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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 17, 2018

    Why Do I Have Bad Luck? 2 Simple Things to Change Your Destiny

    Why Do I Have Bad Luck? 2 Simple Things to Change Your Destiny

    Are you one of those people who are always suffering setbacks? Does little ever seem to go right for you? Do you sometimes feel that the universe is out to get you? Do you wonder:

    Why do I have bad luck?

    Let me let you into a secret:

    Your luck is no worse—and no better—than anyone else’s. It just feels that way. Better still, there are two simple things you can do which will reverse your feelings of being unlucky.

    1. Stop believing that what happens in your life is down to the vagaries of luck, destiny, supernatural forces, malevolent other people, or anything else outside your self.

    Psychologists call this “external locus of control.” It’s a kind of fatalism, where people believe that they can do little or nothing personally to change their lives.

    Because of this, they either merely hope for the best, focus on trying to change their luck by various kinds of superstition, or submit passively to whatever comes—while complaining that it doesn’t match their hopes.

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    Most successful people take the opposite view. They have “internal locus of control.” They believe that what happens in their life is nearly all down to them; and that even when chance events occur, what is important is not the event itself, but how you respond to it.

    This makes them pro-active, engaged, ready to try new things, and keen to find the means to change whatever in their lives they don’t like.

    They aren’t fatalistic and they don’t blame bad luck for what isn’t right in their world. They look for a way to make things better.

    Are they luckier than the others? Of course not.

    Luck is random—that’s what chance means—so they are just as likely to suffer setbacks as anyone else.

    What’s different is their response. When things go wrong, they quickly look for ways to put them right. They don’t whine, pity themselves, or complain about “bad luck.” They try to learn from what happened to avoid or correct it next time and get on with living their life as best they can.

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    No one is habitually luckier or unluckier than anyone else. It may seem so, over the short term (Random events often come in groups, just as random numbers often lie close together for several instances—which is why gamblers tend to see patterns where none exist).

    When you take a longer perspective, random chance is just . . . random. Yet those who feel that they are less lucky, typically pay far more attention to short-term instances of bad luck, convincing themselves of the correctness of their belief.

    Your locus of control isn’t genetic. You learned it somehow. If it isn’t working for you, change it.

    2. Remember that whatever you pay attention to grows in your mind.

    If you focus on what’s going wrong in your life—especially if you see it as “bad luck” you can do nothing about—it will seem blacker and more malevolent.

    In a short time, you’ll become so convinced that everything is against you that you’ll notice more and more instances where this appears to be true. As a result, you will almost certainly stop trying, convinced that nothing you can do will improve your prospects.

    Fatalism feeds on itself until people become passive “victims” of life’s blows. The “losers” in life are those who are convinced they will fail before they start anything; sure that their “bad luck” will ruin any prospects of success.

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    They rarely notice that the true reasons for their failure are ignorance, laziness, lack of skill, lack of forethought, or just plain foolishness—all of which they could do something to correct, if only they would stop blaming other people or “bad luck” for their personal deficiencies.

    Your attention is under your control. Send it where you want it to go. Starve the negative thoughts until they die.

    To improve your fortune, first decide that what happens is nearly always down to you; then try focusing on what works and what turns out well, not the bad stuff.

    Your “fate” really does depend on the choices that you make. When random events happen, as they always will, do you choose to try to turn them to your advantage or just complain about them?

    Thomas Jefferson is said to have used these words:

    “I’m a great believer in luck and I find the harder I work, the more I have of it.”

    Ralph Waldo Emerson said:

    “Shallow men believe in luck. Strong men believe in cause and effect.”

    Your luck, in the end, is pretty much what you choose it to be.

    Featured photo credit: LoboStudio Hamburg via unsplash.com

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