Beware of your vain brain. Don’t let optimism lead you astray.

November 4, 2006 | By | 1 Reply More

I am only through the first chapter of A Mind of Its Own: How Your Brain Distorts and Deceives (2006).  Nonetheless, this is a delightful and insightful work by experimental psychologist Cordelia Fine.  So much so that the first chapter of the book, “The Vain Brain,” is well worth the price of the entire book.

Fine is a witty yet precise digester of cognition research.  The main point of “The Vain Brain” is that we work exceedingly hard to interpret reality in a way that is kind and gentle to our egos.  We do this constantly, often to an extent that is often comedic.

In one experiment, subjects were arbitrarily told that they did well on a test.  They were happy to take credit for their “success.”  Those who were told they did badly tended to blame their “poor performance” on conditions other than their abilities.  Whenever we fail, we dig hard to find lots of “reasons” other than blaming the person we so often see in the mirror.  Researchers have dubbed this strategy “retroactive pessimism.”  According to Fine, it “makes your failures easier to digest.”

We have two big allies to help us in our “retroactive pessimism”: manipulative memory and manipulative of reasoning.  Who is doing the manipulating?  We do it. 

With regard to memory, we are terrifically talented at forgetting evidence that embarrasses us.  “It seems that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for negative feedback to enter the kingdom of memory.”

Memory not only filters incoming information.  It also controls information we retain, especially memories relating to who we are.  We conveniently remember personal memories that tend to support the person we want to be.  When subjects were first given scientific articles claiming that extroverts were better students, they tended to see themselves as extroverts.  When they were given a bogus article claiming that introverts were better students, they did the opposite.  When they were told that extroverts are more successful, subjects quickly latched onto disproportionate numbers of memories substantiating that they were “extroverts.”

Reasoning is the other ally of the vain brain.  We manipulate the evidence so very well.  It’s like we have an overzealous lawyer inside of our heads, the kind of lawyer who hides evidence and destroys files.  When subjects were given fictitious descriptions of people who were successful in school, they focused on the things they had in common with the fictitious successful person.  If that successful person was Catholic, Catholic subjects focused on their own Catholicism.  When a fictitious Catholic subject was unsuccessful, the Catholic subjects downplayed their own Catholicism.  “Your hard-working lawyer constructs the most flattering and self-serving case it can from the available data.”  (Page 15).

In one test, subjects were given materials that both supported and attacked the validity of intelligence tests.  Those subjects who were told they did not do well on intelligence test found that the article attacking intelligence tests was much more persuasive.  “It seems we are content to employ the sloppiest of reasoning . .  . until some threat to our motives appears, at which point we suddenly acquire the strictest possible methodological standards.”

We all tend to believe that we are better than average.  Whenever anything threatens this outlook, “we push absurdly high our standards for evidence that might challenge our rosy beliefs.”  Fine terms this phenomenon “motivated skepticism.”

We often manipulate the evidence without being aware of what we are doing.  In one experiment, some subjects were told that their ability to keep their arm in ice water for long periods was a sign of long life expectancy.  Other volunteers were told the opposite.  After being advised (one way or the other) the subjects “changed their tolerance for the ice water in whichever direction they been told predicted a long and healthy life.” Other studies have shown that we generally estimate that we will live ten years longer than actuarial tables predicted.

The vain brain also wants to believe that it is in control, even when it is not.  In one study, volunteers were told that a button might control a light (though the light actually turned on and off randomly).  Though they had no control over the light, subjects often experienced “an illusion of control.”  We are susceptible to “the self-flattering impression that we are responsible for how things have turned out when they turn out well.”  (Page 20).  I could not help but think of the alleged power of prayer when reading of this study.

We are overly confident that our political parties and sports teams will win.  The more fervently we want our party to win, the higher we rate its chance of success.

The chapter ends with a twist.  Those who are overly optimistic tend to live longer and healthier lives.  This was substantiated in a variety of studies, including a study of American nuns.  Researchers reviewed short autobiographies written by the nuns and 70 years ago, then check to see who lived longer and healthier lives.  Where optimism shined through in these autobiographies, the nuns tended to fare better, on average a decade better.  Optimism is also associated with better functioning immune systems.

What is the downside of being overly optimistic?  “Blind optimism can sometimes lead us astray.”  Being overly optimistic can embarrass us and wreck our ability to plan.  You should “never trust your brain,” because it so often tricks you into an “embarrassing vanities.”
Nor does optimism necessarily correlate with real-world success.  Stock traders who intensely believed that they could control changes in the value of a portfolio earned $100,000 less per year than traders with an average outlook.

What is the best way to protect ourselves from the main brain when we make personal decisions?  Quiet contemplation.  When we engage in quiet contemplation we are less grandiose about ourselves, “more pensive, more attuned to the risks of life and less susceptible to the illusion of omnipotence.” 

Fine’s writing reminded me of another book that wrote on the topic of where it is we are best connected with reality: Why We Get Sick: the New Science of Darwinian Medicine (1996), by Randolph Nesse and George C. Williams. Nesse suggests that depression can often be adaptive.  It is often useful.  For example, one study found that 80% of the faculty of the renowned Iowa writers workshop had experienced some kind of mood disorder, suggesting that creativity is a benefit of those that tend to experience depression.  Perhaps it is depression that can best allow us to “take off the rose colored glasses in order to reassess our goals and strategies more objectively.”  Low mood might also keep us from “jumping precipitously to escape temporary difficulties.”  Nesse, a practicing physician, reminds us that “many depressions go away only after a person finally gives up some long sought goal and turns his or her energies in another direction.”

Here’s what I took away from Fine’s book.  We do have vain brains and we need to protect ourselves from our own cognitive propensities toward over optimism.  Fine’s many examples are poster children for the importance of encouraging critical thinking.


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Category: Psychology Cognition, Religion, Science

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

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  1. hogiemo says:

    Jeez, and all this time I thought I was hypercritical and just sucked. I guess I'm dead, aaaagh! But I am making 22% on my investments!

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