by Angela Noel
December 14, 2017
Stories are the software of our brains. They tell us how to act, what’s important, and what to do when something goes wrong. But every software program has bugs.
For example, I recently stood in line with my son and husband at an amusement park. My son grabbed my arm. ”Mom,” he said, “remember that time you took a gun to the airport and you were almost arrested?”
“WHAT! No, dude. That never happened.”
“But that’s what you told me,” he insisted.
Let me assure you that I have never carried a gun anywhere, much less to the airport. And I’ve never even been close to being arrested. Where did an otherwise reasonable, albeit pint-sized, human get the idea that his law-abiding mother would ever do such a thing?
In the past few decades lots of research by neuroscientists, psychologists, and a fairly new group called behavioral economists, has shown these “bugs” in the brain’s software, the things distorting reality, occur because of shortcuts or patterns our brains use for many purposes.
Often referred to generally as “cognitive biases” (or brain-elves if you read the introduction to my cognitive bias series) these departures from objective reality aren’t all bad. In fact, they’re quite useful. Software engineers often call bugs discovered in their programming “features” for the same reason. Sure, they didn’t intend to put it there, but maybe it’s not so bad when you see how everything works together. And if it costs more to fix the bug than it does to deal with the occasional odd behavior caused by its presence, then its more efficient to leave it in. It’s the same with our brains.
Maybe not Life orDeath But…
Not every action we take can be the result of deliberate, methodical planning. Sometimes we need to be able to assimilate information quickly . Our brains have evolved to allow us to make pretty good guesses without knowing everything about everything. Instead, we fill in the gaps in our knowledge with assumptions. This serves us well in a lot of situations.
Case in point, I don’t have to taste a rotten egg to know I shouldn’t eat it. Or when I’m in a dark alley and I hear a strange noise, I’m less likely to die if I assume that strange noise is a scary something than a not-scary something. Eating rotten food, or failing to recognize danger could cost me my health or my life. But, in other cases, like my son’s faulty memory of me as Annie Oakley, the error is apparent, but not terribly costly. In this case, my son’s boo boo was easily corrected (though whether he actually believes me is another story). However, in other cases the impact of these cognitive biases on the stories we tell others and ourselves might not mean life or death, but are still dangerous to our health and happiness. It’s those effects we need to better understand.
Victims and Villains
One reader, Shannon from Must Hike Must Eat commented on the introduction post to this series. She wanted to know more about why her siblings remembered situations differently. Shannon says “The funniest [story] we tell is of when my younger sister stuck a dried red pepper up her nose when we were kids. She says I made her but I’m pretty sure she did it all on her own! There’s another one about my baby brother eating a stick of butter. Same deal, we say it was his idea, he says we made him. I think the perspective has to do with our perception of power from that time. The younger sibs look back and feel that their older sibs had some level of control over them.”
Shannon makes a great point: Why do we sometimes remember ourselves as the victims of the tyranny of others?
A particular bias, known as the self-serving bias may be at work here. We tend to remember ambiguous events in a way that benefits us. We tell the story the way we think will result in an outcome we want. But our conscious selves may not be aware of what we “want.” Instead, we construct or reconstruct events in a way that serves a need.
A Cockroach-Infested Basement
Several years ago, I worked on an enormous project. To do my part, I had to spend most work days in a windowless, cold basement with roaches clustered in the bathroom sinks. I hated being chilled and below ground. But, I couldn’t do a whole lot about it. The work was there, thus that was where I needed to be. In this scenario, though I didn’t “blame” any one person for putting me in a situation I didn’t like, I sure wanted to. Because I had been, I thought, robbed of my power to not be in that basement, I told myself a story, over and over again.
In the story I was the victim of circumstances, forced to share my lunch with prehistoric creatures and wear a winter coat indoors. I told this story to a room full of people at a leadership conference. Lucky for me, Ann, the wonderful coach leading the session, pointed out what I’d been doing. “And now,” she said, “we’re all down there with you.”
My story confirmed my victimhood and invited others to empathize with me. The confirmation bias, my brains proclivity to seek only the information that reinforces my understanding of the facts, was also at work. Not only did I subconsciously need to be a victim, by telling this story over and over I helped others to see me that way too. I reinforced the belief of my own powerlessness again and again. The more people I metaphorically dragged down into the basement with me, the more comfortable I felt. It became a sort of power. If we both felt bad, I felt less bad alone.
Ugh. Gross. That’s worse than the cockroaches.
Changing the Story
Sometimes we can “look on the positive side.” I’m a big proponent of that idea in general. But that basement sucked. Anytime we’re forced to be in a place we don’t want to be it sucks. The story I was telling myself, and repeating to others, wasn’t changing anything at all about the basement. But it was changing me. Instead of a person with agency and choices, I became a victim, and my brain helped me reinforce that belief. Because that’s what the software told it to do.
But, here’s the good news. Ann didn’t insist that I stop being a victim, she suggested, with kindness and without judgment, that I change the story. Instead of reinforcing my situation over and over again, could I do something different? Maybe my physical location couldn’t change, but the narrative I constructed around it could. What about the work we were doing? Or the coffee breaks? The people! What about them? Those things could be my story instead.
A Story Transformed
Daniel Kahneman, psychologist and author of Thinking Fast and Slow talks about a theory he calls, “What You See Is All There Is,” or WYSIATI. In my basement example, I couldn’t see beyond my circumstances. I did only what I was able to do. But then, Ann gave me new information. Suddenly, what I understood about that situation changed. What I “saw” multiplied. That’s what we need sometimes. We need to be able to climb out of the basements of our minds.
We can accomplish this climb in many ways. One is with the aid of other people we trust, gently challenging us without judgment, to see more than the story we’ve made up about our circumstances. Other ways might be to simply ask ourselves, “What does telling this story get me? What need am I serving by sharing this?” Seeking honest answers to these questions, without judging ourselves harshly for the answers, brings us the insight we need to change the narrative.
Now back to that whole gun thing. What made my son think I was packing heat at the airport? The actual story I had told him was about my eight-year-old self (the same age he is now). I had made a stupid joke to an airport security guard about having a gun in my pocket. The guard gave me a very stern look and a “don’t ever joke about that” admonishment. Somehow, my son’s brain didn’t hear that story. He heard a much more exciting tale of a gun-wielding mama on the road to prison.
Though I limit his screen time he doesn’t live under a rock. He and his friends play Star Wars battles and shoot each other with Nerf and water guns. To him, guns are cool. To him, the idea of a big to-do at the airport involving sirens and hustle and bustle seems pretty awesome. His self-serving bias, the one that wants his mom to be amazing so that he can be amazing (in an eight-year-old’s world) could be the reason for the software glitch. When I asked him why he would think that about me, he just shrugs.
As a parent, I must gently question my son’s assumptions about himself and what makes up the reality he’s constructing about himself and the people around him. When his brain has a “bug,” it’s up to me to evaluate the situation and do a little reprogramming. As he grows and learns more about how to think about his own thinking, I hope he’ll make friends with people who don’t just love him, but who challenge him, too. That’s what we can all do for each other.
As we think, speak, and listen, we must also seek to see more than what we might have seen the day before. For Shannon and her siblings, who made who eat the butter isn’t a life or death situation (unless we’re talking serious lactose intolerance). But it points to the confusion our brains have with who’s really in charge. Sure, there are a few bugs in our software, but I’m not sure they all need fixing—we simply need to expand our ability to see reality–to stop and question ourselves and others–so we can better evaluate the cost.
Your turn: What stories of victimhood have you been telling yourself? What do you want to try and do differently?
Note: There’s much more to say about the stories we tell ourselves. In the interest in brevity, I limited this post to a discussion of just two of the many biases at work here. We’ll talk more about how our brains use narrative to construct reality in future posts.