The Lies Your Brain Tells You About People

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What did the universe look like in the beginning?

Although you have no way of knowing exactly what the beginning of our universe looked like, chances are a scene entered your mind as you read the last sentence. Your mind provided information, based on past experience, to fill your knowledge gap. Maybe you imagined a black void, maybe an explosion, or maybe you envisioned a powerful being calling things into existence. Whatever you imagined, the truth is, you don’t know. You weren’t there, and any mental image you can contrive would likely be wildly incorrect. But your brain insists on filling the knowledge gap with something, anything, because, when it comes to the unknown, anything is better than nothing. Your brain has no reference for dealing with nothing, so it makes something up. In many cases, the information your brain concocts is very unlike reality, yet it conveniently fills the holes in your narrative to give you a continued sense of “normal”. But, what if your brain’s deceptive tendency is unintentionally damaging your marriage or preventing you from doing things you consider deeply meaningful? How can you replace these lies with truth in order to make smarter decisions about life?

It’s not just you; we all lie to ourselves. Our brains photoshop the gaps, completing the picture so we don’t have to constantly worry about how vastly ignorant we are, or how little we understand about the world around us. What was that driver thinking when he cut in front of you? You don’t know, but the effect requires a cause, so your brain makes one up. He’s a jerk. He’s an idiot. He’s a selfish person. He’s a bad driver. The truth is, you don’t have sufficient information with which to judge the motives or character of other drivers, but that uncertainty is difficult to deal with, so your brain invents information you can use to complete the narrative. Without a good narrative, the world doesn’t make sense, and our tenuous grip on reality begins to slip. Problems arises when we accept the fake information as absolute truth and fail to differentiate between what we have good information about, and what our brain made up information about. Of course that other driver is an idiot. We’re sure of it. It’s the best explanation. Never mind that he likely has family and friends who could give you a wealth of positive facts about him and believe him to be a great guy. Our narrative is the best narrative–the only reasonable explanation, based on current information. We are right. Always. Or are we?

“Explanations exist; they have existed for all time; there is always a well-known solution to every human problem — neat, plausible, and wrong.”
—H. L. Mencken

For the most part, this partial deception is useful. It keeps us plugging along and prevents us from a mental meltdown when we stare into the unknown. The same lies that convince us a stranger who cuts us off in traffic is an idiot can also convince us that our own child, when criticized by her teacher, is simply misunderstood. We invent stories about situations we know little about to make ourselves feel safe. This helps us survive, prevents us from being taken in by suspicious strangers, and forges bonds between friends.

We can’t stop the photoshop happening in our head, and life without it would drive us mad, but there are times when the limits of our knowledge are best admitted, and the fabrications are more harmful than good. You need to be willing to suspend your belief in your own flawed narrative and allow for the possibility that you are wrong, because the odds that you are wrong are astronomically high. If you plow forward with your fabricated narrative you could end up wrecking relationships unintentionally and sorely misjudging those around you.

The biggest lie

The biggest lie you believe about your friends, family, and the people around you is called the illusion of asymmetric insight. It is the belief that you get them. You know who they are and why they do what they do, but they don’t really get you. Their actions can be explained in simple terms, and sometimes they are just idiots, but you–you’re complex. You’re deep. You have complicated reasons for your actions. You deserve the benefit of the doubt, but not that other guy who cut you off in traffic. He’s just an idiot, plain and simple. You are always the most reasonable person you know, because, if you didn’t believe you were, you would already have adjusted your views to whatever was more reasonable and right.

The hardest truth

The hardest truth to live with is: uncertainty is a fact of life. Your information is woefully incomplete, especially about the nature of those around you. You don’t get them as much as you think you do. They are as complex as you are, and they believe they deserve the benefit of the doubt just as much as you do. And maybe they do. You are an idiot, also, and frequently take actions others would deem unwise or even rude. Many of the views you currently hold are deeply flawed because they are based on limited knowledge and personal biases. You have a lot of room to improve.

What you can do

Although you can’t prevent your brain from telling you lies about the world, you can be aware that your data is dubious, and, with that in mind, you might reasonable do the following.

Check your assumptions about other people
Your assumptions, though useful, are often wrong. Studies have shown that even married couples know less about one another than they believe they do. Actually, couples who had been long time partners were more delusional, believing more deeply that they knew the other person better than they actually did when put to the test, compared to newly married couples. Familiarity is nice and comforting, but make it a point to inquire and listen. Continue exploring the people you love and allow them to inform you rather than assuming you have them figured out. We all enjoy being explored. We love to talk about ourselves. We love when people show interest in hearing our perspective. We don’t enjoy being dismissed by assumptions.

Be liberal with grace
You give yourself the benefit of the doubt; give it to others, also. Don’t be stingy with grace. Although you need to check your assumptions, you still need to use assumptions in the absence of knowledge, so practice assuming positive things about the other humans around you. They are as flawed as you, and like you, they mean well. They believe they are right, just like you. They may be wrong, but cut them some slack. You’re wrong a lot. Surely you can relate.

Acknowledge your own imperfections
How many times have you cut someone off, either intentionally or accidentally, then justified and rationalize your action in your own mind. “Oops! I didn’t see them there” or “They didn’t give me enough room to merge”. Maybe you made a mistake, but surely you aren’t an idiot. That’s inconceivable. The truth is, someone thinks you’re an idiot, and rather than puffing up your chest and rationalizing away your mistakes, try owning them. “Yes, that was me. I cut you off. I screwed up. I’m sorry!” Sometimes admitting your mistakes is a powerful step toward bonding with others you care about or turning a potential enemy into a friend.

Mix in a little humility
Confidence is good, to a point. You need to be able to speak with confidence and strength, but temper it with a dose of humility. Remember, you don’t have all the answers. In fact, the answer you think you have are quite likely flawed. If you really care about the truth, you need the input of those around you, and you need to be willing to shift your own point of view when better information is available. That should make you think twice about blasting your political rivals or rolling your eyes at a strange religion. You have yet to figure it all out, and that’s ok. In fact, admitting your ignorance can be a healthy habit. Ignorance itself is not your greatest enemy–your greatest enemy is believing the wrong information and making foolish decisions as a result.

The great adventure

All this uncertainty–all these lies your brain is telling you–may sound discouraging, but I find it quite refreshing. Because there is so much I don’t know, I have so much I can learn. The world is brimming with experiences I’ve never had, knowledge I’ve never encountered, and people with whom I can form even deeper and more meaningful bonds. There is great adventure to be had, much to discover, and plenty of truth I can use to replace the lies my brain has told me. The possibilities for growth and understanding are limitless if we can admit our deficiencies and make room in our heads for a few new ideas.

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