Many people who find SMART Living 365 through Google or other online search engines are looking for information about Smart technologies. Others might be attracted to the blog thinking it has to do with intelligence or doing the right thing. Yet, if you stick around and read an article or two, you quickly realize that SMART is actually an acronym for Sustainable-Meaningful-Aware-Responsible and Thankful—and those ideas are what I mainly explore here. Plus, now and then I come across information that ties brain science to awareness. So when I found a book at the library titled, You Are Not So SMART, how could I not check it out? My big take-away? Clearly I am not as smart as I like to think I am (none of us are really!) mainly because who we think we are, our memories, and how we see the world often has very little to do with reality. Another way of looking at it—believe or like it, or not—we are continually making it up!
The book, You Are Not So SMART is written by a guy named David McRaney. McRaney is a fellow blogger and like me, he put together a series of his blog posts and published them as a book. Unlike me he has a sarcastic sense of humor which you might have guessed from the title. Still, he has a great way of pointing out how much of how we think, remember, and behave is guided by our unconscious and often delusional mind, as well as other programmed behaviors. So no matter how smart we might think we are, unless we are constantly aware of how our minds work in default-mode, chances are we are not behaving very intelligently. As he says, most of us are, “unaware of how unaware we are.”
Some of the ways our minds work I have written about here on the blog—and there are many other books on the market that explore them as well. However, I found rereading them and hearing his examples to be an extremely good way to remind me of how easily our minds fall victim to heuristic (short-cut) thinking, magical thinking, and unconscious biases. I was also struck by how many times he made reference to the idea that our minds are story-making devises that shape and manipulate the world around us in order to make it fit into our understanding and provide meaning—regardless of reality. Again, we are “making it up!”
With those two themes, here are a few of the most common areas shared in the book that I thought particularly applied to the ideas of greater self-awareness and making it up.
- Confabulation. Even though we like to think we are always truthful with others and seldom lie, we are often ignorant of the true motivations behind our thinking, our actions and our beliefs. McRaney says, “You are a confabulatory creature by nature. You are always explaining to yourself the motivations for your actions and the causes to the effects in your life and you make them up without realizing it when you don’t know the answers.” In fact, our lives are more like a “movie based on true events” rather than a documentary. We tend to think our his/herstory is real and factual to a fault. Instead McRaney boils it down by saying, “You are a story you tell yourself.”
- Attention. We think our eyes and mind are like a video camera that records everything going on around us as well as every thought within us. However, even what we see with our eyes is just a tiny fraction of the world around us. Making it worse, our consciousness and memory only record a sliver of what we see and experience at any given moment. As McRaney says, “What you pay attention to creates your moment to moment perception of realty. Everything else is lost or blurred.” That is why it is critical to remember that tunnel vision is a default setting for our minds and learning to appreciate and control our attention is so very important.
- Introspection. Like most people, I like to think I know why I like the things I like, and consciously choose my actions and experiences based upon sound reason. Yet according to McRaney, most of the time this is called “the Introspection Illusion.” So although it is normal for us to think our choices are very conscious and logical, most of the time we are simply making up a story about our choices that fits with what we can “reasonably believe.” Think you like one particular brand of toothpaste over another? Chances are good it is either a case of “priming” or habit. And if we have to tell or explain our actions to others, we make up a story that we think they will believe as well. McRaney says, “Time after time experiments show introspection is not the act of tapping into your mental constructs but is instead a fabrication.”
- Confirmation Bias. While this mental process is fairly well known, it bares repeating. It reminds us that while we like to believe that our thinking is open minded and a result of rational, objective analysis, most of it is an accumulation of what we already believe to be true while ignoring anything that contradicts it. As McRaney says, “…you want to be right about how you see the world so you seek out information that confirms your beliefs and avoid contradictory evidence and opinions.” Let’s never forget that we all like to read and/or be told what we think we already know, even when we are convinced we are exceptionally open and un-opinionated!
- The Third Person Effect. Another thing most of us commonly do is believe that our opinions and decisions are based on facts, experience and mindful thinking. I sure do. But “The Third Person Effect” shows that although we tend to believe we are seldom swayed or fooled by advertising, political rhetoric, con artists or overt persuasion—every one of us is equally susceptible. According to McRaney, The Third Person Effect points out that we are all influenced by everything we see or hear. Everything! We unconsciously make choices and hold beliefs that we have been programmed to accept. Unfortunately, we nearly always believe that such a limitation applies to others and not ourselves.
- The Misinformation Effect. The majority of us all like to believe that our memories are like recordings of our past. However, The Misinformation Effect shows that our memories are recreated anew from whatever information we have on hand in the current moment. A big problem with that is that we are usually oblivious to our “faulty reconstruction of memory.” As overwhelming research shows, our memories are not an irreputable video or data stored on a hard drive. Instead, as McRaney says, “Studies suggest that your memory is permeable, malleable, and evolving.” The Misinformation Effect reminds us that we are creating much of our memories in any given moment to make sense and meaning of our world. And if someone else sees the past (and present!) differently than us, chances are they are doing the same thing.
- Conformity. Most of us like to believe we are a strong and unique person who never conforms to herd mentality. What we don’t realize is that conformity is a very strong survival instinct that will jump in and take over if we are threatened or aren’t paying attention. That is why it is so easy for any strong authority figure or social pressure to influence us to behave in ways we would not consciously choose for ourselves given the awareness. While it is easy to question why some people behave in atrocious ways towards others, we would be wise to remember how strong this survival mechanism is for us all. Instead, let’s not neglect to question authority, especially when their, or our, actions could harm ourselves or others.
This is just a small sampling of the nearly 50 mental traps offered by McRaney that show how our minds routinely work to help us navigate our days. In McRaney’s opinion, they all end up making us “not as smart as we think we are.” My perception is that the real danger is forgetting that we are the authors of both our his/herstory as well as of the current moment. And as much as we want to believe it, there is no one reality for everyone. In the end, we get to decide whether our story is a drama, a comedy, a tragedy, family-friendly, a fright-fest, or an inspiration.
What comes up for me is that for a number of years now, I have been aware that my life philosophy and version of the world is different than many others. Not special or better—just different. And at one point I even realized that I might be quite delusional about it—now McRaney sort of proves it. But at the same time, it occurred to me that even if I was delusional, it serves me well. In other words, in spite of challenging circumstances happening globally, regionally and even personally—I remain optimistic, hopeful and mostly at peace. I believe the Universe is benevolent, that people are basically good, and that no matter what circumstance occurs, there are always options and paths to something better. I realize evil and destructive things happen, but I remain steadfast in the belief that love and compassion will win out. I also believe that each of us has the ability to “make up” their lives in a similar way. The only danger with that “delusion” is thinking anyone else has to think the same way as I do.
I will readily admit that life can certainly be challenging. So, no, I don’t think we control the Universe and certainly not other people—but with intention, we can control our own mind and much of our own little world. From where I sit, it is SMART to always remember that we create the direction of our lives and that we are in fact, “making it up.” And if you agree, why not start making up your own story in a way that reflects the qualities and values you hope to experience in the world?