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?
suzanne vosbikian says
Kathy, as a journal writer, I have examined and re-invented myself many times over. The term delusional never occurred to me as being a part of that process, but when you stated it above, it made perfect sense. I am an optimist with one goal in mind – contentment. You have offered much to think about. Trying to live by your own principles and values but still ‘fitting in’ to society is challenging and at times, isolating. I think that remembering to apply love and grace to all situations is central.
Kathy Gottberg says
Hi Suzanne! Welcome to SMART Living. Thanks for stopping by and sharing your thoughts on this. And yes, the word “delusional” isn’t something most of us want to claim for ourselves (let alone others) but if we can accept that we are “making stories up” all the time then it does make sense. And as far as I’m concerned, striving for contentment and telling ourselves perspectives and yes, stories, about how that is unfolding in our lives is a proactive and healthy thing to do IMHO. Certainly a good way to do that is to do as you suggest, “apply love and grace to all situations.” Thanks again for your comment. ~Kathy
Our brain tricks us! While I never really thought about it that way, all these theories make total sense. I’ve noticed myself that I remember events differently over time. And, when you tweak a story a little bit and then you tell that story enough times (to yourself or others), it becomes the new reality. When you’re told something you don’t agree with or believe enough times, you start to wonder whether – maybe it is correct.
I used to think that everyone else was “weird”, or “wrong” about their choices. But, age and time have taught me that I might be the weird one and that everyone believes in their own priorities. It’s all good. Just different. 🙂
PS: I just learned a new word: “confabulatory”.
Kathy Gottberg says
Hi Liesbet! Yes, Thom and I are now continually reminding each other that our “story” about anything that is happening . (or already happened) is just that. It really takes the pressure off believing I am “right” or he is “right.” From this perspective…we are both right in a way and instead of arguing over rightness…we can instead pick which serves us the best. And I happen to like your “weirdness” but then I’m weird too so of course I’d say that! ~Kathy
Nancy Dobbins says
Brain research tells us that the brain is a “meaning-making” machine…it takes input and matches it up with memories already stored and mashes it all around and come up with its own story.
Which is part of why even people who witness the same event have entirely different accounts of what happened.
Kathy Gottberg says
Hi Nancy! Yes it IS amazing isn’t it? And perhaps worse we all tend to forget that EVEN when we know it. Thom and I have been trying to play with the idea ever since and “catch” each other (and ourselves) telling stories. And we do it all day long in one form or another. AMAZING! ~Kathy
Terri Webster Schrandt says
Our minds were wonderfully created and thank goodness we are imperfect, or else we would just be boring automatons stumbling through life! Can you imagine how boring Earth would be if we were all the same or too smart? Love, this Kathy, thanks for verifying our imperfections! I hope you are enjoying your summer so far!
Kathy Gottberg says
Hi Terri! Yes, being a boring automaton is not my idea of a good life either. Far better to admit our flaws and to forgive others their own, don’t you think? Of course, I also believe (and yes, I might be making this up too) but that we also have the responsibility to be kind and helpful to those in need so “making it up” doesn’t necessarily mean that we can do whatever we want how or to whomever we want. Know what I mean? Hopefully we are all doing the best with what we have been given. And YES so far to a great summer! How is your foot doing??? ~Kathy
The attention element reminded me of this video we used at work a number of times: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vJG698U2Mvo
I’ve been also wondering if my reading summaries are merely confirmation bias! I do recognize that our thinking is very contingent on our past experiences and we are greatly influenced by things we are not even aware of. It’s why I try and surround myself with good people!
Ah, well. Even if I am making it all up, I am happy in the story right now.
Kathy Gottberg says
Hi Pat! Yes, I’ve seen that video before and McRaney refers to it as well. Pretty amazing huh? Such a GREAT reminder that our perceptions and memories are limited and dare I say biased? And I’m guessing that just about everything any of us writers writes carries a lot of confirmation bias. How could it not? I think the best I can hope for is to make an effort to provide different perspectives…but then when it comes down to doing a reading summary, or book review, it should be obvious that we are coming from our own perspective. And yes, if the life you are “making up” is working for you, and it sounds like it is–then let’s keep that story going. I believe any of us have the ability to change it if or when it becomes necessary, and I’m guessing you do too! ~Kathy
Laura Zera says
This post is so interesting, and as a memoirist, hits on a lot of things I come up against in my work. I’m actually part of a panel that has been proposed for a 2020 conference with the topic of memory when writing about trauma, which adds another layer of mind shaping to our stories.
Kathy Gottberg says
Hi Laura! I am definitely not that smart because I’ve never heard the term memoirist before! I’ll bet you’ve written about it on your blog thought right? I’ll have to check that out! Of course I’m assuming it has to do with how we remember, and thereby create, our memories. While I had written about how unreliable many of our memories were before, I really liked how McRaney claims that our memory creations are tied to the present as much as the past. The way I understood it, current events trigger the stories about what happened to us in the past and that allows us to adjust them to fit our current mental and emotional needs. Obviously, that can be helpful or harmful depending on what kind of “story teller” we are. If you do write something about this in the future, please let me know okay? I’d love to read more. And enjoy your coming conference. That should be interesting as well. ~Kathy
Hi Kathy, This is a relatable topic for me, especially right now. A few times throughout the day (and during the night) I tell myself “my thoughts are like clouds.” Not truly real and I can allow them to drift by. I like the comparison to movie versus documentary. I agree about confirmation bias and how I build my case to support my opinions, a type of fabrication.
You have reminded me where I place my attention is very important. I especially like your conclusion on how “we are the authors” of our history and the current moment. You have an amazing philosophy. Despite challenges you remain “optimistic, hopeful and mostly at peace.” I will continue to join you Kathy in this delusional life. So far it works for me, too:). A really great, informative, thought-provoking post:) Erica
Kathy Gottberg says
Hi Erica! Yes isn’t it great to remember that our thoughts can be like clouds coming and going and only “stick” if we keep obsessing on them or thinking they are real? And thank you for letting me know you understood my perspective on “making it up!” I’m guessing for the smaller than normal comments that some people might not want to claim to be delusional at ALL…if only now and then! We do live in interesting times with lots of fake news and weird perspectives by all sorts of people. And while it is very challenging to accept where others (especially those who are so different) are coming from, I found this information helpful to realize how I can think so very differently from others (even when it seems so obvious to me!) McRaney continually says in his book that nearly all of us will do just about anything to feel we are right and justified–the danger of course is thinking I am equally right and justified. The biggest danger IMHO is when any of us try to insist and impose our delusional ideas on others…especially (!!!) if they are hurtful or harmful to any living creature. And if I slip up…I’m hoping my friends will remind me that I’m not so smart!!!! 🙂 ~Kathy
Hi Kathy, Your post sat with me and it makes me rethink my thinking, always a good thing. I think a sparser number of comments in general everywhere re time of year, holidays, long weekend for us. I hope you are enjoying your weekend:)
Kathy Gottberg says
Hi Erica! Yes, one good thing about having been blogging for so long is that I know it is impossible to guess why or what gets people to read any particular post. That’s why it is so important to keep our reasons for blogging clear in our own minds. Then no matter how our work appears to be received, we can keep on fulfilling that purpose! And sometimes it is just fun to experiment! ~Kathy
Tom at Sightings says
Reminds me of the Mark Twain quote: “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”
Kathy Gottberg says
Hi Tom! GREAT quote. It is counter intuitive for us to admit how often we make stuff up when we don’t know something. Thank goodness people like Mark Twain had a way of doing it and making us laugh. Of course, I “thought” I was being funny by putting myself in a Dunce Hat but so far not that many people seem to appreciate the joke! ~Kathy
So interesting! I think the current President is a believer in some of these traits to an exponential degree! The misinformation always cracks me up. You ask 3 people of the same family the same question about something in the past and you get 3 different answers and each one thinks they have the truly correct answer. I am guilty of that too!
Kathy Gottberg says
Hi Haralee! I think we’ve all had the experience with family that you mention and it’s a GREAT example of how our minds “fill in the blanks about things.” But like McRaney says we all want to be “right” so much that it is pretty hard to admit, even to ourselves, that we make stuff up all the time. And yeah, some people, like our current President, are REALLY good at it! ~Kathy
Gary Lange says
Another good one Kathy–especially confirmation bias. I only watch recorded TV so that I can skip forward to commercials or even parts of the “show”.
Lots to learn and watch out for…
Kathy Gottberg says
Hi Gary! Yes I KNOW you know about confirmation bias and like you, I’ve read about it a bunch of times…but I so appreciate being reminded because it is so much a part of our thinking that we just go “automatic” on most things…and then think we are seeing the whole picture. And like you and Robert, Thom and I don’t watch live TV either those hours of commercials can really play with your head without your awareness. ~Kathy
The Widow Badass says
As I’m reading this, I am hearing “You’re Making Things Up Again, Arnold” from The Book of Mormon soundtrack playing in my mind. Hehehe…You’re right Kathy. Since we are creating our own reality, why not tailor it to our own qualities and values? Why settle for less?
Kathy Gottberg says
Hi Deb! I’d forgotten about that song from the play! What a great example of how our “stories” have both the ability to help? and to justify all SORTS of actions. And your question, “Why settle for less?” is something really good for us all to remember! ~Kathy