The Illusion of Explanatory Depth. Can you explain how your plumbing works?

My supervisor and mentor Sylvia always says that "clients come in with an idea about what the story is and our job is to confuse them."  I have seen this borne out.  Clients have a very firm idea about what the problem is and how they got there but no idea how they can solve it.  The therapist drills down and down and down, "slicing it thin" as Sue Johnson says.  "I don't think I understood that.  How does your mom being too lenient keep you from getting a job?"  "Sorry.  You said that when she gets angry, you shut down.  What does 'shut down' mean?"  "I missed that.  You were talking about how in 1985 you had a miscarriage and that was connected with not wanting to eat.  How does that work?" 

How does that work? 

I recently read about "The illusion of explanatory depth."  The illusion of explanatory depth is what research psychologists Frank Keil and Leon Rosenblitt call the human tendency to be confident that we understand something -- usually how a familiar but complicated piece of machinery works -- until we are asked to explain it.  Suddenly we recognize that a toilet or a sewing machine is way less familiar than we thought. The illusion falls apart and we become more humble.  We start to know that we do not know.  

I was amazed that nobody seems to have written about this in the context of psychotherapy.  It used to feel to me like this kind of questioning that psychotherapists were doing about a person's experience was disrespectful.  Aren't we supposed to see the client as the expert in his/her/their own story?  But there is a difference between being intimately familiar with something and being an expert in it.  Asking people to tell a coherent story about themselves and their difficulties can be painful but that doesn't make it disrespectful. 

One of the things that can happen in a family in difficulty -- particularly where there is a lot of secret-keeping -- is that the explanatory depth is very thin.  These families often have very limited, incoherent stories of themselves yet they are often very convinced that there narrative makes sense.  If a therapist asks clarifying questions it can feel very scary because the family may intuit that the illusion of explanatory depth is about to fall away.  Like all illusions, the IOED serves a very important function, it gives us a sense of coherence and comprehensibility in the face of things that feel chaotic and scary.  But more coherent narratives are therapeutic. 

John Byng-Hall citing the work of Mary Main among others wrote about attachment and coherent narratives in families.

This would suggest that making sense of the events that traumatized the attachments is important. But the most effective way of creating a coherent story line is to help the family to manage their current attachments in a way that takes into account all its members’ attachment needs. This will require them to tune into each other’s pain. The children might then also be able to tell a coherent story to their children.

One of the interesting elements of the IOED is that if we know that someone knows how something works, we take on that knowledge as if we knew it, too.  "Well somebody understands how a toilet works," our brains say, "So I must, too."  In a psycho-therapeutic context this can manifest as jargon not connected to real feeling or much detail; "I'm codependent."  "He's got a borderline personality disorder."  "It's because of early trauma."  "He's from Mars and I'm from Venus."   This is why a not-knowing approach by the therapist can be so important, even when it is frustrating for the client.  Families need to go from being familiar with their own family functioning and stories to being experts in them.  That doesn't mean they need to replace one prepackaged expert story with another, as easy as it is for our human brains to do that. 

When all goes well, the client or clients are able to construct a more coherent and flexible understanding of themselves, understandings that can better tolerate challenge and reorganization.