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10 Ways Your Brain Makes you Dumb

10 Ways Your Brain Makes you Dumb
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The human brain is an impressive yet bewildering thing. Although it only weighs about three pounds, this organ processes information amazingly fast. The slowest speed is 260 mph. That’s the same speed as the fastest car on Earth! Our highly evolved brains are what differentiate us from other animals. However, as much as our brains help us function, we’re still susceptible to being tricked.

Here are 10 ways our brains make us surprisingly “dumb.”

1. You Filter Out More Information Than You Realize

We all want to think that we are aware of everything, all the time. However, the truth of the matter is that we are not. Our brains use about 20-25% of our body’s energy, so it’s important that our brains act as efficiently as possible. In order to do this, the brain filters out a lot of “noise” in our environment, focusing our attention on the things we deem important by using the reticular activating system (RAS).

Have you ever considered buying a particular car and then noticed it everywhere? It’s not that everyone bought that same exact car the same day, your RAS was in action and was focusing your attention on that specific car. Since your brain was focused on the new car purchase, your RAS took note of it, making you even more aware of that car in your environment.

The RAS is an essential network in the brain that helps us parse through the massive amount of information we are exposed to everyday. Since it’s such a great tool, it’s surprising to realize that you’re filtering out a lot of information.

2. Your Brain Can Be Primed

Do you ever go shopping, flip over a tag, and find a great deal you can’t resist? The shirt you’re considering buying used to be $200, now it’s only $20 — it’s a no brainer! Is it really a good deal, or is your mind primed to think so because you saw the giant “x” over the original price? This shows how an initial stimuli can have huge affects on our subsequent decisions or behaviors.

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In an interesting study, subjects were primed with words related to elderly people. After hearing those words, the subjects were found to walk slower when leaving the experiment compared to the control group who wasn’t primed. The same study showed that when subjects were primed with words related to rudeness, they were more likely to interrupt the experimenter.

3. Too Many Options Lead To Indecision

You may think that having a variety of options is a great thing — it’s not. Although it may seem advantageous to have a variety of options to make the best decision, your mind actually gets overwhelmed, thus decreasing your odds of actually making a choice.

Have you ever been browsing Netflix at night and just felt totally paralyzed? We’ve all been there, flipping through the endless choices presented to you. That’s the paradox of choice in action.

A fascinating experiment in a grocery store examined a stand with 24 different varieties of jams for shoppers to test and buy. Those who sampled got a $1 coupon towards any purchase. The 24 jam display got a lot of interest as people wanted to taste-test different flavors. A similar table was set up the next day, but this time it only had six jams to try. Although the smaller table wasn’t as popular, when it came to buying the jam, people who saw the smaller display were ten times more likely to purchase.

Why is that? Having too many options can lead to indecision or inaction. Even worse, when we face too many options we feel even less satisfied with the choice we made.

4.  You View Your “Future Self” As A Stranger

Do you ever pig out on a Friday, then justify eating your way through your weekend because on Monday you’re going to start that new diet? We tend to think of our future selves as totally different people, causing us to weaken the connection of the pain or sacrifice that our “future self” will have to go through just to burn off those weekend calories.

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Numerous studies have shown that our brain thinks of our future selves as entirely different people. So much so, we may as well be thinking of a celebrity! In a study conducted by Hershfield and his colleagues, when imagining their future selves a subject’s neural activity was similar to when they described celebrities like Matt Damon! The experimenters took this a step further, asking their subjects to either look at themselves in the mirror or look at a photo of their future selves (by way of digitally making their face look older). Afterwards, they were asked how they’d spend $1,000, those exposed to their “older self” said they’d put twice as much money into a retirement account compared to those who saw their current self in the mirror.

5. You Grow Attached To Objects You Touch More Often

Every try spring cleaning but get stuck holding onto things with sentimental value because you just can’t fathom throwing them away? Research has shown that the more often you touch something or spend time with it, the more value you place on it.

This study shows that the more time someone spends with an object the more “pre-ownership attachment” they will associate with it. They figured this out by allowing subjects to examine and touch basic coffee cups prior to being auctioned. When they were auctioned off, those who spent more time examining the cup were more likely to overbid on the coffee cup. That’s why retailers want you to try clothes on, take a test drive, and eat taste-testers.

6. Lack Of Willpower Leads To Bad Decisions

Willpower is like a gas tank. It starts off full but gets depleted throughout the day, by either making decisions or exercising self control. What happens when that gas tank is running low? Well, you probably guessed it, it’s way harder to exercise self-control and make good decisions.

In a remarkable study, researchers studied over 1,000 court rulings regarding whether or not the judge granted a criminal parole. They found that the number one factor in whether the criminal would get parole or not was based on the time of day… not their crime or their record — the time of day!

They figured out that the earlier in the day the trial took place, the better chances the criminal had at getting parole. It turns out that the judges suffered from “decision fatigue” towards the end of the day. The easy decision to make after being fatigued was to simply say “no.”

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7. You Don’t Panic When You Should

Have you ever felt a minor earthquake in the middle of the night? You may wake up alarmed for a few seconds, but then you roll over and fall back asleep. That’s the normalcy bias at play. This bias occurs when there’s a disaster going on and instead of getting into “fight or flight” mode you convince yourself that everything is totally normal, leading to inaction.

This bias leads to a lot of unnecessary deaths and injuries such as Hurricane Katrina where residents never thought the levees would break. When they actually did, they were stuck at home, faring the worst.

Scientific hypotheses suggest this occurs because it takes our brains 8-10 seconds to process information. Adding stress to the equation slows this down even more.

8. You Make Bad Assumptions

The “availability heuristic” is a mental shortcut we take. It’s when we believe something is common place if we have an example to reference or are already familiar with it. For example, if we have a lot of friends with iPhones, we assume that everyone has iPhones!

An experiment from the University of Zurich showed that people who had been affected by flooding (or knew someone who was) were more likely to perceive higher risk about flooding probabilities in their neighborhood compared to those who never had such experiences. Those affected by flooding had memories “available” to them to reference, causing them to perceive a much higher risk than those who never experienced it, even though the probabilities were exactly the same.

9. You Use Emotions In Making Decisions

Even though we’d all like to trick ourselves into thinking we make decisions based on black and white logic, research shows otherwise.

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Thomas Damasio, a University of Iowa neurologist, has shown that decision-making happens in more than one part of your brain. Prior to his research, most neuroscientists believed that decision-making only occurred in the rational and most highly evolved part of our brains, the prefrontal cortex.

Although that is the case, there’s another interesting part of the brain at work: the limbic system. This area is a much older part of our brain responsible for emotions. It’s the part of our brain where we make value judgments regarding experiences and memories. These various parts of the brain work together to make decisions.

10. Your Memories Are Wrong

Do you and a friend ever recall a memory you shared, but argue over the details? When you guys first heard about 9/11 it was at your house… or was it at school… or the gym?

You’re 100% sure he was at your house, but he’s saying it was at school, and you are both sure of it. It turns out that the more emotional a memory is, the more confident we are around recalling that story accurately.

In 1986, the Challenger space shuttle exploded. It was a memorable day for many Americans. The next day, Ulric Neisser, a Professor at Emory, handed out a questionnaire to his students asking them to reflect on where they were and who they were with, as well as other details at the time of hearing about the Challenger explosion.

Two and a half years later, Professor Neisser handed out the same questionnaire to the same group of students. The average accuracy of these memories was a measly three out of seven. However, what was even more fascinating is that when asked about how “confident” they were in recollecting their memory the average rating was a whopping 4.17 out of five!

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We tend to be confident about an event and the details surrounding it even though we are actually way off. This is because we tend to have “tunnel vision” on the major event and the minor details associated with the memory tend to be forgotten.

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Last Updated on July 21, 2021

The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder Work)

The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder Work)
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No matter how well you set up your todo list and calendar, you aren’t going to get things done unless you have a reliable way of reminding yourself to actually do them.

Anyone who’s spent an hour writing up the perfect grocery list only to realize at the store that they forgot to bring the list understands the importance of reminders.

Reminders of some sort or another are what turn a collection of paper goods or web services into what David Allen calls a “trusted system.”[1]

A lot of people resist getting better organized. No matter what kind of chaotic mess, their lives are on a day-to-day basis because they know themselves well enough to know that there’s after all that work they’ll probably forget to take their lists with them when it matters most.

Fortunately, there are ways to make sure we remember to check our lists — and to remember to do the things we need to do, whether they’re on a list or not.

In most cases, we need a lot of pushing at first, for example by making a reminder, but eventually we build up enough momentum that doing what needs doing becomes a habit — not an exception.

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From Creating Reminders to Building Habits

A habit is any act we engage in automatically without thinking about it.

For example, when you brush your teeth, you don’t have to think about every single step from start to finish; once you stagger up to the sink, habit takes over (and, really, habit got you to the sink in the first place) and you find yourself putting toothpaste on your toothbrush, putting the toothbrush in your mouth (and never your ear!), spitting, rinsing, and so on without any conscious effort at all.

This is a good thing because if you’re anything like me, you’re not even capable of conscious thought when you’re brushing your teeth.

The good news is you already have a whole set of productivity habits you’ve built up over the course of your life. The bad news is, a lot of them aren’t very good habits.

That quick game Frogger to “loosen you up” before you get working, that always ends up being 6 hours of Frogger –– that’s a habit. And as you know, habits like that can be hard to break — which is one of the reasons why habits are so important in the first place.

Once you’ve replaced an unproductive habit with a more productive one, the new habit will be just as hard to break as the old one was. Getting there, though, can be a chore!

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The old saw about anything you do for 21 days becoming a habit has been pretty much discredited, but there is a kernel of truth there — anything you do long enough becomes an ingrained behavior, a habit. Some people pick up habits quickly, others over a longer time span, but eventually, the behaviors become automatic.

Building productive habits, then, is a matter of repeating a desired behavior over a long enough period of time that you start doing it without thinking.

But how do you remember to do that? And what about the things that don’t need to be habits — the one-off events, like taking your paycheck stubs to your mortgage banker or making a particular phone call?

The trick to reminding yourself often enough for something to become a habit, or just that one time that you need to do something, is to interrupt yourself in some way in a way that triggers the desired behavior.

The Wonderful Thing About Triggers — Reminders

A trigger is anything that you put “in your way” to remind you to do something. The best triggers are related in some way to the behavior you want to produce.

For instance, if you want to remember to take something to work that you wouldn’t normally take, you might place it in front of the door so you have to pick it up to get out of your house.

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But anything that catches your attention and reminds you to do something can be a trigger. An alarm clock or kitchen timer is a perfect example — when the bell rings, you know to wake up or take the quiche out of the oven. (Hopefully you remember which trigger goes with which behavior!)

If you want to instill a habit, the thing to do is to place a trigger in your path to remind you to do whatever it is you’re trying to make into a habit — and keep it there until you realize that you’ve already done the thing it’s supposed to remind you of.

For instance, a post-it saying “count your calories” placed on the refrigerator door (or maybe on your favorite sugary snack itself)  can help you remember that you’re supposed to be cutting back — until one day you realize that you don’t need to be reminded anymore.

These triggers all require a lot of forethought, though — you have to remember that you need to remember something in the first place.

For a lot of tasks, the best reminder is one that’s completely automated — you set it up and then forget about it, trusting the trigger to pop up when you need it.

How to Make a Reminder Works for You

Computers and ubiquity of mobile Internet-connected devices make it possible to set up automatic triggers for just about anything.

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Desktop software like Outlook will pop up reminders on your desktop screen, and most online services go an extra step and send reminders via email or SMS text message — just the thing to keep you on track. Sandy, for example, just does automatic reminders.

Automated reminders can help you build habits — but it can also help you remember things that are too important to be trusted even to habit. Diabetics who need to take their insulin, HIV patients whose medication must be taken at an exact time in a precise order, phone calls that have to be made exactly on time, and other crucial events require triggers even when the habit is already in place.

My advice is to set reminders for just about everything — have them sent to your mobile phone in some way (either through a built-in calendar or an online service that sends updates) so you never have to think about it — and never have to worry about forgetting.

Your weekly review is a good time to enter new reminders for the coming weeks or months. I simply don’t want to think about what I’m supposed to be doing; I want to be reminded so I can think just about actually doing it.

I tend to use my calendar for reminders, mostly, though I do like Sandy quite a bit.

More on Building Habits

Featured photo credit: Unsplash via unsplash.com

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Reference

[1] Getting Things Done: Trusted System

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