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A few weeks ago, I was driving from Seattle to Portland for an event. Traffic was light and everyone was hovering around 10% above the posted speed limit. I’m in the middle lane when another car comes up quickly on the right. A few seconds later the driver cut me off to get around cars going more slowly on either side. I immediately turned to my passenger and asked, “did you see what that guy did?”. In the brief exposure of seeing the car and processing the incident, my mind had developed an entire profile of the driver. I had a mental image of their gender, approximate age, hairstyle, and fleshed out most of a backstory including his never having attended senior prom. All based on a split-second glimpse of a car being operated with questionable judgment.
This profile and backstory is part of the information your brain brings along with physiological responses needed to preserve the body when it perceives a threat. Signals travel through the central nervous system to ready your body for response. In the same split second your muscles are firing, the brain informs everything with, “Gah! Here is a rough approximation of what I think we’re facing!”.
Your brain conjures each rough approximation based on everything previously experienced. To optimize the body’s response, your brain filters up the most consistent details associated with the threat. In this case, it’s possible I’ve imprinted many experiences involving a driver with specific attributes. My brain did the math and surfaced up the most likely profile. The unknowable detail around attending prom is something that attached along the way.
As humans, we do this constantly; often without recognizing a difference between observable reality and our own mental overlay. It’s like our personal version of Robert Downey Jr. as “Sherlock Holmes”, except we’re not that good. In fact, we’re terrible. Had that driver’s decision ended in an accident, a baseless mental profile could have influenced my actual recollection of events.
Commonly referred to as Confirmation Bias, humans tend to search out and cling to information that reinforces an existing belief. When presented with contradictory info, the brain switches gears and attempts to diminish it in order to preserve the initial belief. So every time I was cut-off by a driver matching the developing profile, my brain filed that nugget under “a-ha! I was right!”. Drivers outside of the profile, but doing the same action, were rationalized away and filed at the bottom of “things to look at later”. If I was the driver taking that action, my brain would cultivate an elaborate list of reasons to support the decision.
Developing a narrative around others based on our experiential profiles has more influence than we realize. Taking the example that driver’s actions resulting in an accident – the report could have listed completely unsubstantiated attributes. Those attributes would have then been filtered by a narrative of the person collecting the report; details being enhanced or diminished based on their own confirmation bias. Pretty soon the local news is doing a special segment on alarmingly high rates of accidents among people who never attended senior prom. You’re welcome.
There are a several problems with this approach to processing information. People are more rationalizing than rational. Your brain is heavily invested in maintaining balance and keeping things organized. I’ve seen people (including myself) perform spectacular mental gymnastics in order to avoid the realization that we made assumptions, or acted poorly, based on a form of cognitive bias. Example:
Person 1: I don’t feel well
Person 2: You’re probably hungover; you drank too much last night
P1: No, no I didn’t
P2: Yes, you did, I was with you. You drank 17 pints of beer
P1: That’s not much for a person my size. Plus I ate dinner. It’s probably food poisoning. I wasn’t drunk
P2: You consumed 17 pints of beer and passed out on the front lawn. It’s not food poisoning
P1: I was tired. It’s an early symptom of food poisoning. I looked it up on the internet
P2: You were signing Taylor Swift songs incoherently and vomited in the azaleas
P1: According to this article, azaleas can cause food poisoning. As soon as I’m feeling better, we should have them removed
Facing the possibility that an assertion or central belief might be flawed does a couple of things:
Requires extra processing energy that the brain would rather conserve for Sudoku
Exposes us to being wrong about other things (creates uncertainty, needs more processing energy)
Creates an internal conflict to justify when we were the ones acting with questionable judgment
Results in digging up innocent azaleas rather than evaluate our own behavior or decision process
My point is, be aware of where your brain is taking shortcuts for you. If you notice a tendency to reject a new data point or piece of information…take a pause and ask why. Be mindful of not just your mental response, but also any emotional or physical reaction.
Processing information and critical thinking take energy, yes, but they result in better understanding. A favorite mentor of mine used to encourage people to be so intellectually curious as to accept that everything you ever once believed was incorrect. It’s challenging and necessary to grow our worldview.
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