Your cheating brain

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By Bob Bailly

Mistakes were made, but not by me, a book by Carol Tarvis and Elliot Aronson, explores the very human tendency to deflect blame, to admit error begrudgingly and to avoid responsibility. They explore the notion that too often we hear the self-justifying, “There was nothing else I could have done.” Consider the American presidents who in the face of overwhelming evidence to the opposite have proclaimed, “I did not have sex with that women” or “I am not a crook.”

Why do we justify foolish beliefs, bad decisions and hurtful acts? How is it that as individuals we have so much difficulty admitting error and responsibility? And why are we always looking to convince ourselves that we did the best thing?

English psychologist Cordelia Fine explains in A Mind of its Own that the category of people who come closest to real truth about themselves (as measured by outsiders) are the clinically depressed. A more normal mind, it turns out, loves you like your mother. Your brain protects you from reality, just like mom would try to do. What you’re interested in must be important, and what you’re hopeless at must be trivial. According to the way our brains work, we certainly think we’re more interesting, smarter and better looking than we are. And we rarely make mistakes. That’s for sure. Not me, anyway.

Mistakes were made, but not by me

When U.S. politician Eliot Spitzer was swallowed by a sex scandal several years back, people were stunned that this moral crusader had fallen. But a number of studies, including one published in April 2009 in the Journal Psychological Science, found that people with elevated moral self-worth may be more prone to acting immorally in some realms of their lives. So witness Mr. Spitzer, then New York governor and former attorney general, who was known as ‘The Sheriff of Wall Street,’ crusader against corruption, father of three and self-proclaimed family man, exposed for cheating on his wife and engaging in an illicit prostitution ring.

Or how about Bernie Madoff, Saddam Hussein, Ghadaffi or any despot for that matter. Is this the behaviour of a few, or is self-justification a universal trait?

Among many of the known characteristics of our brain’s design are blind spots, a direct outcome of haphazard construction of the human brain over its millions of years of evolution. And it turns out that these blind spots have been proven to be both optical and psychological, even though we adamantly refuse to believe they exist.

For instance, optically, most people (even many who work on the brain) assume that what you see is pretty much what your eye sees and reports to your brain. In fact, your brain adds very substantially to the report it gets from your eye, so that a lot of what you see is actually “made up” by the brain. Think of the front of the eye acting like a camera lens, with the picture falling on a sheet of photoreceptor brain cells (neurons) which are excited by light much like a sheet of film at the back of a camera. This sheet of photoreceptors has a hole in it at one location, called the optic nerve head, which carries information from the eye to the rest of the brain. At this location, there are no photoreceptors, and hence the brain gets no information from the eye about this particular part of the picture of the world. Our brains actually fill in the blind spot.

Similarly, we have psychological blind spots, a result of wiring in the brain that causes us to be blind to certain situations. In its simplest manifestation, it’s also called self-justification. As an example, all of us, as it turns out, are blind to the privileges provided to us. Couple of lower bowl tickets from a supplier come your way — well, you deserved them, didn’t you? And what about those bonuses to bailed out bank employees — do you think they felt obliged to give them back?

Dr. Fine divides the self-justifying tricks our brains play into a variety of categories such as The Vain Brain, The Immoral Brain and The Deluded Brain, to name a few.

For instance, The Vain Brain is the brain that is so absorbed with itself that research has shown it finds the very letters of your name more attractive than other letters. This is also the brain that despite statistical evidence to the contrary convinces us we are better drivers than nearly everyone else.

The Immoral Brain is what propels our tendency to blame the victim. Faced with an injustice we cannot fathom, our minds desperately want to believe that bad things happen to bad people. That’s also why we demonize enemies and justifying hurtful acts. Unfortunately, it also can mean more ferocity later. Tests have shown that if people are allowed to express their anger, they feel more animosity later on than if they hadn’t. Aggressive behaviour begets self-justification, which begets more aggression. Self-justification is actually a baby step to anarchy.

The Deluded Brain might include the 62 percent of Canadians who believe in angels, but perhaps those who believe in the continuing existence of Elvis would be more correct. The difficulty in determining delusion is sometimes a fine line between the truly delusional (I am the second coming of Budda) and the quite sane, but sometimes that deluded brain can also be a pig-headed brain that is loftily unconcerned with mere proof — consider the more fervent anti-evolutionists in our midst.

Psychologists Sheldon Solomon, Jeff Greenberg and Tom Pyszcyznski call this phenomenon “terror management theory” — the notion that the brain’s tricks are a vital defense against our ultimate and certain death — an “awareness that we humans are merely transient animals groping to survive in a meaningless universe, only to decay and die.”

So it might seem the most depressed people often have the most realistic grasp of reality. We would torture ourselves with regret unless we self-justify, but it often drags us deeper into disaster when we follow a bad decision. It blocks our ability to see our errors, let alone correct them.

How could I do that if I didn’t believe it?

How do you get an honest man to lose his ethical compass? You get him to take one small step at a time in the wrong direction and self-justification will do the rest. The story of the Canadian Blood Supply scandal not so long ago showed how corporate responsibility was lost along the way as a series of errors led to even more errors of judgment. Mistakes were made, but apparently not by the senior managers at the time.

Our tribal values can also overwhelm us.

Gordon Allport wrote in The Nature of Prejudice that “Us is the most fundamental social category in the Human Mind, and it is hardwired because it aids survival.” Cognitive psychologists consider stereotypes or categorizing as energy-saving devices that allow us to make efficient decisions based upon past experience. So by using stereotypes, leaders can manipulate populations to act in ways that seem to defy description. Consider any of the world’s continuing genocides as disturbing examples of this phenomena.

MRI studies show the reasoning part of the brain shuts down when presented with dissonant information, and the emotional circuitry lights up when consonance is restored. Social Psychologist Lee Ross postulates we believe that our opponents are not really seeing things clearly. He even coined a term used by many politicians these days — the hostile media effect — to describe politicos’ belief that the media is distorting or is biased against their point of view.

So it seems, we are driven by our emotions, desire for pleasure over pain and other ancestral animalistic brain traits; in the end our brains lie, distort and cheat — but only because they love us.

Bob Bailly is a Calgary-based neuro-marketing practitioner.

Image: Surf with berserk

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