Scientists have added a number of important chapters to the instruction manual for the human body over the last few decades.
You now know about trans-fats and cigarettes, glutens and stress along with a bevy of other dangers worth fretting over in an effort to avoid an early grave.
Unfortunately, the chapter on the brain hasn't been updated in a good long while. In your efforts to be a better person you've had to take in the tattered, aging advice of Sigmund Freud and Abraham Maslow, Dr. Spock and Dr. Phil. Even worse, you've been subjected to the mystical run-around on your bookshelf. You feel no wiser after learning the secret of the purpose-driven life or the seven habits of highly effective people who don't worry about who moved their cheese.
Thankfully, the wisdom of the last 30 or so years of research into the human mind is now bubbling to the surface, and it has revealed some wonderful information that can finally flesh out the instruction manual for being a person. The most-recent evidence suggests you might be a creature capable of reason and rationality, but that doesn't mean you use it very often. Science is telling you that not only are you the unreliable narrator in the story of your life, but you are absolutely terrible at noticing this truth about the human condition. In fact, you feel just the opposite. You feel confident, reasonable, logical, and in your search for meaning, you've developed a story about who you are, why you do what you do, and why you think what you think. It's a good story, and you believe it day-to-day, but that story is mostly fiction.
Here are 10 ways you delude yourself between every shower and meal, each of which you can read about in more detail in my book, You Are Not So Smart [Gotham, $15.00]:
Have you ever noticed how similar the stories of Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy seem? Both men were presidents, both were shot in the head on a Friday while sitting next to their wives, Lincoln in the Ford Theatre, and Kennedy in a Lincoln made by Ford. It seems too amazing to be true, and too similar to be coincidence. Imagine a cowboy whips out a pistol and unloads it on the side of a barn. Imagine he keeps shooting and reloading until the barn is full of holes. After a while, he walks over and looks for a tight cluster and then paints a bullseye around that spot. It would look like he was an excellent marksman to anyone who came along later and saw the barn, but that would be a fallacy. When you place human meaning over random chaos, that’s the Texas Sharpshooter Fallacy. The truth is that there are a near infinite number of things that are dissimilar about Lincoln and Kennedy, but you can be dazzled when you only pay attention to a tiny cluster of facts that match up.
A cognitive bias is a tendency to think in one way and not another when faced with certain situations. Every brain in every body comes preloaded with cognitive biases and then adds some more as it navigates through life. Like most people, you are biased to notice, remember, and seek out information that confirms your beliefs and opinions while ignoring, forgetting and outright avoiding information that disconfirms your pre-existing notions. The things you place on your bookshelf, the sites you add to your web-browser’s bookmarks, and the sources you trust for daily news are all selected through the lens of your confirmation bias. When you head to the opinions pages or flip the channel to your favorite pundit, you don’t do so out of desire for information, but out of a need for confirmation of your beliefs and a desire for validation of your ideas.
In national polls, most people say that when they think about memories they see them as recordings, and about half say those recordings are perfect and permanent. The truth is, science now knows that new memories are imperfect, malleable, and often total fabrications invented on the fly. Those memories then degrade over time because each time you recall a past event you construct the memory anew from the context of your present self. In the lab, scientists have been able to form false memories about family vacations, personal illness, car crashes and crime scenes with predictable ease. This doesn’t just bring up concerns about eyewitness testimony, but it reveals the story of who you are is a deeply embellished tale that is more like a movie based on a true story than a home movie played back when feeling nostalgic.
All over the Internet you can find people bickering over who makes the best smart phone, the best coffee, the best pickup-trucks or the best soda. But why would people form such peculiar allegiances to brand names and corporations? Most of the conclusions you draw about the things you own come after you buy them, not before. You have a tendency to create a narrative in which you see yourself as the sort of person who would own the things that accumulate around you, and those things become an extension of your persona. When you argue over Apple vs. Android, it’s less about pointing out which one is better on paper, and more about defending your ego through rationalizing your past decisions to align yourself with the brand.
You are doing it right now, avoiding what you ought to be doing by messing around on the Internet. If it wasn’t this article, it would be a photo gallery, or a YouTube video, or a Tumblr about ‘80s fashion. When you got your hands on the world wide web, a new responsibility came with that gift - the challenge of staying on task instead of indulging in instant gratification. The reason it is so difficult to manage your behavior is a psychological phenomenon called present bias. You are inclined to imagine the way you feel later will be the way you feel now, but the truth is that you will be a completely different person when the future arrives. The now-you knows you should be working on an important project, and believes the future-you will hold up his or her end of the bargain, but the future-you is a scoundrel who can’t be trusted with the television remote. The only way around it is to make it difficult for the future-you to sabotage both parties.
Add this word to your vocabulary right now: confabulation. When you lie to yourself and others without realizing it, psychologists call that lie a confabulation. You have no problem creating narratives to explain yourself to yourself when asked to describe your own behavior or create a justification for your own choices, but psychologists see time and again that those explanations are just stories that serve as reasonable explanations that may or may not match the truth of the matter. In experiments in which people are asked to choose one item over another in a series, people tend to pick the last item shown, but when asked to explain why, they rarely mention the order. Instead, the explanations tend to focus on the qualities of the product. The subjects unconsciously lie in an attempt to make sense of their own choices.
You have a strong desire to see yourself in a positive light and to maintain a beefy, healthy, out of proportion self-esteem. That’s ok though, it gets you out of bed in the morning and keeps your head above water. Without this bias, it would be difficult to press forward when life punches you in the stomach. When you see your actions through your self-serving bias, you attribute your successes to factors you can control, and your failures to factors no one could be expected to manage. If you pass a test, get a raise, or complete a project, you tell yourself it’s because you are smart, or talented, or contributed the most. If you fail the test, get passed over, or see your project crash and burn, you blame a terrible professor, or a myopic boss, or a second-rate team.
When facing a huge obstacle or a potentially life-altering challenge, your self doubt and anxiety can turn your brain against you as parts of your mind hidden from consciousness develop a plan to provide the perfect alibi should you fail. If you have an important presentation in the morning, or a major job interview, or a mid term that could determine your entire college career, you might decide to stay up all night playing video games or party with your friends or skip out on practicing in favor of a movie. Psychologists call this self-handicapping, because when the next day comes and you crash and burn, you have an excuse ready to save your self-esteem. If you do pull through and succeed, you can say you did so against great odds, and feel even better than you would if you made proper preparations.
In a world filled with slogans and press releases, advertising and political campaigns, a modern mind must be forever vigilant. Every day is another slog underneath a carpet-bombing of persuasive messages aimed at changing your attitudes or altering your opinions, sometimes for your money, sometimes for your vote. Like most people, you tend to see yourself as stronger than the average person when it comes to resisting the cajolative nudging of billboards and commercials. Yet, when you are in a rush, what motivates you to pick one fast food over another? When it comes time for a new car, what planted the seed for your decision? The third-person effect is believing you are impervious to the charms of persuasion right up until the moment you are persuaded. It’s sitting in a restaurant criticising the other patrons for wanting to dine in such a terrible eatery.
You think in narratives, and you find it easier to understand the world when it is presented to you in the form of a story. In an effort to manage the chaos of a complex life and to make the world an easier place to understand, you tend to turn people into characters and explain their behavior as the result of their personalities instead of their situations. If you see a light turn green and hear the person behind you honk, you might think they are a rude, impatient jerk. But, if you are late to a wedding and someone takes too long at a traffic light, you might honk to get their attention and think nothing of it. For you, your actions can always be explained in light of the conditions you are facing, but for others you tend to ignore their circumstances and assume their behavior reveals their nature.