Musings – Part 5

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Bias.  We are hard-wired with biases at birth; it’s one way the brain sustains itself. Yet we generally believe we are less biased than others. Psychologists call this a blind spot because we cannot see what we don’t already know. Just as Goethe said we cannot hear what we don’t understand. I call it the mother of all biases. Study after study (more than 1,000 research citations) confirm this neurological reality: we are more blind to our biases, which are beneath consciousness, than to our limitations (such as procrastination, entitlement, or thinking we can’t change). These behavioural shortcomings are more obvious, both to ourselves and to others. Curiously, those who believe in free will, which posits that we are free to choose how we act, have an even bigger blind spot when it comes to their deficiencies. Researchers say this is because those who genuinely believe their decisions are completely within their control are less likely to acknowledge their own limitations. We can’t eliminate our biases, we can only become more mindful of their effect on our thinking. Until we recognize, understand and accept them, we are unable to diminish their impact.

Fake news.  If you hear an unfounded statement often enough, you may start believing it’s true. This is known as the illusory truth effect. If you think you’re immune to it, you’re probably wrong. Neuroscience is a window into our brains – our most important and least understood organ. It tells us we mistake repeated fluency with truth. The antidote is to diligently apply our own knowledge to critically analyze statements that don’t make sense when we first encounter them. Of course, evaluating the accuracy or veracity of a statement is only helpful when we already have the appropriate knowledge to appraise it. Possessing the necessary expertise to counter false claims is never enough. We must conscientiously and repeatedly apply that knowledge to carefully compare incoming claims to what we already think we know.

Selfies.  Know someone who posts a lot of selfies on Instagram or Facebook? It’s been suggested such people are narcissistic. But the research on that notion is inconclusive. A new study, published in the Journal of Research in Personality, says that whatever the traits of those who post selfies might be, those who receive them do have a clear opinions. And they’re not good. Researchers rated those who post regularly on 13 attributes – such as loneliness, success, extraversion, absorption, dependability, emotionality, being considerate of others, and so on. The raters were in clear agreement: those who post selfies are seen as less likeable, less successful, more insecure and less open to new experiences. (https://digest.bps.org.uk/2019/09/16/)

Lying.  The response to my Peeling the Onion blog was both interesting and gratifying. Several requested more on the concept of lying. Well, briefly put, we all lie. This seeming fault is one of the more sophisticated accomplishments of the human mind, a necessary requirement of living and an art form that takes special effort and brain functionality. Children learn to lie before they walk. Without this skill in our behavioral repertoire, we’d have a hard time coping with the vicissitudes of life. When people always speak unvarnished truth, as can happen when Parkinson’s disease or certain injuries affect the brain’s frontal lobe, they are judged as tactless or hurtful. We tell white lies all the time, if only out of politeness or kindness: Grandma, your homemade pie is awesome (it’s actually awful). No, you’re not interrupting me (you really are). I’m quite fine today, thank you (I’m really not). A little bit of pretense occasionally smooths out human relationships without doing lasting harm. (More on this topic in a future blog perhaps.)

Feedback.  Our parents and teachers once told us to be nice to others. That said, if we can’t speak honestly and candidly to them about why they fail, we either want them to keep failing or would prefer to see them fail rather than hurt their feelings. My explicit calling in life it to help people realize their extraordinary potential, not to coddle them into greatness by reinforcing their self-effacing (hence delusional) beliefs. The challenge with this approach is that some people, more than you might appreciate, interpret the feedback I offer as an insult rather than just the data it simply is. They would rather focus wrath on the messenger to avoid hearing a useful message. They react to the presumed intent in order to ignore the content. They revise their beliefs, hence their words and actions, to confirm the identity they desire. They want others to tolerate their failings instead of taking ownership of their learning and thus also their futures. So, I continue to learn how to adjust and frame my feedback to better serve my mission.

Baby steps.  There are a lot of ways not to be average. Doing what everyone else is doing is not one of them. Putting off what appears hard for something that seems easier or more fun is another way to not be appreciated by those who count. Goethe said Everything is hard before it gets easy. The trick is to make incremental adjustments. Some call these the “1% changes” that compound over time. Because, much like a pebble tossed in a pond, they tend to feed on themselves. The longer you stay with it, the easier it becomes and the greater the rewards. Why exercise when you can watch TV? Why read a book when you can pretend you already know? When it comes to personal growth, short-term pain invariably equates to long-term gain. If you truly want to be “above average,” start with little, though not inconsequential, steps. The average have neither the time nor the inclination to make these smaller but necessary sacrifices. The great ones do. If you think you can wait until tomorrow, there’ll be a day after that one. So you can just keep putting it off, day after day, and remain quite average.

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