Why People Ignore the Facts – How Your Mind Works

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Why is it so easy for people to ignore science?  We have a pandemic tearing its way through the world and a number of national leaders from a vast array of countries are saying things like, “There is no need to wear masks”, or “This isn’t as bad as the media is making it sound.”  Cries of fake news, lying statistics, and corrupt political parties (Of course it’s the “other” party who is corrupt) are all blamed for the current situation.  It isn’t just in the political domain that these cries of fabrication come from.  Religious individuals and faith institutions also believe they cannot gather at full capacity and sing their favorite hymns (without masks of course) because they’re being targeted by the liberal factions of society trying to keep “Jesus” out of the public sector.  Some would argue that people today have lost their minds, but I will argue quite the opposite in this post.  People haven’t lost their minds, they simply are ignoring how their minds work and succumbing to all the traps that a lack of critical thinking exhibits in these passionate and hyper-emotional times.  We don’t ignore the facts as much as use them to create a narrative we like that supports our unconscious biases.  

People have an innate need to make sense of the world.  They have to have an answer to the question “Why” and when they can’t get one they find themselves in a psychologically uncomfortable state.  When we’re confronted with unconnected and diverse facts concerning a particular situation we make sense of these facts by creating a narrative based on our innate biases and tendencies.  These biases and tendencies combined with confusing or contradictory pieces of information force us to make sense of the world based on our “gut” feelings.  However, those gut feelings can often distort the hard facts, lead us to make poor decisions, and cause us to say some pretty misguided things. By simply wording something in two different ways you can force someone to rely on their gut feeling and passionately defend a position they think very different from another only to find if they look closely, both options say the same thing.  They get so caught up in the peripheral information they ignore the facts.  We rarely use logic and critical thinking to make our decisions in these cases, we simply go with “how we feel.”  Let me give you an example.  Read the following scenarios and tell me which one you would select if you had to undergo medical treatment:

Imagine you are a patient with lung cancer.  Which of the following two options would you prefer?

  1. Surgery – Of 100 people undergoing surgery, 90 live through the post-operative period, 68 are alive at the end of the first year, and 34 are alive at the end of five years.
  2. Radiation Therapy – Of 100 people undergoing radiation therapy, all live through the treatment, 77 are alive at the end of one year, and 22 are alive at the end of five years.

When given these two options 44% of the people in a study said they would most certainly select radiation over surgery.  Yet, watch what happens when we just change the wording a little:

  1. Surgery – Of 100 people undergoing surgery, 10 die during surgery or the post-operative period, 32 die by the end of the first year, and 66 die by the end of five years.
  2. Radiation Therapy – Of 100 people undergoing radiation therapy, none die during treatment, 23 die by the end of one year, and 78 die by the end of five years.

When I change the wording in the scenarios, if you’re like most people, you will actually prefer surgery over radiation therapy because the numbers start to scare you.  In fact, after making the above changes only 18% choose radiation therapy over surgery simply because of how the option is verbally presented.  If you look closely there is no difference in the numbers.  The statistics stay the same.  The facts are the same and objectively you get the same results.  Most people see that first set of numbers (How many people live or die) and make a gut decision.  When we’re dealing with survival, we become biased and let our gut make the decision instead of using the mental resources that would allow us to focus on the facts.

It’s a simple error in thinking that causes us to say and do things that are just wrong.  I could go over a myriad of other processes our mind uses to bypass critical thinking and quickly make decisions but I don’t have the space to do so.  In psychology, we call these processes heuristics.  They help us think quickly, and for the most part, can be helpful, but can also cause us to make errors.  These factors along with the fact psychological studies demonstrate we have a “self-serving bias” where we actively seek information that already supports our opinion and ignore that which contradicts it makes for a perfect storm.  However, you can correct this if you are brave enough to do so.  Daniel Kahneman writes in his book “Thinking Fast, Thinking Slow” a simple remedy to help us think more critically:

“The way to block errors that originate in System 1 (our intuitive mind) is simple in principle: recognize the signs that you are in a cognitive minefield, slow down, and ask for reinforcement from System 2 (your rational conscious critical thinking mind).”

If you find yourself making a decision or judgment hastily, are hyper-emotional about the situation, or being a lazy thinker, stop.  Create “cognitive space” so you can think through what you need to consider.  In a world where statements can be broadcast across the globe from a keyboard in a matter of minutes, the more often we slow down and think about something before talking about it is essential.  It’s the best way to truly appreciate the facts and get past your desire to justify how you feel.  If we still care about the truth, we need to train our minds to search for it in the best way possible.

When Beliefs Become Unempowering

Most people don’t realize they have a constricted sense of their abilities simply because of the beliefs they carry around in their heads.  Beliefs are good, particularly when they accurately reflect reality, but they can work against you when they don’t.  It was once believed physiologically impossible for human beings to run a mile in four minutes.  In 1952, Roger Bannister, a British middle-distance runner and neurologist broke that limitation during the Olympics.  After that, numerous people began to break the four-minute mile that was “believed” impossible for the human body to accomplish.  Beliefs are powerful things.

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Once we believe something, even just a little bit, it becomes harder and harder to change that belief.  We frequently engage in something psychologists call “belief perseverance.”  We use belief perseverance to maintain personal congruity.  Personal congruity is simply the idea that when we say we believe something and act on those beliefs we will continue behaving and believing in such a way that our beliefs and behaviors remain consistent.  If they become inconsistent, we find ways to keep them consistent.  For example, if we believe something, we often unconsciously search for evidence supporting that belief and ignore evidence contradicting it in order to maintain consistency.  The more invested we are in a belief the less likely we are to change it.  This experience of staying with something because we’ve invested ourselves into it is referred to as the “sunk-cost theory” in psychology.  We’re less likely to move away from a belief, activity, or behavior we’ve invested in even at the cost of losing everything.  We become overinvested and delude ourselves into thinking if we just stick with it things will turn around.

Because we have this experience with beliefs its important to frequently review what we believe about ourselves, the world that surrounds us, and how the future will unfold.  Who are you, really?  Do you think you’re simply the person stuck in that job because you spent the last fifteen years doing what you do in order to scratch out a living?  Can you be something more than you believe yourself to be?  What have you made a core part of your identity?  When you make certain beliefs a core part of your identity, you immediately make them a powerful enabling force in your life or a limiting factor that keeps you from becoming the person you want to be.  When I work with clients and hear the words, “That’s just not who I am” or “I’m the kind of person who…” I pay a great deal of attention to what follows.  These comments are probably some of the most important things they will share in regard to what they believe about themselves.  Let me give you an example to help clarify my point.

I had a client that wanted to quit smoking.  It was bad for her health, caused her social grief, and kept her from feeling free as more and more smoking limitations became a part of everyday living in the United States.  When she came to see me, she described herself in the following way: “I love smoking, I have been doing it since I was thirteen.  It’s been my best friend when things are rough, and I smoke to calm my nerves when I get stressed.  Sometimes, I like a cigarette after I enjoy something like eating a good meal or after making love.  Smoking is my enjoyable vice along with a good strong cup of coffee.  I guess the best way to describe myself is that I am a smoker and that’s just how I like to live.”

That “I am” statement says it all.  How do you help someone who smokes when they identify it as who they are?  Some people break the habit more easily because they see it for what it is; an addictive behavior that through some discipline and basic behavioral psychology can be broken and overcome.  However, when someone tells you it’s what they are, they’re basically saying they believe smoking is a significant part of their identity.  A number of artists, musicians, actors, and other artistically inclined people frequently identify smoking as part of their identity.  The “tough guy” types also see smoking as part of their identity.  For both these groups smoking isn’t something they do its part of who they are.  Significant motivation is required to get people who think this way to quit smoking because in their mind you aren’t asking them to change what they do but rather who they are.  Beliefs related to identity are hard to change.

I want to share with you a way to explore your beliefs and investigate the level of limitations they’re placing on your life.  Once you have identified these beliefs you can begin to explore how to change them.  First, list several words that describe who you are and what you do.  List words like “smart”, “attractive”, “Hard working”, etc.  Then, ask yourself, “Are these words describing who I am or activities I perform?  Categorize them into groups.  Label the first group “What I can and can’t do” and the second one “Who I am.”  Then explore each of these and see how they either limit or empower something about yourself.  Many of them will do both.  When we say we’re “Hard working” we know that means we’re able to stick with something and hammer away at it until we get what we want from it.  That’s a great character trait when you need to learn a new skill but how might that trait impact your personal life?  Do you “hammer away” at people until they give you what you want?  Look at how the belief about being “intelligent” might play out in your life.  A belief like that might seem like something positive.  Yet for many people, identifying intelligence as a part of their identity means when they can’t show other people how intelligent they are, they experience a personal crisis.  When someone feels their belief about intelligence is under attack, they get anxious and fearful about making mistakes and only engage in experiences where they can demonstrate their intelligence.  More importantly, they avoid challenging and new experiences that can help them learn something new and become a better person (See Carol Dweck’s work on mindsets)!

So, if you want to start looking at changing your life, start with your beliefs.  Begin exploring what they do for you and how they impact your personal growth.  Discover what needs changed and have the courage to challenge those limiting beliefs.  Sit with a trusted friend and have them speak honestly into this self-discovery process.  An outside perspective rather than just evaluating them yourself from the inside out can be very enlightening when done with love and your best interests in mind.  We will explore some of this later, but for now, take the time to complete this “belief inventory” and see what your beliefs are doing to you.  Remember, beliefs can either be empowering or limiting, knowing the difference is a great place to start for building the life you want to create.

What is The Meaning and Purpose of YOUR Life?

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I often write about the need for people to live with meaning and purpose to be psychologically well.  Because of that people often ask me, “How do you discover what your life’s meaning and purpose is?”    I do understand It’s an elusive concept and not very easily captured when asked to tell someone what you think it is.  To speak of living with meaning and purpose can sound so abstract when we do talk about it, we feel like we’re attending a philosophy course.  Because of this abstract nature Let me see if I can give you some guidance to help you discover what your life’s meaning and purpose might be.  You may find you’re already living it in ways you never expected, or you may find it’s time to make some changes in order to live a more flourishing existence.

To get started you need to develop the habit of self-reflection.  Frequently we mistake finding meaning and purpose in life as simply discovering what you love to do.  That’s not true, although it can be something you love doing more often than not.  No one loves to do anything all the time.  In fact, when you do something meaningful, you’re often working hard, failing, and learning how to improve what it is you do to be the best at doing it!  There have been plenty of times doing what I feel is my life’s purpose is downright miserable.  Yet, when I have had to do difficult things and these things are understood in the context of my life’s purpose, they are much more tolerable than just doing something because it must be done.  What you need to spend time reflecting on is the themes and trends in your life where you flourished.  When were you doing things that not only felt like you were made to do them, but that you had a proclivity toward doing them well?

For example, in my life I have a knack for listening to people and helping them develop solutions and solve their own problems.  I am not saying I am good at solving problems, rather I seem to have an ability to listen to people, ask them questions, engage them in dialogue, and then facilitate a type of discovery that leads them to do better at whatever it is they need to do.  In my life I seem to bring a calming atmosphere to personal engagements.  I’m told I’m easy to talk with, seem to empathize and care about what people have to say, and generally show insight into other people’s problems.  When I look back on my life, I can see this theme emerging in a number of ways.

Within my family, I am told I was an easy child to be around.  As I got older, the opinion of my family members was that having me at home made the home feel full and comfortable.  When I went away to college people would come to my dorm room and share things with me they weren’t comfortable sharing with anyone else.  When it came to employment my first job continued to reflect this theme.  I became at IT consultant for several different consulting firms.  As an IT consultant I was often tasked with being the person who interacted with the customer to clarify their goals and objectives that the project we were working on needed to meet.  The team of IT engineers I worked with often said customers seem to “open up” and engage with me better than the others on our team.  Lastly, I am both an educator and therapist in my present vocation.  In these roles I find that I continue to be someone that helps other people learn, grow, and solve their own problems.  Again, I’m not a problem solver, that doesn’t seem to be my purpose in life, rather I’m one who facilitates problem solving in others.

Now, I have the benefit of looking over the past 54 years of living to talk about my life’s meaning and purpose.  Some of you reading this may be in your early twenties and don’t have as much experience to reflect upon.  That’s okay.  Self-reflect, spend time thinking about what you discover, and look for what might be a common theme in your life up to this point.  If you can start to see some meaning and purpose emerge, you’re starting to get a sense of what you are meant to do with your life.  Try finding any work that allows that purpose to emerge and be tested.  Think creatively, it doesn’t have to be directly related to what you’re discovering about yourself, but it should provide you with more experiences to reflect upon.  Who would think an IT consultant would reflect a life’s purpose of helping others solve their own problems?  People hire consultants to solve those problems for them!  Whatever it is, start finding things to do that seem to reflect that purpose and continue to evaluate it over time.  Even if you’re a little off base and haven’t nailed it down perfectly, eventually something more will emerge and your life’s meaning and purpose will continue to make itself know.

As a last point, ask people you trust and who know you well what they think about what you’ve discoverer about yourself.  People you can trust will be brutally honest and you need that feedback to stay on track. We frequently fool ourselves believing one thing about ourselves when in reality, we’re nothing like what we think.  Self-delusion is a problem easily solved by interacting with others and letting them tell you what they think about who you are and the gifts and talents you have.

So much psychological research teaches us that people who live meaningful lives and do what they believe is their purpose in life thrive and are successful.  Over the next few posts I will help you do that very thing.  For now, practice some self-reflection.  If you want, send me a note and let me help you dig a little deeper, I would love to hear from you!