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Three More Reasons Why Your Brain is Not Your Friend

Three More Reasons Why Your Brain is Not Your Friend
Three More Reasons Your Brain is Not Your Friend

    Last week, I explained some of the ways that our brain tricks us. There’s more ways than just the three I listed that the brain works in odd and mysterious ways, causing us no end of mischief. Here’s three more:

    I am not a racist!

    In 1964, a woman named Kitty Genovese was beaten and killed in an attack witnessed by dozens of people, none of whom intervened. In studies to understand this phenomenon, psychologists discovered the “bystander effect” (sometimes called the “Genovese effect” after the victim), which says that the more bystanders witness an attack, the less likely it is that any individual will intervene. Each individual witness believes that someone else will intervene, and that their action is therefore not needed.

    In a follow-up study to explore the effect of race in this equation, psychologists found that if a lone individual witnessed an attack by a white person on a black person, they were more likely to intervene than when they witnessed a white-on-white attack. When confronted with a racialized situation, most people feel compelled to intervene because not to intervene would make them feel like racists. In cases where other witnesses were present, the subjects were actually less likely to intervene in a white-on-black attack than similar subjects witnessing a white-on-white attack. In these instances, the presence of other potential interveners allows the subject to avoid the self-accusation of racism — they can tell themselves that they’re staying out of it because someone else will intervene, not because they’re racist.

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    These results are repeated in a similar study in which subjects were asked to play the part of jury member in a trial against a black defendant. Each subject was supplied with the details of the case and then watched recordings of 11 jurors explaining why they felt the defendant was guilty. In cases where the recorded jury members were all white, the subjects were very likely to find the defendant “not guilty”, feeling that the other jurors were racists and they were standing up against the other jurors’ racism. When one of the recordings was replaced by a black juror with the same argument, however, the subjects were much more likely to find the defendant “guilty”. If a black person thought the defendant was guilty, then it couldn’t be racist to agree, right?

    Pay no attention to the man in the gorilla suit

    In The Art of the Start, Guy Kawasaki describes a study performed with college-aged subjects in which they were asked to watch a video of several people passing a ball around and count the total number of passes and catches. At one point, a man with a gorilla suit enters the scene, thumps his chest a bit, and hangs out for 9 seconds.

    After watching the video, subjects were interviewed about what they had seen. A full 50% of the students did not see the gorilla. This phenomenon is called “perceptual blindness” or “inattentional blindness”, and occurs when we become so focused on what we’re doing that we fail to see anything that does not directly play into the task at hand. We basically fail entirely to pay attention to things we don’t expect to see.

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    You’re such a girl!

    Pity the poor college student — here’s another study involving college student subjects. In this one, male subjects were given a personality survey, after which the testers would tell them their character was especially feminine or especially masculine. The results were bogus, chosen at random, to set the subjects up for the second part of the study in which they were asked their opinions on such things as same-sex marriage, the war in Iraq, and President Bush’s performance.

    Men who were told that they had “feminine” personalities were much more supportive of President Bush and of the War, and much more opposed to same-sex marriage, than the men who were told they were very masculine. In essence, one group of men were called “sissies” and felt put upon to assert and thus prove their masculinity, while the other group felt unthreatened and thus more able to respond freely.

    We’re all doomed(?)

    What should we do with all this? Are we simply doomed? Are we just dumb animals dominated by a couple pounds of irrational meat?

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    I don’t think so. We are, of course, capable of deep reasoning — consider the work of the great philosophers, brilliant scientists, and far-sighted social critics. These quirks of thought don’t undermine our rationality, they coexist with it.

    Some of these gremlins in our thinking machine are the product of social conditions that we can change — but knowing they’re there and how they work is a prerequisite for that. Others are features, not bugs — anyone who has ever been deep in the “flow” of their work can attest to the value of perceptual blindness which allows us to “tune out” the inessential and distracting.

    Ultimately, knowing is better than not knowing. Those of us who are committed to the idea of personal improvement think a lot about the habits that hold us back and prevent us from achieving our goals, whatever they are. Knowing that we have a tendency to see others through the prism of race and gender, that we often act in ways that only become conscious after the fact, or that might blind us to important events as well as to trivial distractions can, I think, help us to better realize our goals.

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    At least that’s what my brain tells me to think.

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    Last Updated on September 10, 2019

    How to Master the Art of Prioritization

    How to Master the Art of Prioritization

    Do you know that prioritization is an art? It is an art that will lead you to success in whatever area that matters to you.

    By prioritization, I’m not talking so much about assigning tasks, but deciding which will take chronological priority in your day—figuring out which tasks you’ll do first, and which you’ll leave to last.

    Effective Prioritization

    There are two approaches to “prioritizing” the tasks in your to-do list that I see fairly often:

    Approach #1 Tackling the Biggest Tasks First and Getting Them out of the Way

    The idea is that by tackling them first, you deal with the pressure and anxiety that builds up and prevents you from getting anything done—whether we’re talking about big or small tasks. Leo Babauta is a proponent of this Big Rocks method.[1]

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    Approach #2 Tackling the Tasks You Can Get Done Quickly and Easily, with Minimal Effort

    Proponents of this method believe that by tackling the small fries first, you’ll have less noise distracting you from the periphery of your consciousness.

    If you believe in getting your email read and responded to, making phone calls and getting Google Reader zeroed before you dive into the high-yield work, you’re a proponent of this method. I suppose you could say Getting Things Done (GTD) encourages this sort of method, since the methodology advises followers to tackle tasks that can be completed within two minutes, right there and then.

    Figure out Your Approach for Prioritization

    My own approach is perhaps a mixture of the two.

    I’ll write out my daily task list and draw little priority stars next to the three items I need to get done that day. They don’t need to be big tasks, but nine times out of ten, they are.

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    Smaller tasks are rarely important enough to warrant a star in the first place; I can always get away without even checking my inbox until the next day if I’m swamped, and the people who need to get in touch with me super quickly know how.

    But I’m not recommending my system of prioritization to you. I’m also not saying that mine is better than Leo’s Big Rocks method, and I’m not saying it’s better than the “if it can be done quickly, do it first” method either.

    The thing with prioritization is that knowing when to do what relies very much on you and the way you work. Some people need to get some small work done to find a sense of accomplishment and clarity that allows them to focus on and tackle bigger items. Others need to deal with the big tasks or they’ll get caught up in the busywork of the day and never move on, especially when that Google Reader count just refuses to get zeroed (personally, I recommend the Mark All As Read button—I use it most days!).

    I’m in between, because my own patterns can be all over the place. Some days I will be ready to rip into massive projects at 7AM. Other times I’ll feel the need to zero every inbox I have and clean up the papers on my desk before I can focus on anything serious. I also know that my peak, efficient working time doesn’t come at 11AM or 3PM or some specific time like it does for many people, but I have several peaks divided by a few troughs. I can feel what’s coming on when and try to keep my schedule liquid enough that I can adapt.

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    That’s why I use a starred task list system rather than a scheduled task list. It allows me to trust myself (something that I suppose takes a certain amount of discipline) and achieve peak efficiency by blowing with the winds. If I fight the peaks and troughs, I’ll get less done; but if I do certain kinds of work in each period of the day as they come, I’ll get more done than most others in a similar line of work.

    You may not be able to trust yourself to that extent without falling into the busywork trap. You may not be able to tackle big tasks first thing in the morning without feeling like you’re pushing against an invisible brick wall that won’t budge. You might not be able to deal with small tasks before the big tasks without feeling pangs of guilt and urgency.

    My point is:

    The prioritization systems themselves don’t matter. They’re all pretty good for a group of people, not least of all to the people who espouse them because they use them and find them effective.

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    What matters is that you don’t fall for one set of dogma (and I’m not saying Leo Babauta or David Allen preach these things as dogma, but sometimes their proponents do) until you’ve tried the systems extensively, and found which method of chronological prioritization works for you.

    And if the system you already use works great, then there’s no need to bother trying others—in the world of personal productivity, it’s too easy to mess with something that works and find yourself unable to get back into your former groove.

    “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

    In truth, this principle applies to all sorts of personal productivity issues, though it’s important to know which issues it applies to.

    If you thought multitasking worked well for you each day and I’d have to contend that you are wrong—multitasking is a universal myth in my books! But if you find yourself prioritizing tasks that never get done, you might need to reconsider which of the above approaches you’re using and change to a system that is more personally effective.

    More About Prioritization & Time Management

    Featured photo credit: Sabri Tuzcu via unsplash.com

    Reference

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