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How Our Brains Create False Facts

Henry Ford famously said, “Whether you think it’s true or not, you’re right.”

Our personal mindset determines which filters we use to parse the billions of information bits that assail us every second, choosing the four million or so we can actually process. But what determines our mindset?

According to a Psychology Today blog, “With this onslaught of input, how do we manage to not go completely insane? The key is that we pay attention to only a small portion of that information and throw much of it away.

“This process is known as selective filtering or selective attention and most people do it all the time. Imagine watching a movie at a theater. If you’re quite focused on the film, you’re probably not noticing the sound of squeaking seats, crunchy popcorn, or even the air conditioning whirring through the vents.”

That filtering is automatic, but what sets our personal parameters? Why do I filter one way and you filter differently? You’ve probably marveled at how you and a friend can share an experience but have different memories of what happened.

Truman Capote’s novel, In Cold Blood, is often referenced as an example of how we all develop our own “reality.” Ironically, the so-called facts presented in Capote’s “non-fiction novel,” as he described it, have been called into question. In other words, this example of the principle: “You’ll see it when you believe it” even includes the author’s recall of what he is reporting on!

Ironically, Capote was often heard to boast that he had near perfect recall and didn’t need to tape record his interviews. In a 2013 New Yorker article by Patrick Radden Keefe we read, “Sometimes he (Capote) said he had ninety-six per cent total recall, and sometimes he said he had ninety-four per cent total recall,” George Plimpton joked, after Capote’s death. “He could recall everything, but he could never remember what percentage recall he had.”

This reminds us of the joke about psychics: “If they ask, ‘Will that be Visa or Mastercard,” get out of there quick. They’re a fake. They should already know what card you’ll be using!”

We “know” what our mindset filtering presents to us. And, as the saying goes, if we think we’re a hammer, we’ll see every problem as a nail. We call this The Subaru Effect. If you’re shopping for a new car and you decide on a Subaru, you start to see them everywhere. That’s selective filtering.

Seemingly spontaneous choices are often determined by our deep programming, without us knowing it. I (Will) realized one day that I was always filling up at Exxon gas stations. Why? Because that’s where my Dad had always gone (It was Esso back in those days). I’d forgotten that. What seemed to be my choice was actually my conditioned response to a program that had been running in the background for forty years!

In our book, Thriving in Business and Life, we tell the story of a young girl helping her mother in the kitchen. She asked, “Why do you always cut both ends off the ham before you bake it?”

Her mother thought for a moment and replied. “My mother always did, let’s ask her.”

Grandma was similarly puzzled. “I don’t know,” she said. “My mother always did it. Let’s ask her.”

Great grandmother laughed and said, “Because the pan was too small.”

There are countless true examples of this phenomenon throughout history and it has a name: “confirmation bias.” Wikipedia defines it this way:

“Confirmation bias … is the tendency to search for, interpret, favor, and recall information in a way that confirms one's preexisting beliefs or hypotheses…People display this bias when they gather or remember information selectively, or when they interpret it in a biased way.”

Mother is always right, a young girl might believe. That unquestioned belief then creates a behavior that seems “right” through four generations, as in this story. The Wiki explanation continues:

“A series of psychological experiments in the 1960s suggested that people are biased toward confirming their existing beliefs… Explanations for the observed biases include wishful thinking and the limited human capacity to process information. Another explanation is that people show confirmation bias because they are weighing up the costs of being wrong, rather than investigating in a neutral, unbiased way.”

How can we leverage this understanding to improve our experience? After all, that’s the point of our work, to help people shift from surviving to thriving. This introduces your thriving challenge for the week:

Identify an area of your life where you feel limited, where you are merely surviving. Determine what beliefs about this situation you’ve accepted as “true.” Ask yourself, “How do I know this is true?” Then consider other possibilities. Interrupt your confirmation bias, challenge your selective filtering, and open your mind to novelty.

Thriving is a state of freedom that comes from this kind of personal responsibility, creating the life you choose one moment at a time.

Christopher Harding and Will Wilkinson

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