Free Press Article – June 15 , 2012

Dr. Paula King

The Shrine Circus was in town not so long ago and as I sat watching the acts I was most impressed with the elephants. Just imagine, a huge elephant being willing to stand on its head because a tiny (in comparison) person commands it to do so. How does that happen?

Well, in India it is said that when they train elephants they take a baby elephant and tie it with a chain to a big tree, and the baby elephant will struggle against the collar around its foot and the chain holding it securely, but only for a period of time. After a few days it “gives in” to the belief that as long as there is a collar around its foot and something holding it, that it no longer has free will. Pretty soon a huge elephant can be tied by a flimsy rope to a small plant, or held in a trainers hand, and it will not only not escape, but with further conditioning it will stand on its head.

In another experiment a researcher in an aquarium took two kinds of fish, put them in a glass tank with a transparent glass partition down the middle separating the varieties, left them for a few days, removed the partition, and the fish would not swim past the middle of the tank.

And then there are the flies. Put flies in a jar (which most of us have done at some time in our childhood, though in my case it was fireflies) and leave them for a day, remove the lid, and it is the rare fly that will leave the jar.

These are three examples of a psychological phenomenon called “premature cognitive commitment.” Big words that simply mean: making a commitment to a belief with limited evidence and then never reassessing whether it is true or not.

Do humans do this? You bet we do! We commit to certain beliefs about ourselves in childhood based on the verbal and nonverbal messages we received from our parents, caregivers, teachers, friends, and society and too often we do not re-evaluate the truth of our beliefs.

I was told that in my family we can’t carry a tune, so I spent the first 40 years of my life not allowing myself to sing in public. Then I risked joining the church choir (they will take anyone!) and discovered I could, in fact, sing pretty well. Not great, but definitely I could carry a tune.

What about you? How are you allowing old unexamined beliefs to limit your life and opportunities? Maybe you were told you were not good in math, or would never succeed in school, or depression runs in your family and you bought in and live as if those ideas are true. Maybe you had experiences that led you to perceive yourself as being unwanted, too different, incapable, or in some other way just not OK.

Think about it. Examine emotionally painful areas of your life with an eye toward uncovering any of those possibly false premature cognitive commitments that have you tied to a tree, stuck in a jar, or swimming through life behind a non-existent barrier and challenge them in light of today’s reality and change your life and your health.

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Dr. Paula King is a licensed psychologist and health coach at Healing Horizons Integrated Health Solutions. Questions or comments? She may be reached at 970-256-8449