You Grow or You Don’t: How Your Mindset Affects The Way You Live

The power of belief is a topic that will be written about all throughout human history. One, it’s phenomenal how beliefs govern the way we lead our lives, how they influence behavior and attitude, and two, it’s even more phenomenal that beliefs are malleable and can be changed. Once we change our beliefs we change as individuals.

Beginning at an early age we hear the word mindset whether in sports, the workplace, or in the classroom. A strong mindset focused on winning is essentially about believing that the team will win. A mindset focused on learning views challenges as opportunities to stretch our abilities.

Psychologist Carol Dweck is famous for her research on the two kinds of mindsets that we can possess: a fixed mindset and a growth mindset. In Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, she shares a childhood memory about how her teacher organized all the students based on IQ, and explains how this primed students into embracing a fixed mindset [emphasis by me]:

“For twenty years, my research has shown that the view you adopt for yourself profoundly affects the way you lead your life. It can determine whether you become the person you want to be and whether you accomplish the things you value. How does this happen? How can a simple belief have the power to transform your psychology and, as a result, your life? Believing that your qualities are carved in stone—the fixed mindset—creates an urgency to prove yourself over and over. If you have only a certain amount of intelligence, a certain personality , and a certain moral character—well, then you’d better prove that you have a healthy dose of them. It simply wouldn’t do to look or feel deficient in these most basic characteristics. Some of us are trained in this mindset from an early age. Even as a child, I was focused on being smart, but the fixed mindset was really stamped in by Mrs. Wilson, my sixth-grade teacher. Unlike Alfred Binet, she believed that people’s IQ scores told the whole story of who they were. We were seated around the room in IQ order, and only the highest-IQ students could be trusted to carry the flag, clap the erasers, or take a note to the principal. Aside from the daily stomachaches she provoked with her judgmental stance, she was creating a mindset in which everyone in the class had one consuming goal—look smart, don’t look dumb. Who cared about or enjoyed learning when our whole being was at stake every time she gave us a test or called on us in class?”

Just reading that last few sentences is horrifying, especially once you begin to deeply understand the implications and science behind the two mindsets and how they mold someone’s character and overall life.

So a fixed mindset is the equivalent of believing that you were born an artist, a football player, a cook, a designer, etc. A fixed mindset is about believing your IQ is reflective of your overall intelligence and life, and no matter how many books you read, you simply can’t get smarter. This kind of self-sabotaging delusion makes me sweat because it’s untrue on every conceivable level. To me, it’s no different than brainwash, feeding information that simply isn’t true and in turn influencing someone to be something they’re not. And to make it worse, it starts at an early age…

The growth mindset, however, focuses on learning, believes that nothing is carved in stone, that intelligence and skills are malleable with practice, effort, persistence, and good coaching. What’s true about this mindset is that science has debunked the mystery around talent and skill development. Dweck says it better [emphasis by me]:

“But doesn’t our society value intelligence, personality, and character? Isn’t it normal to want these traits? Yes, but … There’s another mindset in which these traits are not simply a hand you’re dealt and have to live with, always trying to convince yourself and others that you have a royal flush when you’re secretly worried it’s a pair of tens. In this mindset, the hand you’re dealt is just the starting point for development. This growth mindset is based on the belief that your basic qualities are things you can cultivate through your efforts. Although people may differ in every which way—in their initial talents and aptitudes, interests, or temperaments—everyone can change and grow through application and experience.
[…]
The passion for stretching yourself and sticking to it, even (or especially) when it’s not going well, is the hallmark of the growth mindset. This is the mindset that allows people to thrive during some of the most challenging times in their lives.”

Right now is a good time to ask yourself, Do I believe that I can become smarter through effort and practice, or is my intelligence just the way it is? Do I believe I can become an artist or is one simply born an artist? A good parent? Teacher? Athlete?

Another important factor to realize is that we can indeed possess both mindsets. Dweck sets up the question and then answers it:

Question: Are mindsets a permanent part of your makeup or can you change them?

Mindsets are an important part of your personality, but you can change them. Just by knowing about the two mindsets, you can start thinking and reacting in new ways. People tell me they start to catch themselves when they are in the throes of the fixed mindset— passing up a chance for learning, feeling labeled by a failure, or getting discouraged when something requires a lot of effort. And then they switch themselves into the growth mindset— making sure they take the challenge, learn from the failure, or continue their effort. When my graduate students and I first discovered the mindsets, they would catch me in the fixed mindset and scold me.”

What she said is key: “…you can start thinking and reacting in new ways.” What she means is that when we experience failure, we don’t automatically blame our abilities or intelligence, but instead we acknowledge that there’s room for growth, that this failure taught us an important lesson and therefore we can do better next time. The moment we blame our personality or lack of talent, we believe we’re flawed and incapable of learning and improving, which of course, is infinitely unhelpful. What determines the mindset that you embrace comes down to how you talk to yourself.

Last question that I found interesting and useful to understand this subject better [emphasis by me]:

“Question: Can I be half-and-half? I recognize both mindsets in myself.

Many people have elements of both. I’m talking about it as a simple either–or for the sake of simplicity. People can also have different mindsets in different areas. I might think that my artistic skills are fixed but that my intelligence can be developed. Or that my personality is fixed, but my creativity can be developed. We’ve found that whatever mindset people have in a particular area will guide them in that area.”

What makes this transition from fixed to growth so difficult is because private beliefs don’t change overnight. If your whole life has been about proving yourself and believing that you’ve been endowed a specific set of talents and level of intelligence, it’s incredibly difficult to view a failure as an opportunity to learn rather than a reflection of your character. People with a fixed mindset can be successful, sure, but the journey then contains a kind of unnecessary stress that isn’t helpful for anyone.

So which is it?

I believe that I can become smarter. I believe my talents can grow through practice, effort, persistence, and coaching. I believe that this failure doesn’t reflect my character but rather my aptitude, which is something that can improve.

OR

I was born this way. This is just the way I am. Math isn’t for me! I would rather take the easier test to confirm my natural abilities and to feel better rather than take the hard test and learn something new, but also risk failing and looking dumb.

Essentially this is the difference between becoming and being. As Dweck says:

“There was a saying in the 1960s that went: “Becoming is better than being.” The fixed mindset does not allow people the luxury of becoming. They have to already be.”

Focus on becoming someone, learning from mistakes, being able to grow in all areas of your life, and you’ll surprise yourself in how capable you really are in living the life you desire. But believe that your level of intelligence is concrete, that your talents are stuck, that you’re born this way, then please don’t be surprised by the lack of growth or change.

Advice For Young And Ambitious 20Somethings Who Think They Should Be Successful By Now

The one quote that has guided me thus far and still remains one of my daily mantras is from the Roman philosopher Seneca. He said,

“The most important knowledge is that which guides the way you lead your life.”

When I came across this quote in his letters many years ago, it provided both clarity and a grim realization: what knowledge was I currently absorbing to help me lead a better life? As if time stopped due to a bubble bursting, I realized how woefully underdeveloped my mind was for someone in college, and how I depended on traditional methods to enrich my mind when all the resources and tools were readily available. What was ultimately missing was a desire to learn and the habits to bring that desire to fruition.

What’s important at this age is to develop the skill of learning to change your mind—to be humbled, to put things into perspective, to challenge your beliefs and perception.

In Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice On Love and Life From Dear Sugar, a young writer writes a letter to Dear Sugar (author Cheryl Strayed), an advice columnist for The Rumpus known for her vulnerable, heart-warming but also very practical, down to earth advice, and asks:

“Right now, I am a pathetic and confused young woman of twenty-six, a writer who can’t write. I am up late asking you a question, really questioning myself. 

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How do I reach the page when I can’t lift my face off the bed? How does one go on, Sugar, when you realize you might not have it in you? How does a woman get up and become the writer she wishes she’d be?”

Strayed  responds beautifully and with tough love as always [emphasis by me]:

“I’d write humility on one side and surrender on the other for you. That’s what I think you need to find and do to get yourself out of the funk you’re in. The most fascinating thing to me about your letter is that buried underneath all the anxiety and sorrow and fear and self-loathing, there’s arrogance at its core. It presumes you should be successful at twenty-six, when really it takes most writers so much longer to get there. It laments that you’ll never be as good as David Foster Wallace—a genius, a master of the craft—while at the same time describing how little you write. You loathe yourself, and yet you’re consumed by the grandiose ideas you have about your own importance. You’re up too high and down too low. Neither is the place where we get any work done.

We get work done on the ground level. And the kindest thing I can do for you is to tell you to get your ass on the floor. I know it’s hard to write, darling. But it’s harder not to. The only way you’ll find out if you ‘have it in you’ is to get to work and see if you do. The only way to override your ‘limitations, insecurities, jealousies, and ineptitude’ is to produce. You have limitations. You are in some ways inept. This is true of every writer, and it’s especially true of writers who are twenty-six. You will feel insecure and jealous. How much power you give those feelings is entirely up to you.”

The universe is strange in its own ways. The day I finished this book was the day that Maria Popova, one of my favorite writers, shipped a project with Holstee on her 7 lessons learned in 7 years of reading, writing, and living. One of those lessons ties beautifully with the admonishment above, said by Maria Popova:

“Expect anything worthwhile to take a long time.” This is borrowed from the wise and wonderful Debbie Millman, for it’s hard to better capture something so fundamental yet so impatiently overlooked in our culture of immediacy. The myth of the overnight success is just that — a myth — as well as a reminder that our present definition of success needs serious retuning. As I’ve reflected elsewhere, the flower doesn’t go from bud to blossom in one spritely burst and yet, as a culture, we’re disinterested in the tedium of the blossoming. But that’s where all the real magic unfolds in the making of one’s character and destiny.

 

Image from Holstee http://www.holstee.com/products/brain-pickings-poster

 

For a generation that is relentlessly labeled narcissistic, cynical, entitled, and lazy, it’s important to be humbled and reminded that the kind of success one desires usually requires decades of failure and self-reinvention. We want to believe—and are told at a young age—that perseverance and hard work are the keys to success. They are important, of course, but there is so much more to it than that: environment, relationships, time, luck, and a multitude of other factors that we have no control over.Screen Shot 2014-08-02 at 8.29.08 AM

The Great Discontent recently launched their first issue which contains a series of interviews with artists of all kinds sharing stories on beginnings, risk, and creativity. There were times when I would feel waves of goosebumps because the stories were so powerful, humbling, and human. These stories don’t represent fairies and geniuses, but people who were lost, stumbled, committed to a purpose, went through adversity, but eventually found their rhythm. The one pattern that I’ve noticed throughout all of the interviewees was the notion of nonlinear careers, many (risky) transitions, dealing with immense anxiety and financial crisis, moments of luck, and many of them weren’t successful until after a decade or two into their work.

Like the writer who wrote to Dear Sugar, it’s okay to feel self-doubt and even to have unrealistic beliefs about how successful one should be in their 20s. It’s not a disease, just a symptom of the times. The danger, however, is carrying around these delusions and ignoring wisdom from really smart people. Every day we should strive to put our life into perspective, to not be beaten by constant comparison, and to ultimately realize that our definition of success may fundamentally change as we learn and grow.

But what would be a post about 20somethings without talking about purpose or the meaning of life?

Hunter S. Thompson—one of my early heroes for pursuing the art of writing—received a letter from a friend asking his perspective on the meaning of life and how to find one’s purpose, a predicament of our times regardless of age. You can read the full letter here. What he says is worthy of meditation, not necessarily a prescription to life, but a very practical and equally difficult mindset to build when culture pushes for immediate gratification, safety, and comfort. It’s a piece of advice that I have been following for years and, after revisiting it from time to time, remains truer than before.

Thompson admonishes [emphasis by me]:

“As I see it then, the formula runs something like this: a man must choose a path which will let his ABILITIES function at maximum efficiency toward the gratification of his DESIRES. In doing this, he is fulfilling a need (giving himself identity by functioning in a set pattern toward a set goal) he avoids frustrating his potential (choosing a path which puts no limit on his self-development), and he avoids the terror of seeing his goal wilt or lose its charm as he draws closer to it (rather than bending himself to meet the demands of that which he seeks, he has bent his goal to conform to his own abilities and desires).

In short, he has not dedicated his life to reaching a pre-defined goal, but he has rather chosen a way of life he KNOWS he will enjoy. The goal is absolutely secondary: it is the functioning toward the goal which is important. And it seems almost ridiculous to say that a man MUST function in a pattern of his own choosing; for to let another man define your own goals is to give up one of the most meaningful aspects of life — the definitive act of will which makes a man an individual.”

The way I understand it: Mastery of a skill within a domain (writing, dancing, design, cooking, drawing, singing) begets the fulfillment of one’s desires (lifestyle, goals, aspirations, traveling the world).

Tiny Beautiful Things, Maria Popova’s manifesto, and The Great Discontent are the kinds of literature and visual reminder that helps us change our mind, put our life into perspective, but above all, to empower and remind us that what we desire to achieve in this lifetime is possible with the right mindset and determination.

The Halo Effect: How Beauty Affects The Way You Treat Others

The topic of beauty is prevalent among all cultures and all throughout human history, a mysterious and seductive force on the psyche that consistently reveals its influence in stories of politics, marriage, power, and social status. The old adage “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” simply means that what we consider beautiful is based on the stories we tell ourselves—a subjective experience that is colored by the unconscious and culture at large.

You’ve probably heard these stories before: a beautiful girl not getting a speeding ticket because, you know, she’s beautiful. Or a handsome guy getting away with more than he should. Physical attractiveness creates a powerful first impression on the mind, so powerful that we may go beyond looks and start creating impressions on success, status, parenting, and intelligence, even if it isn’t true.

To understand mankind’s weakness to all things beautiful, we need to acknowledge the power of first impressions.

First impressions linger in the mind and influence the way we see and treat others. Once that impression is rooted, it takes a lot to change our attitude. If you go to a party and the host is generous and kind, you’ll forgive him when he does a keg stand or spills cranberry juice on your white shirt. This comes from our adaptive and evolutionary behavior.

As David McRaney says in You Are Not So Smart:

“To speed up processing, your brain tends first to apply very simple labels to the things you encounter minute by minute. You can thank your ancestors for paying attention to these labels for millions of years, because some of the things you are most likely to encounter in life are now hardwired into your mind as being good or bad, desirable or undesirable.
[…]
When you make decisions and kindle beliefs based on innate sensations, psychologists say you are using the affect heuristic. An affect, in psychological terms, is a feeling that needs no further analysis. It isn’t a coherent thought with words and symbols attached, but rather, a raw emotional state, a twinge or a jolt or just a general sensation that sets a tone or a mood.”

This heuristic influences what psychologists call the halo effect. The halo effect causes one trait (e.g. beauty) to drastically color your perception of all other traits. If you think someone is beautiful, you are likely to assume they’re also smart, ambitious, interesting, etc. We’ve all made these assumptions before, for good or ill. McRaney states:

“In the last one hundred years of research, beauty seems to be the one thing that most reliably produces the halo effect. Beauty is shorthand, a placeholder term for an invisible mental process in which you are privy only to the final output. Like the words delicious and disgusting, it describes a distinct variation of the affect heuristic. To see and judge a face as beautiful is to experience a tempest of brain activity informed by your culture, your experiences, and the influences of your deep evolutionary inheritance.”

Let’s take a look at some of these studies.

Why Beauty Is The Most Powerful First Impression

In 1972, psychologists Karen Dion, Ellen Berscheid, and Elaine Walster conducted a study to see just how beauty elicits the halo effect. The subjects, however, were told that the study was focused on first impressions. Each person received three envelopes containing three photographs thats the researchers rated on a scale of attractiveness—highly attractive, average, and not so attractive. The subjects had to look at the photographs and then judge 27 different personality traits. They had to determine which person in the photograph possessed these traits, like altruism, stability, etc. Then they had to judge whether these people were happy, along with other pursuits like marriage, parenting, and career.

The results? With nothing but a picture to base their judgements, highly attractive people possessed most of the traits and more strongly than others. They were also happier and more successful, were greater parents and had better jobs.

Wow. All of these assumptions were determined by one picture. But it makes sense when we hear stories like this because humans are always predicting, always going beyond what’s at face value. This is like seeing someone wearing black-framed glasses and thinking they’re sophisticated or smart or nerdy, when all they’re doing is just wearing glasses. If they happen to be smart or nerdy, this impacts our memory and in turn how we begin to label others wearing those glasses.

In another study done in 1974, researchers gave essays to the subjects with a photo attached to it. Some received an essay with a photo of an attractive woman, and others received a photo with an unattractive woman. The participants had to rate the quality of the writing, and researchers didn’t mention the photo.

The result? Attractive woman = better writing, more in-depth and creative.

The catch? The essays were identical.

As David McRaney concludes:

“When the scientists ran the study with essays purposely written to be awful, the disparity between the ratings was magnified. As Landy and Sigall wrote, you expect better performances from attractive people, but when they fail, you are also more likely to forgive them.
[…]
In short, as Landy and Sigall pointed out, you expect more from pretty people well before you know anything else about them, and when they fall short of your expectations, you give them more of a chance to prove themselves than you do people less symmetrical or slender or muscle-bound or bosom-heaving or whatever cultural or era-appropriate norms of attractiveness are woven into your perception.”

The halo effect isn’t limited to physical attractiveness. That 5-star reviewed vacuum cleaner, the New York Times Bestseller stamped on the cover, Oprah’s Book Club, the Pulitzer Prize—all of these labels have profound influences on whether we give the thumbs-up or thumbs-down, whether we pull out the credit card or not. It’s a mental shortcut to allow us to make quick decisions instead of sitting there weighing all the different variables.

We Are Our Own Worst Critic

Although beauty is in the eye of the beholder, so much of our self-esteem and what we believe to be beautiful is diluted by the media. Without self-awareness, we can be pulled left and right in search of what’s beautiful and acceptable. The ideal thin woman or a guy with a chiseled jawline with abs is ruthlessly and inaccurately portrayed. People are becoming more aware of the effects of Photoshop and other tools, but it proves to be equally difficult to set aside artificial standards of beauty and to be more compassionate towards ourselves and others.

Dove did a wonderful campaign and study on this showcasing how we’re our own worst critic, and when others describe us, they celebrate and appreciate, whereas we criticize and condemn.

The danger in all of this is ignorance of the halo effect, being blinded by the luster of a good hair day or a popular cultural label. To overcome this, a scientific and psychological understanding of beauty and its effects are helpful. It’s difficult to not put things on a pedestal, to not view items or people in a hierarchy. With careful consider of what we’re viewing and telling ourselves, perhaps we can achieve a level of objectivity that allows us to not be blinded by the halo above one’s head, and so we may ultimately learn to appreciate beauty in all of its forms.

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[Source: Dion, Karen, Ellen Berscheid, and Elain Walster. “What is Beautiful Is Good.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 24, no. 3 (1972): 285-90.

Landy, D., & Sigall, H. (1974). Beauty is talent: Task evaluation as a function of the performer's physical attractiveness. Journal Of Personality And Social Psychology29(3), 299-304. doi:10.1037/h0036018

You Are Not So Smart By David McRaney]

 

 

Why Self-Delusions Are Part of Human Nature and How They Keep Us Alive

We believe we’re rational, logical, fair people. We believe we see the world as it is, and that we understand the source of our feelings, thoughts, and decisions. We also believe, it turns out, that we’re better looking than average, more skilled, intelligent, and capable than the person next to us (more on this soon). This is why, in the words David McRaney, author of You Are Now Less Dumb: How to Conquer Mob Mentality, How to Buy Happiness, And All The Ways To Outsmart Yourself, we’re completely delusion but essentially why it’s okay.

Our mind has many tools and tricks that influence us to deceive ourselves for the sake of survival. For millions of years, our ancestors had to deal with unimaginable adversity, and what kept them alive was our predisposition to find meaning, to alter reality, to identify the good in the bad. Sort of like a Defense Against The Dark Arts, the self-enhancement bias is the mind’s natural tendency to enhance the view of ourselves so that we may not be pummeled by the harshness of reality, and so that we may keep moving forward. As McRaney says:

“The positive illusions and their helpers form a supercluster of delusion that thumps in the psyche of every human. Together, illusory superiority bias, the illusion of control, optimism bias, confirmation bias, hindsight bias, and self-serving bias combine like Voltron into a mental chimera called self-enhancement bias. It works just as the name suggests—it enhances your view of yourself.
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“These illusions serve as a system of checks and balances running in the background at all times. Taken together, they form your self-enhancement bias—the rosy glasses through which you see yourself” ”

We maintain our happiness under three positive illusions:

  1. The illusory superiority bias: This bias allows us to judge ourselves in a warmer light than we do for others. This is what makes us feel unique in a crowded space.
  2. The illusion of control: Exactly the way it sounds, without hope and the belief that our actions are doing something, putting a dent in the universe, we would otherwise wither and die.
  3. Optimism bias: Hope is the lifeblood of the human condition. In the words of McRaney, “The third great positive illusion is optimism bias, the mental construct that provides smokers the belief they’ll be among those who escape cancer, motorists the confidence they can speed during rainstorms, couples the certainty they will die hand in hand behind a white picket fence, and immigrants the beamish tenacity to open a new business in a down economy.”

And what supplements these 3 positive illusions are 3 supporting delusions, which in turn, form the goliath of the self-enhancement bias:

  1. Confirmation bias: This is the tendency to seek information that confirm your beliefs, and it makes it that much more difficult to embrace differing perspectives. Conspiracy theorists are a perfect example of this: they are likely to find information that confirm the illuminati controls the quality of their life and will shun anything that proves otherwise.
  2. Hindsight bias: The belief that our predictions about the future are accurate, when in fact, we’re usually wrong.
  3. Self-serving bias: When things go our way, when we believe that the universe has somehow responded to our email, we attribute the success to our abilities and hard work. But when things don’t go our way, we’re quick to realize the obstructions and faults that hindered us, like bad luck or a bad teacher.

But why are we so irrationally delusional other than the fact that it helped our ancestors pass on their genes? Why is it so difficult to just be “realistic”? It turns out that this kind of hardcore realism is actually unfavorable and incredibly difficult to maintain. McRaney writes [emphasis by me]:

“The idea that people would be happier if they maintained a constant state of realism is a beautiful sentiment, but Taylor and Brown found just the opposite. They presented a new theory that suggested that well-being came from unrealistic views of reality. They said you reduce the stress of terminal illness or a high-pressured job or unexpected tragedy by resorting to optimism and delusion. Your wildly inaccurate self-evaluations get you through rough times and help motivate you when times are good. Indeed, later research backed up their claims, showing that people who are brutally honest with themselves are not as happy day to day as people with unrealistic assumptions about their abilities.”

Going back to our unrealistic beliefs about being better than average in just about every aspect of our lives, McRaney shares a study that exemplifies just how prevalent these delusions are when it comes to our appearance:

“In 2010, UCLA researchers conducted a survey of more than 25,000 people ages 18-75 and found that the majority rated their own attractiveness as about a seven out of ten. This suggests that the average person thinks he is a little better looking than the average person. About a third of the people under 30 rated themselves as somewhere around a nine. That sort of confidence is fun to think about considering that it is impossible for everyone to be better looking than half the population.”

What all of this essentially boils down to is our deep-seated need to tell stories, especially to ourselves. Narrative, after all, is perhaps the most powerful force in human nature. Finding meaning in all that we do is what separates us from our smaller brained allies. McRaney states:

“Narrative is so important to survival that it is literally the last thing you give up before becoming a sack of meat. It is the framework of your conscious experience. Without it, there would be nothing but noise. Better still, after the pilot regains consciousness they go through the same sort of explanatory routines as patients in emergency rooms who have technically died and returned to life. After the psychedelic wonder of prolonged loss of oxygen, many people see that light and tunnel as the passage to the afterlife. The stories differ, depending on the belief system, but there is always a story.
[...]
According to Ramachandran, as an organism, you desire ‘stability of behavior.’ The last thing all the various agencies of your mind want is the whole system going off in random directions, out of control. When your brain senses trouble, senses that something out of the ordinary is going down, the first instinct is to create a narrative as a sort of defense mechanism against chaotic and risky behavior.”

Although it was probably evident for most, a major realization clicked in my mind when reading McRaney’s two books on self-delusions: so many of our mind’s tricks, so much of our irrational nature, is quintessentially for survival. Our overconfidence, often times unrealistic attitudes about ourselves and place in the world, serve as a survival mechanism to help us thrive and move forward. Without it, we would lose hope, and in turn, perish.

My favorite point in this book is when McRaney acknowledges the importance of mindfulness and learning to pause, with a brief explanation of how we became this way, and why our self-delusions aren’t necessarily awful flaws [emphasis by me]:

“As with most biases, all it took was a pause for reflection to trump the default settings of the mind.

So, why is it, then, that you so rarely pause to reflect? What keeps the self-enhancement bias and all its positive illusions thriving in your mind? Why would such an obviously impossible set of beliefs persist in the heads of just about every conscious person?

Scientists can’t say for sure why these biases and illusions about how awesome you are exist, but most speculation on the issue suggests that for something like this to be so ubiquitous among human minds, it must have served an adaptive purpose in your ancestors. As your ability to think and reason evolved, you also developed the power to obfuscate the truth lest you see through the illusions of life and became despondent. Your ancestors slept on dirt and were pummeled like Rocky Balboa minute by minute with a steady flow of harassment from an unforgiving and indifferent world. Nature never gave up, and it makes sense that your species developed mechanisms to ensure you couldn’t be kept down.

Some researchers have posited that the overconfident invaders of the jungles and savannah may have been so bold and intimidating that when they charged into camps of their enemies, they tended to do better than more timid and shy among them. There are psychologists who believe that morale is nothing more than a cluster of positive illusions; and morale is generally considered more important in combat than anything else.”

So when we are faced with information that does indeed challenge our beliefs, perhaps we can be aware of the power of confirmation bias and learn to view differing perspectives not in the sake of being right, but to simply develop a greater understand of ourselves and the subject. Or when we’re walking with our chin held high throughout the mall, we can consider the effects of the illusory superiority bias and not harshly judge the person who just tripped up the escalator. Or when we try to predict the future and assume that we’ve done so successfully in the past, we can remember what hindsight bias does to our minds, but ultimately to recognize that it’s in our nature to create these predictions to possibly create hope and motivation.

You Are Now Less Dumb—as well as You Are Not So Smart—are now my favorite books on psychology. David McRaney is the psychology professor I sadly never had, but his two books are wonderful starting points to understand our mind’s arsenal of tricks. The books further explore cognitive fallacies, heuristics, as well as a plethora of scientific and psychological studies showcasing the different faults of the mind. As McRaney concluded in the introduction of the book, “consider this a humility shock-and-awe campaign designed to help you feel more connected with the community of humanity. We’re all in this together, and these are our shared mental stumbling blocks. Use what you learn here to be kinder to others and more honest with yourself. You are not so smart, but there are some concrete, counter-intuitive, and fascinating ways to become less dumb.”

Indeed, after reading these two books, a much more comprehensive understanding of human nature and the mind are always in mind when I catch myself being a bit too harsh on others.