That old dictum about an individual only living life in his or her own head is even more worrying when you realize your head is lying to you all the time; only telling you what it (your subconcious) wants you to know and what it feels is best for you.
Think you know why you think what you think, and do what you do? Think you know yourself?
The brain that we trust so implicitly to do the right thing by us has a mind of its own. An adroit manipulator of information, it leaves us staring at a mere façade of reality. Vanity shields us from unpalatable truths about ourselves. Craven methods of moral bookkeeping also attentively serve the principle of self-glorification, often at others’ expense. The emotions add a misleading gloss of their own, coloring and confusing our opinions while unobtrusively masterminding our behavior and sense of being. Irrationality clouds our judgment, leaving us vulnerable to errors and delusions – a situation that is only worsened by our pigheadedness. The secretive unconscious delights in a handful of strings to pull, concealing from us many of the true influences on our thoughts and deeds. Our very own will, temperamental and capricious, weakly succumbs to unwanted impulses and distractions. And careless of our good intentions, the brain’s ignoble use of stereotypes blurs our view of others to an all but inevitable bigotry.
Being confronted with the evidence of the distorting and deceptive window dressings of the brain is unsettling, and rightly so. A brain with a mind of its own belies our strong sense that the world is just as it seems to us, and our misguided belief that our vision of “out there” is sharp and true. In fact, it appears that our attitudes are the muddled outcome of many struggling factors. Tussling against our desire to know the truth about the world are powerful drives to protect our self-esteem, sense of security, and pre-existing point of view. Set against our undeniably impressive powers of cognition are a multitude of irrationalities, biases and quirks that surreptitiously undermine the accuracy of our beliefs.
Little wonder we can’t all get along! You may think that you are doing nothing more than skimming through the newspaper on the way to work, but as we now know, your mind is up to far more than you could ever have imagined. A report that divorce rates are on the increase is critically dismissed by the woman whose engagement ring sparkles bright and new. “No smoke without fire” is the confident view of the man furtively acquainting himself with the dying embers of a celebrity scandal in the society pages. And reports headlined “No Weapons of Mass Destruction Found in Iraq” leave at least some Americans believing that, well, weapons of mass destruction were found in Iraq. In a striking real-world demonstration of the vulnerability of beliefs to the psychological context, Americans and Germans were asked to look closely at some news items from the Iraq war that were subsequently retracted.
Germans (who as a country opposed the war) expressed great suspicion as to the coalition’s true motives for war. (The word “oil” did not go unmentioned.) Working from this distrustful frame of mind, they sensibly discounted misinformation about the war: as you would expect, they didn’t believe the things they knew to have been retracted. And almost none of the skeptical Germans wrongly recalled that weapons of mass destruction (WMD) had been discovered in Iraq. But by way of bizarre contrast, Americans–even though they remembered that the statements about the war had been retracted–still continued to believe them! And it was surely no coincidence that with the destruction of WMD put forward as the primary motive for the U.S.-led war, fully a third of the American sample succumbed to a false memory of that oft spoken-of armory. Thus, in their minds, the official U.S. line regarding the necessity of war was thoroughly vindicated. Truth – already a casualty of war – received a second, hard blow.
The mendacious mind doesn’t just corrupt our view of the world: it also distorts our impression of other people. For example, the stereotypes with which we interpret the behavior of others are constantly at work: simplifying, twisting, discounting, and inventing. The wife, seething with fury at an injustice, is asked why she is so upset. The female scientist is judged a little under par by her peers. The black man fumbling for his wallet is shot dead by police.
Nor is it just our understanding of others that is skewed and unreliable: there is also the farce that passes for self-knowledge. Our conception of ourselves is ever-changing, fluidly adapting itself to our circumstances and moods, and the petulant demands of self-esteem. Nor does the devious brain always do us the courtesy of informing us of all the true sources of our feelings and views. Despondency about your job, however heartfelt, will clear with the skies. Joie de vivre will be found together with that twenty dollar bill on the street. The disliked work colleague seems less objectionable, thanks to the fragrant aroma of the new office air freshener. One brand of spaghetti, rather than another, is thrown into your cart because of where it is placed on the supermarket shelf. As we make our way through life, we are being continually unwittingly swayed by the brain’s capricious concerns.
Little surprise, then, that the true motives for our actions remain disturbingly obscure much of the time. We appear to have as little insight into our own behavior as we do our thoughts. Nor do we enjoy as much control over ourselves as we might once have thought. It is not only that conscious will is weak and truculent. We have learned some of the myriad ways in which, without our knowing a thing about it, our behavior is subtly altered by what is going on around us. We are, to some extent, at the mercy of whatever schemas are primed within us. The filthy, unkempt train encourages even more careless treatment by its passengers. The men’s magazine filled with pictures of disrobed women leaves its readers more inclined to leer and flirt with their female companions. The racist lyrics of the rap song playing on the radio kindle hostility against black people.
What is most alarming about all of this research is how these imperceptible changes in us occur without our conscious permission. The man with even the most praiseworthy attitude toward women is susceptible to the subtle effects of the sexist billboards that bombard him on his way to work. The woman who clutches her head in her hands at the sight of John Gray’s latest bestseller is nonetheless left a little less indignant about women’s lot after laughing at a joke that exploits those very same Mars-versus-Venus caricatures of the genders. When the aggressive bad guy in the action movie is black, even the sincere subscriber to color-blind principles becomes triggered to misconstrue the intent of the black man who stops him to ask the time.
On a more hopeful note, recognizing and acknowledging our vulnerability to the many common machinations of the brain provides modest scope to guard against them. Some sources of mental contamination, as it has been called, can be sidestepped by simple avoidance. If you don’t want to unconsciously take on the values of women’s magazines, don’t buy them. If you don’t want to distractedly believe the trumped up claims of ads, don’t watch them. It is also a pleasure to inform you that are already slightly more armored against attacks on the integrity of your judgments and behavior, simply by reading this. Mental events that manipulate our brains – emotions, moods, schemas, stereotypes, and so on – lose some of their effect when we are aware of their potential to influence us. We can also be encouraged by the fact that determined efforts on our part to see the world accurately can help counteract distortion. Best of all, we can recruit the brain’s freelance mind and use it to our advantage. With some exertion on our part, the unconscious can come to automatically respond to certain situations in a manner that is in line with our conscious wishes.
Yet with this faint hope that we are not entirely defenseless martyrs to the fictions of the brain comes responsibility – although unfortunately, it is far easier to apply the lessons of the research described here to others than to oneself. Ironically, it is part and parcel of the vanities and weaknesses of the human brain that we secretly doubt that we ourselves are vulnerable to those vanities and weaknesses. (I asked my husband if he felt that I had become a more tolerant, understanding, and perceptive person since writing A Mind of Its Own. He stared at me blankly.)
We owe a duty both to ourselves and to others to lessen the harmful effects of the brain’s various shams whenever we can. To be all eyes and ears for influences that may lead us astray when we are making important decisions. To be more tolerant of opposing viewpoints, however much it may seem that we are on the side of the angels. To bolster our feeble wills against temptations, distractions, and impulses. To resist the easy complicity of stereotypes when judging others. To endeavor to put in the necessary groundwork to bring the unruly actions of the unconscious in line with our principles and values. (And not to exploit the loose leash of other people’s brains to sell more soft drinks.)
Above all, we should try to remain alert always to the distortions and deceptions of our wayward brains. For they are always with us.