The perception and recall faculties of the brain are strongly biased to confirm what you already believe. They fib. Sometimes they tell great big whoppers.
That’s what I learned from Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me). The title doesn’t express the thesis of the book very well (except in hindsight). It’s all about cognitive dissonance theory and how it has measurably impacted a range of professions and cultural phenomena.
The juiciest proof of cognitive dissonance is being proven that something you are wholly convinced is factual based on recalled first hand observation is entirely false.
Here’s my small experience:
This summer I went to a training course and had to set long term goals on the spot. My weight was impeding my ability to serve boys in my troop so I set a goal to reach a target weight of 210 pounds by early 2016.
I figured this goal was realistic based on my starting weight of 232 pounds.
But I didn’t weigh 232.
I have an electronic scale that records my weight online. When I got home and weighed myself for the first time since setting my goal I was dismayed to see I weighed nearly 248 – 16 pounds more than my “starting weight.”
When I checked my records I found that I hadn’t weighed as little as 232 for over two years.
How could I be so mistaken about my weight when I check it regularly?
I can imagine my weigh ins for those two years: “238, huh, I guess I’m up a little.” … “242? Huh, that’s odd.” … “246!? What did I eat yesterday?”
Somehow I maintained the belief that – while my weight may fluctuate a little I weigh about 232 pounds.
After weeks of portion control and exercise I’m finally down to my “starting weight.”
How do we get reliable information then?
The book advises us to maintain ambivalence as long as we can, consult with those who are ambivalent, and examine facts with a critical scientific eye.
The commitment of a scientist is to not fool anyone and not be fooled. Skepticism, in other words.
This doesn’t mean we can never decide and commit. We just need to beware ultimate confidence that we are right and were always right.
As 37 Signals says: every decision is temporary. More of our choices can be revised than we are consciously aware of.
Beware: Our minds are designed to spare us the pain of changing them.