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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 March 31, 2020

    Is Procrastination Bad? The Truth About Procrastination Revealed

    Is Procrastination Bad? The Truth About Procrastination Revealed

    Procrastination is very literally the opposite of productivity. To produce something is to pull it forward, while to procrastinate is to push it forward — to tomorrow, to next week, or ultimately to never.

    Procrastination fills us with shame — we curse ourselves for our laziness, our inability to focus on the task at hand, our tendency to be easily led into easier and more immediate gratifications. And with good reason: for the most part, time spent procrastinating is time spent not doing things that are, in some way or other, important to us.

    There is a positive side to procrastination, but it’s important not to confuse procrastination at its best with everyday garden-variety procrastination.

    Sometimes — sometimes! — procrastination gives us the time we need to sort through a thorny issue or to generate ideas. In those rare instances, we should embrace procrastination — even as we push it away the rest of the time.

    Why We Procrastinate After All?

    We procrastinate for a number of reasons, some better than others. One reason we procrastinate is that, while we know what we want to do, we need time to let the ideas “ferment” before we are ready to sit down and put them into action.

    Some might call this “creative faffing”; I call it, following copywriter Ray Del Savio’s lead, “concepting”.[1]

    Whatever you choose to call it, it’s the time spent dreaming up what you want to say or do, weighing ideas in your mind, following false leads and tearing off on mental wild goose chases, and generally thinking things through.

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    To the outside observer, concepting looks like… well, like nothing much at all. Maybe you’re leaning back in your chair, feet up, staring at the wall or ceiling, or laying in bed apparently dozing, or looking out over the skyline or feeding pigeons in the park or fiddling with the Japanese vinyl toys that stand watch over your desk.

    If ideas are the lifeblood of your work, you have to make time for concepting, and you have to overcome the sensation— often overpowering in our work-obsessed culture — that faffing, however creative, is not work.

    Is Procrastination Bad?

    Yes it is.

    Don’t fool yourself into thinking that you’re “concepting” when in fact you’re just not sure what you’re supposed to be doing.

    Spending an hour staring at the wall while thinking up the perfect tagline for a marketing campaign is creative faffing; staring at the wall for an hour because you don’t know how to come up with a tagline, or don’t know the product you’re marketing well enough to come up with one, is just wasting time.

    Lack of definition is perhaps the biggest friend of your procrastination demons. When we’re not sure what to do — whether because we haven’t planned thoroughly enough, we haven’t specified the scope of what we hope to accomplish in the immediate present, or we lack important information, skills, or resources to get the job done.

    It’s easy to get distracted or to trick ourselves into spinning our wheels doing nothing. It takes our mind off the uncomfortable sensation of failing to make progress on something important.

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    The answer to this is in planning and scheduling. Rather than giving yourself an unspecified length of time to perform an unspecified task (“Let’s see, I guess I’ll work on that spreadsheet for a while”) give yourself a limited amount of time to work on a clearly defined task (“Now I’ll enter the figures from last months sales report into the spreadsheet for an hour”).

    Giving yourself a deadline, even an artificial one, helps build a sense of urgency and also offers the promise of time to “screw around” later, once more important things are done.

    For larger projects, planning plays a huge role in whether or not you’ll spend too much time procrastinating to reach the end reasonably quickly.

    A good plan not only lists the steps you have to take to reach the end, but takes into account the resources, knowledge and inputs from other people you’re going to need to perform those steps.

    Instead of futzing around doing nothing because you don’t have last month’s sales report, getting the report should be a step in the project.

    Otherwise, you’ll spend time cooling your heels, justifying your lack of action as necessary: you aren’t wasting time because you want to, but because you have to.

    How Bad Procrastination Can Be

    Our mind can often trick us into procrastinating, often to the point that we don’t realize we’re procrastinating at all.

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    After all, we have lots and lots of things to do; if we’re working on something, aren’t we being productive – even if the one big thing we need to work on doesn’t get done?

    One way this plays out is that we scan our to-do list, skipping over the big challenging projects in favor of the short, easy projects. At the end of the day, we feel very productive: we’ve crossed twelve things off our list!

    That big project we didn’t work on gets put onto the next day’s list, and when the same thing happens, it gets moved forward again. And again.

    Big tasks often present us with the problem above – we aren’t sure what to do exactly, so we look for other ways to occupy ourselves.

    In many cases too, big tasks aren’t really tasks at all; they’re aggregates of many smaller tasks. If something’s sitting on your list for a long time, each day getting skipped over in favor of more immediately doable tasks, it’s probably not very well thought out.

    You’re actively resisting it because you don’t really know what it is. Try to break it down into a set of small tasks, something more like the tasks you are doing in place of the one big task you aren’t doing.

    More consequences of procrastination can be found in this article: 8 Dreadful Effects of Procrastination That Can Destroy Your Life

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    Procrastination, a Technical Failure

    Procrastination is, more often than not, a sign of a technical failure, not a moral failure.

    It’s not because we’re bad people that we procrastinate. Most times, procrastination serves as a symptom of something more fundamentally wrong with the tasks we’ve set ourselves.

    It’s important to keep an eye on our procrastinating tendencies, to ask ourselves whenever we notice ourselves pushing things forward what it is about the task we’ve set ourselves that simply isn’t working for us.

    Learn more about how to fix your procrastination problem here: What Is Procrastination and How to Stop It (The Complete Guide)

    Featured photo credit: chuttersnap via unsplash.com

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