Bertrand Russell famously said, “The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are so certain of themselves and wiser people so full of doubts.”
Over the years, I’ve hammered on the importance of becoming comfortable with uncertainty and ambiguity, in questioning all of your most cherished beliefs and dreams, on practicing skepticism, and doubting everything—most importantly yourself. Throughout these posts, I’ve hinted at the fact that our brains are fundamentally unreliable, that we really have no clue what we’re talking about, even when we think we do, and so on.
But I’ve never given concrete examples or explanations. Well, here they are. Eight reasons you can’t trust yourself, as demonstrated by psychology.
You Are Biased and Selfish Without Realizing It
For example, if you’re at an intersection and somebody else runs a red light, you will probably think they’re a selfish, inconsiderate scumbag putting the rest of the drivers in danger just to shave a couple of seconds off their drive.
On the other hand, if you are the one who runs the red light, you’ll come to all sorts of conclusions about how it’s an innocent mistake, how the tree was blocking your view, and how running a red light never really hurt anybody.
Same action, but when someone else does it they’re a horrible person—when you do it, it’s an honest mistake.
We all do this. And we especially do it in situations of conflict. When people talk about someone who pissed them off for one reason or another, they invariably describe the other person’s actions as senseless, reprehensible, and motivated by a malicious intent to inflict suffering.1
However, when people talk about times when they inflicted harm on someone else, as you might suspect, they can come up with all sorts of reasons about how their actions were reasonable and justified. The way they see it, they had no choice but to do what they did. They see the harm experienced by the other person as minor, and they think that being blamed for causing it is unjust and unreasonable.
Both views can’t be right. In fact, both views are wrong. Follow-up studies by psychologists found that both perpetrators and victims distort the facts of a situation to fit their respective narratives.2
Steven Pinker refers to this as the “Moralization Gap.”3 It means that whenever a conflict is present, we overestimate our own good intentions and underestimate the intentions of others. This then creates a downward spiral where we believe others deserve more severe punishment and we deserve less severe punishment.
This is all unconscious, of course. People, while doing this, think they’re being completely reasonable and objective. But they’re not.
You Don’t Have a Clue About What Makes You Happy (or Miserable)
In his book Stumbling on Happiness, Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert shows us that we suck at remembering how something made us feel in the past and guessing how something will make us feel in the future.
For instance, if your favorite sports team loses the big championship game, you feel awful. But it turns out your memory of how awful you felt doesn’t accurately reflect how bad you felt at the time. In fact, you tend to remember bad things being much worse than they actually were and good things being much better than they actually were.
Similarly with projecting into the future, we overestimate how happy good things will make us feel and how unhappy bad things will make us feel.4 In fact, we’re often not even aware of how we’re actually feeling in the present moment.
This is just yet another argument for not pursuing happiness for its own sake. All the data indicate that we don’t even know what happiness is,5 nor are we able to control what we do with it if we actually achieve it.
You Are Easily Manipulated Into Making Bad Decisions
You ever run into those people on the street downtown handing out “free” pamphlets or books, and then as soon as you take one, they stop you and start asking you to join this thing or that thing or to give them money for their cause? You know how it makes you feel all awkward and uncomfortable because you want to say ‘no’ but they just gave you this thing for free and you don’t want to be an asshole?
Yeah, that’s on purpose.
It turns out, people’s decision making can be easily manipulated in a variety of ways, one of which is by giving someone a “gift” before asking for a favor in return (it makes receiving that favor far more likely).6
Or try this, next time you want to cut in line somewhere, ask someone if you can cut and give a reason—any reason—just say, “I’m in a hurry,” or “I’m sick,” and it turns out, according to experiments, that you’re about 80% more likely to be allowed to cut in line than if you just ask giving no explanation. The most amazing part: the explanation doesn’t even have to make sense.7
Behavioral economists have shown that you can easily be “primed” into favoring one price over another for no rational reason. For example:
On the left, the price difference seems large and unreasonable. But add a $50 option and suddenly, the $30 option appears reasonable and perhaps like a good deal.
Or another example: what if I told you that for $2,000 you could have a trip to Paris with breakfast included, a trip to Rome with breakfast included, or a trip to Rome with no breakfast included. It turns out, adding the “Rome with no breakfast included” causes more people to select Rome than Paris. Why? Because compared to Rome with no breakfast, Rome with breakfast sounds like a great deal and our brains just forget about Paris altogether.8
You Generally Only Use Logic and Reason to Support Your Preexisting Beliefs
Researchers have found that some people with damage to the visual parts of their brains can still “see” and they don’t even know it.9 These people are blind and they’ll tell you they can’t see their own hand in front of their face. But if you flash a light in front of them in either their right or left field of vision, they’ll be able to correctly guess which side it was on more often than not.
And yet, they’ll still tell you it’s an absolute guess.
They don’t have a conscious clue as to which side the light is on, much less what color your shoes are, but in one sense, they do have knowledge about where the light is.
This illustrates a funny quirk about the human mind: knowledge and the feeling of knowing that knowledge are two completely separate things.10
And just like these blind people, we can all have knowledge without the feeling of knowledge. But the opposite is also true: you can feel like you know something even when you actually don’t.
This is basically the foundation for all sorts of biases and logical fallacies. Motivated reasoning and confirmation bias run rampant when we don’t acknowledge the difference between what we actually know and what we just feel like we know.
Your Emotions Change Your Perceptions Way More Than You Realize
If you’re like most people, then you tend to make terrible decisions based on your emotions. Your co-worker makes a joke about your shoes, you get really upset because those shoes were given to you by your dying grandma, so you decide, “screw these people” and quit your job to live on welfare. Not exactly a rational decision.
But wait, it gets worse.
It turns out that just avoiding making important decisions while emotional isn’t good enough. It turns out that emotions influence your decision making days, weeks or even months later, even after you’ve chilled out and “analyzed” the situation further. What’s more surprising and more counterintuitive is that even relatively mild and short-lived emotions at one point in time can have long-term impacts on your decision making down the road.11
Let’s say a friend of yours wants to meet up for drinks. But for some reason, your guard goes up and you start hedging. You don’t want to commit right away, even though you like this friend and want to hang out with them. You’re cautious about making firm plans with them but you’re not sure why.
What you’re forgetting is that you had another friend that was hot-then-cold with you a long time ago. Nothing major, just someone being a little flaky for whatever reason a few times. You move on with your life and forget about it entirely and your friendship with this friend eventually normalizes.
And yet, it actually made you a little annoyed and a little hurt. You weren’t rip-shit pissed, but it momentarily upset you, and you unconsciously filed that emotion away. But now, your vague and mostly unconscious memory of your flaky friend is causing you to put up your guard with your new friend, even though it’s an entirely different person and a different situation.
Essentially, you often use memories of the emotions you had at one point in time as a basis for decisions that you make at another point in time, possibly months or years later. The thing is, you do this all the time and you do it unconsciously. Emotions that you don’t even remember having three years ago could be influencing whether or not you stay in and watch TV or go out with your friends tonight—or join a cult.
Speaking of memories…
Your Memory Sucks
Elizabeth Loftus is one of the world’s foremost researchers in memory, and she’ll be the first to tell you that your memory sucks.
Basically, she’s found that our memories of past events are easily altered by other past experiences and/or with new, incorrect information.12 She was the one who made everyone realize that eyewitness testimony isn’t really the gold standard people thought it was in courtrooms.13
Loftus and other researchers have found that:
- Not only do our memories of events fade with time, they also become more susceptible to false information as time passes.14
- Warning people that their memories might contain false information doesn’t always help eliminate the false information.15
- The more empathetic you are, the more likely you are to incorporate false information into your memories.16
- Not only is it possible for memories to be altered with false information, it’s possible for entire memories to be planted.17 We’re especially susceptible to this when family members or other people we trust are the ones planting the memories.
Our memories, therefore, aren’t nearly as reliable as we might think—even the ones we think we know are right, that we know are true.
In fact, neuroscientists can predict whether or not you will misremember an event based on your pattern of brain activity when you’re experiencing it.18 Your shitty memory seems to be built right into your brain’s software in some cases. But why?
At first, this might seem like Mother Nature screwed up when it comes to human memory. After all, you wouldn’t use a computer that consistently lost or changed your files after you stopped working on them.19
But your brain isn’t storing spreadsheets and text files and cat GIFs. Yes, our memories help us learn from past events which theoretically helps us make better decisions in the future. But memory actually has another function that we rarely think about, and it’s a much more important and much more complex function than simply storing information.
As humans, we need an identity, a sense of ‘who’ we are, in order to navigate complex social situations and, really, just to get shit done most of the time. Our memories help us create our identities by giving us a story of our past.
In this way, it doesn’t really matter how accurate our memories are. All that matters is that we have a story of our past in our heads that creates that part of the sense of who we are, our sense of self. And rather than using 100% accurate versions of our memories to do this, it’s actually easier to use fuzzy memories and fill in the details on the fly in one way or another to fit the version of our ‘selves’ that we’ve created and come to accept.
Maybe you remember that your brother and his friends used to pick on you a lot and it really hurt sometimes. To you, this explains why you’re a bit neurotic and anxious and self-conscious. But maybe it didn’t hurt you as much as you think it did. Maybe when you remember your brother picking on you way back when, you take the emotions you’re feeling now and pile them on to those memories—emotions that are neurotic and anxious and self-conscious—even though those emotions might not have much to do with your brother picking on you at all.
Only now, this memory of your brother being mean and making you feel bad all the time, whether true or not, fits with your identity of a slightly neurotic, anxious person which, in turn, keeps you from doing things that might cause embarrassment and more pain in your life. Essentially, it justifies the strategies you use to get through the day.
And so you might be asking, “Well, Mark, are you saying that ‘who I think I am’ is just a bunch of made up ideas between my ears?”
Yes. Yes I am.
‘You’ Aren’t Who You Think You Are
Consider the following for a moment: The way you express and portray yourself on, say, Facebook probably isn’t exactly the same way you express and portray yourself when you’re “offline.” The way you act around your grandma is probably pretty different from the way you act around your friends. You have a “work self” and a “home self” and a “family self” and an “I’m all alone self” and many other “selves” that you use to navigate and survive a complex social world.
But which one of these is the “true” you?
You might think that one of these versions of you is more real than the others, but again, all you’re doing is replaying the predominant story of “you” in your head, which, as we just saw, is itself manufactured out of less-than-perfect information.
Over the past couple of decades, social psychologists started to uncover something that’s hard for a lot of us to accept: that the idea of a “core self”—an unchanging, permanent “you”—is all an illusion.20 And new research is beginning to uncover how the brain might construct a sense of self and how psychedelic drugs can temporarily change the brain to dissolve our sense of self, illustrating just how transient and illusory our identities really are.21
The irony of all of this, though, is that these fancy experiments published in fancy books and journals by fancy people with fancy letters behind their names—yeah, they’re basically saying what monks have been saying in Eastern philosophical traditions for a few millennia now, and all they had to do was sit in caves and think about nothing for a few years.22
In the West, the idea of the individual self is so central to so many of our cultural institutions—not to mention the advertising industry—and we’re so caught up in “figuring out” who we are that we rarely stop long enough to consider whether or not it’s even a useful concept to begin with. Perhaps the idea of our “identity” or “finding yourself” hinders us just as much as it helps us. Perhaps it confines us in more ways than it frees us. Of course, it’s useful to know what you want or what you enjoy, but you can still pursue dreams and goals without relying on such a rigid concept of yourself.
Or, as the great philosopher Bruce Lee once put it:
Your Physical Experience of the World Isn’t Even That Real
You have an incredibly complex nervous system that is constantly sending information to your brain. By some estimates, your sensory systems—sight, touch, smell, hearing, taste, and balance—send approximately 11 million bits of information to your brain every second.23
But even this is an unfathomably, infinitesimally small slice of the physical realm around you. The light we’re able to see is a laughably small band of the electromagnetic spectrum. Birds and insects can see parts of it that we can’t. Dogs can hear and smell things that we don’t even know exist. Our nervous systems aren’t really data collection machines so much as data filtering machines.
On top of all of that, your conscious mind only seems to be able to handle about 60 bits of information per second when you’re engaged in “intelligent” activities (reading, playing an instrument, etc.).24
So, at best, you’re only consciously aware of about 0.000005454% of the already heavily modified information that your brain is receiving every single second you’re awake.
To put that in perspective, imagine that for every word you’ve seen and read in this article, there are 536,303,630 other words that were written but you cannot see.
That’s basically how we’re each going through life every single day.
- See Roy Baumeister and Aaron Beck’s Evil: Inside Human Violence and Cruelty.↵
- Kearns, J. N., & Fincham, F. D. (2005). Victim and Perpetrator Accounts of Interpersonal Transgressions: Self-Serving or Relationship-Serving Biases? Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 31(3), 321–333.↵
- See: The Better Angels of Our Nature by Steven Pinker, Chapter 8, to be exact.↵
- Nobel Laureate Kahneman and his long-time colleague Tversky further nuanced this finding: we overestimate how bad we will feel much more than how good we will feel—twice the amount by some estimates. See: Tversky, A., & Kahneman, D. (1992). Advances in Prospect Theory: Cumulative Representation of Uncertainty. Journal of Risk & Uncertainty, 5(4), 297–323.↵
- There are so many “definitions” of happiness floating about and we just can’t seem to (or should we) agree on one.↵
- If you’re thinking, sure, this doesn’t surprise me, try this: research has found that framing promotional supplementary products as a gift rather than a bundle reduces the product return rate. Oh humans, so easily manipulable we are.↵
- These experiments and more explained in Robert Cialdini’s timeless book Influence.↵
- This is a shitty summary of an experiment conducted by Dan Ariely of Duke University, discussed in his excellent book Predictably Irrational.↵
- Ramachandran, V. S., & Rogers-Ramachandran, D. (2008). I See, But I Don’t Know. Scientific American Mind, 19(6), 20–23.↵
- In fact, your brain has completely independent processes for each of these and both function independently of logic and reason. See Dr. Robert Burton’s book On Being Certain: Believing You Are Right Even When You’re Not.↵
- Andrade, E. B., & Ariely, D. (2009). The enduring impact of transient emotions on decision making. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 109(1), 1–8.↵
- Loftus, E. F. (2005). Planting misinformation in the human mind: A 30-year investigation of the malleability of memory. Learning & Memory, 12(4), 361–366.↵
- She’s also a controversial figure for her work in revealing that repressed memories are sometimes false. She was one of the first to come out with skeptical criticism of a lot of therapists in the 1990s when it was all the rage for them to dredge up (and sometimes plant) repressed memories of childhood abuse and trauma in their patients.↵
- This has been termed the “Misinformation Effect”—in Loftus’ words, “the impairment in memory for the past that arises after exposure to misleading information.” Also from: Planting misinformation in the human mind: A 30-year investigation of the malleability of memory.↵
- This is one of Loftus’ conclusions. However, it must be noted that not all would agree with her. We cannot be reminded too often that psychology is not a field of absolute truths. This study, for example, claims there are a number of effective techniques to correct false memories.↵
- Ferguson, H. J., Cane, J. E., Douchkov, M., & Wright, D. (2015). Empathy predicts false belief reasoning ability: Evidence from the N400. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 10(6), 848–855.↵
- Wade, K. A., Garry, M., Don Read, J., & Lindsay, D. S. (2002). A picture is worth a thousand lies: Using false photographs to create false childhood memories. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 9(3), 597–603.↵
- Okado, Y., & Stark, C. E. (2005). Neural activity during encoding predicts false memories created by misinformation. Learning & Memory, 12(1), 3–11.↵
- Although, I guess that’s kind of what we do with every new Windows update that comes out.↵
- See Bruce Hood’s The Self Illusion: How the Social Brain Creates Identity.↵
- Tagliazucchi, E., Roseman, L., Kaelen, M., Orban, C., Muthukumaraswamy, S. D., Murphy, K., … Carhart-Harris, R. (2016). Increased Global Functional Connectivity Correlates with LSD-Induced Ego Dissolution. Current Biology.↵
- Much harder than it sounds, but you don’t need a PhD to do it.↵
- Estimates vary wildly, but nearly all of them are in the tens to hundreds of millions of bits per second. The point is, it’s a lot.↵
- Technology Review | New Measure of Human Brain Processing Speed.↵