern of thinking also leads to mistakes and biased information.

      Research (more references than you probably want are available upon request) reliably indicates that people typically search for and attend to information that confirms stereotypes, a cognitively miserly thing to do. This bias then feeds our judgment and memory for past events and people. This description of our typical behavior is neither an end nor an explanation of behavior. Perhaps the most important question that follows any description of behavior is, “Is this how we are to live?” Or do we check and improve our behavior? In your words, do we test and validate our natural patterns of behavior?

      After presenting each eyebrow-raising description of behavior in psychology courses at Central, I invite students to decide if that description of their behavior is going to be a descriptor of who they are from that point forward. Addressing that question is not necessarily easy when we realize that some of our undesirable behaviors may be common or normal; there is some comfort in numbers. Yet, considering this question is the first step in testing the patterns we see to determine if they are worth accepting. The best part? Everyone can ask themselves this question.

  2. Retired faculty member says:

    Dear Mark,
    It is certainly a challenge to accurately recognize symptoms and patterns of behaviour in colleagues, friends, even in families, which suggest need for attention to behavior which may indicate a possible need for attention or assistance from professionals competent to intervene in these areas. Most of us should be, or are in fact, sensitive in detecting behaviors that warrant formal recognition, but often we are hesitant to initiate “pulling the threads” needed to bring the needed assistance which another person needs at a given moment.
    It is likely never too early to initiate thoughtful response when we recognize the likely need for assistance. I agree with Tej that our evolutionary history has sensitized us to many of the clues and patterns with which to recognize needs of another person, but perhaps only wisdom enables one to know when to follow our initial instincts and seek aid for another person.

  3. Current Student says:

    I also had a similar experience when I was a freshman in high school. Only my story had a little different twist. I acted on my suspicions of a fellow classmate acting different than normally by telling my guidance counselor. She was too busy that day to really do anything about it. The next day however, I saw this same student and asked to talk with them. They took me into another room and showed me a gun they had brought. I was in utter shock to be quite honest. It took me a little while to come to the realization of what it was that I had just saw. I then went to our police liaison officer and he took immediate action.
    I had some very ungrateful people walk into my life at that point, but also some very grateful. No one will ever know if this person had brought the gun to hurt or just to scare. It just truly amazed me that because of my action I took, I potentially saved quite a few people.

  4. Current Employee says:

    Dr. Putnam, thank you for the thoughtful and timely post. Your comment in the seventh paragraph in regards to differentiating patterns of behavior and the onus to “pull the threads” especially caught my attention.

    Of course as the laws currently stand, with the exception of immediate threats to one’s self or others, there are limits to what mental health agency and law enforcement response measures can take place. Perceived patterns may not be enough to cross the threshold into immediate response by such said agencies. In the case you mention thankfully the individual in question was apparently open to intervention, so to speak, from his colleagues, friends, etc.

    With the realization that yes, there are norms of excepted behavior, I hope that there is also understanding that individuals may react to life stressors in different ways. At institutions, even academic ones, there seems to be the unwritten guideline (and sometimes pressure) that all of the affiliates have the same approaches, viewpoints, reactions, etc. I hope that respectful discourse is and continues to be the standard norm for Central College, other academic institutions, and other sectors of our national and global communities.

    • Tej Dhawan says:

      ….and then there are instances that require us to transcend above these societal limits. I will likely never forget a particularly turbulent flight from DSM to Chicago one early morning. I was in the window seat, my flying partner next to me in the aisle, across from a 8-10 yr old boy, traveling unaccompanied and terrified with tears streaming down his cheeks.

      Despite all the societal warnings, the predator news stories and the availability of flight attendants and all – my flying partner, a father of 3, reached across and offered his hand to the boy. The child’s tears stopped, the breathing normalized and two humans did what we’re forgetting to do as a society – connected. The child probably wasn’t afraid of turbulence – he was afraid of being alone through the experience.

  5. Alum says:

    This post brought me back to a day I clearly remember when I was still a student at Central. I walked into the chaplain’s office after a good friend had informed me she was withdrawing for the semester. She shared with me that she had been dealing with life issues through self-destructive behavior, and she realized she needed to get some things figured out, and it wasn’t going to happen while at school, so she needed to take the rest of the semester off. I looked at the chaplain and said, “How can you have a good friend who is cutting and you don’t even know it?” He simply replied, “She was my friend, too,” and I burst into tears. As we continued to talk, I told him how things hadn’t seemed right with her for quite some time, but I couldn’t pinpoint what was wrong. So I hadn’t done anything…and now it had come to this.He then shared some wisdom with me that I hope I will never forget:

    “There are two simple words that we don’t say enough in our society: ‘Let’s talk.’ There doesn’t have to be anything wrong to say these words. You’re not making assumptions about anything by saying them. You’re simply saying, ‘You’re my friend, and I care. How are you? How’s your heart? How can I be praying for you and supporting you?’ And you’d be surprised how much someone may share when given the invitation.”

    I have never forgotten this day and the wisdom Joe shared with me, and I try to be more intentional about using these words more often, and hopefully being there for people before it’s too late.