Self-awareness is a core skill set of any successful leader. Frankly, it is a core skill set for all compassionate human beings. Among other things, awareness begins by knowing our brain and recognizing our vulnerability to get stuck in the trappings of our own mind. Thus, removing barriers to manage relationships and make better decisions.
Thanks to advances in technology, sciences has been able to increase our understanding of the human brain. But, given that what we now know is only a fraction of what is yet to be discovered, we run the risk of over generalizing and over simplifying this tremendously complex organ. Ironically, we can attribute this tendency to what we know about how our human brains are designed to function. Over generalization is one of the many mind traps set by our brains, in which we often get stuck.
The idea that our brain takes short cuts that can lead us to faulty thinking is not a product of modern neuroscience. Fallacies or thinking errors have been recognized by philosophers and logic professors for centuries. But, new discoveries of just how our brain works leads to new insights into why our brain so often tricks us.
Don’t get me wrong, the brain is not just an unreliable trickster. It is incredibly designed to both survive and to thrive (that is to learn, grow and heal.) It functions in ways to achieve these goals within the world we live.
Surviving the world would be easy if we were all knowing and could rapidly process every bit of data available in any given moment. Though, be careful what you wish for. I am unsure this level of awareness would permit us to actually enjoy and appreciate the beauty of life. At least, I think it would make it difficult to get a good night’s sleep. So, the brain finds clever ways to achieve its goals with the information it has available.
First, when registering an interpretation of incoming data, the brain uses what it has previously learned. In fact, there are more neurotransmissions being sent from within the brain then the new information provided by the external experience. In other words, our interpretation of any given reality is based more on what we already think we know then what we are actually experiencing
Secondly, the brain does not like ambiguity. Our survival mode brain knows that what you don’t know can hurt you. In the absence of data, it tends to fill in the gap. This can lead us to jump to conclusions or over interpret meaning or cause and effect relationships.
The ability to selectively pay attention to what is important and fill in the gap for everything else can lead to two areas of distortions that can result in mind traps; the interpretation of data and the perception of time. I first want to address the interpretation of data through the processes of generalization and assimilation.
From our first moments of life, our brain is searching for patterns to make sense of the world. The data is stored as memory for later use. Some memory is encoded with emotions. This helps our survival brain to identify threats to determine what causes pleasure and what causes pain. Of course, the complex brain is not just built for survival and humans experience many more emotional nuances than just pleasure and pain. However, in survival mode, the brain generalizes and many emotions (shame, envy, anxiety, etc.) will be interpreted as threats.
This built-in inclination to overgeneralize threat serves a very practical purpose. Think of it this way, you could either mistake a harmless bush for a lion or mistake the hungry lion for a bush. The first mistake causes you to be needlessly cautious the second mistake causes you to be the lion’s dinner. Unfortunately, this negativity bias often casts a shadow over everyday decisions.
Experiences help us to learn and grow. Both positive and negative experiences develop our world view or our working model of how we perceive the world to be. New experiences will be interpreted through the lens of this working model. We call this assimilation. Though it is possible for new experiences to challenge and reshape our world view, after a certain age it becomes easier to assimilate the new experience into what we already believe. This feature of our brain leads to something often referred to as confirmation bias. That is the tendency to use new information to support what we already believe and reject information that challenges our belief regardless of the weight, validity or content of the new data.
In addition to how we interpret data, the brain also develops perceptions of time.
Stuck in time
Time is a tricky thing to wrap our minds around because of its perpetual nature. We all experience time in past, present and future, but the present is temporary and fleeting. In survival mode, our perception of time slows down. This phenomenon is attributed to our brain hyper-recording sensory information when it detects danger. This perception can cause us to attribute too much weight to past experiences, especially if they are encoded with strong emotion. What happened in the past can feel very much as if it is occurring in the present. Additionally, we can easily forget the temporariness of the present. When things are unpleasant, it feels like it lasts forever.
Both these perceptions of time can cloud our ability to make decisions. An example of this is something referred to as the sunk-cost bias. This is the tendency to make decisions based on our past investment of time and money instead of considering the present situation and the likely future results.
Related to the perception of time is the tendency to view as finite, things that are replenishable. Past experiences of real or perceived deprivation create a scarcity mindset that can distort our view of what we need, want and deserve and how we measure fairness. We hold tight to the belief that everything is measured on opposing scales and if someone has more, someone else must have less. This view is often applied to the intangible and the replenishable, such as love, affirmation, compassion, forgiveness and mercy.
So how do we keep our brain from leading us to bad decisions?
Knowing that these mind traps exist can help us to better identify when we are getting stuck by them. However, this is not always enough. Lasting growth and change come through forming new habits that help to rewire our brain’s responses. Here are a few simple practices that can build resiliency and avoid the trap.
- Gratitude: Practicing gratitude can shift our perception from deprivation to abundance. Among other things, an abundance mindset carries the belief that we have, and we are enough. This mindset can also help us to battle persistent and unhelpful thoughts of shame, envy and anxiety.
- Mindfulness: Mindfulness is a set of practices that improve the ability to focus on the present increasing our awareness and accepting of the now. Benefits of these practice have been shown to include a reduction in rumination and emotional reactivity. There is even research showing that practicing mindfulness techniques can reduce sunk-cost bias effects.
- Creative Thinking: Creative thinking is a method of exercising our ability to see things from a different perspective. Counteracting confirmation bias requires a deliberate shift in focus. If you believe something to be so, look for the evidence that it is not so. Actively seek information that disputes your conclusion. Make it a habit to ask yourself “what else might be the reason for this to happen?” Give yourself a chance to interact and dialogue with people who hold different opinions than your own. Think outside the box and consider all possible solutions.
- Hope: This does not mean unrealistic Pollyanna thinking, but it involves not getting bogged down in disappointment and despair and embracing the potential of the next chance. Practice using phrases like “yet,” and “this time” to describe the situation implying that at some time you will be successful. Recognize that even if you did not achieve your desired outcome, you might have made some progress or at least learned what not to do. Acknowledging small successes keeps us focused in the right direction.
The more we learn about the brain and how the brain functions to achieve its goals, the more we understand how it can impact perceptions and beliefs and ultimately decisions and actions. This knowledge frees us to engage in practices to build resiliency and to become better leaders.