“If our brains were so simple we could understand them, we would be so simple we couldn’t”
There are many incredible discoveries related to how our brains work and they are quickly finding their way through our society’s collective story. Observations of neuro-plasticity and mirror neurons are important insights into our potential mental malleability as well as our underlying connection with each other. We can learn how to do anything, choose how we interpret the world, and personally experience events through “other” observation. I have always felt that these essential insights should be taught to everyone as part of our basic education. When we learn how our minds work, how to take conscious control of our mental programming, and HOW our brains learn effectively, then we can truly become problem solvers and imagination engineers. Affirmations and visualization are powerful tools we so rarely see in use. Why are we not taught this empowering knowledge?
I was fortunate enough to have had the opportunity to participate in a class at the University of Calgary called Decision Making Psychology. This class was an examination into the common mental biases and heuristics that influence our perception of reality, memory, and how we interface with our environment. Heuristics are “mental shortcuts” our minds take in order to make decisions or choices (i.e. rules of thumb, educated guesses). Some examples of these include anchoring and adjustment, availability, representativeness, escalation of commitment, and the affect heuristic. I encourage reading up on these, the wikipedia article is a useful place to start. There are two ideas I would like to share at this time and they are both biases that fall under the umbrella of Attribution Theory.
Wikipedia defines attribution as “a concept in social psychology addressing the processes by which individuals explain the causes of behavior and events; attribution theory is an umbrella term for various models that attempt to explain those processes.” In other words, it is an aspect of our perceptual map that helps to connect and explain the relationship between cause and effect through mental associations. The two biases are called the Fundamental Attribution Error and the Self-Serving Bias.
The Fundamental Attribution Error (FAE) is the tendency for individuals to over value specific personality traits and behaviour patterns, while devaluing the influence of context and situation as an explanation of an event. We assume that because someone displays particular personality traits around us, they act in a similar way despite any other external context. We use what we have observed, to explain behaviour. A common example of this would be a teacher’s quick assumption that a student’s homework is not finished because the student is lazy, barely pausing to take into account the unique situation of the student.
I believe the FAE is one contributing factor to the reason it is difficult to change behaviour patterns when you are around people who “know” you well (more personal history). They hold an image of you and assume that the personality traits they are aware of are the ones that pervade you at all times through your day. An attempted shift in these traits (resulting in cognitive dissonance for your friend) results in peer backlash, largely unconscious, that says, “hey, what happened to you? We used to have this thing and now we don’t – change back!”
The Self-Serving Bias is our tendency to attribute personal or internal factors to success and external influences to failure. If you are successful at being hired for a job, it is because of your own abilities. If you were not hired it is because the interviewer did not like you. We also tend to reverse this bias and when other people are successful it is due to luck or some external factor and when they experience failure, we attribute it to their own internal abilities. Other research has shown that this bias is potentially more accurately explained through the degree with which the outcomes match an individual’s expectations. Matching outcome with expectations are due to internal factors and when the outcome is not aligned with expectations it is due to external factors.
My sense of this bias is that it is an automatic response of the ego as a defensive mechanism to protect your self-image. Next time note what your response is to hearing about another’s success or failure. What is your reaction to personal successes or failures? Rather than saying someone was lucky with a result, perhaps it is an opportunity to admit and share a heartfelt compliment to their ability and skill. Maybe taking an honest look at the effort you made can help you identify lessons and areas to improve and grow from after a failure.
Instead of viewing our relationships and the people in our lives as continually changing, growing, and evolving beings, while also encouraging and challenging them to be more aligned with themselves every day, we limit each other through fixed images and static molds. Practice each day seeing the people in your life as brand new and always changing. As we practice aligning ourselves with our personal values, such as honesty and loyalty, we are practicing integrity – bringing thought, word, and action into alignment. Saying what you mean and meaning what you say. When we expand our sphere of understanding and include the powerful influence of situation on behaviour, we gain more compassion and offer more forgiveness to those involved. We have no idea the influences leading up to an individual’s particular behaviour.
These are just a couple thoughts I have on my experience with practicing and integrating the awareness of these mental biases. I encourage anyone interested in these topics to explore them further, including the studies that lead to such theories. Personally, I find learning about my mind the most empowering knowledge available. I should mention that the personal empowerment comes from the decision to actually integrate these ideas; to put them into action so we can expand our awareness and understanding of our reality. Becoming aware of the tricks of the mind help us to regain conscious control of our thoughts, words, and actions.