Today, mental shortcuts help you cope with lots of information quickly and help you face the majority of simple decisions you make each day. But they often fail when you apply them to important matters. The rising complexity, interconnectedness and unpredictability of life and work are more than a match for your instincts, gut checks and shortcuts. Today, they mislead and betray as often as they help. The slow process of human evolution can’t keep pace with the change, complexities and intricacies of 21st-century life. This leaves you with old tools for solving new problems.
“Make no mistake, your emotions are guiding you all the time.”
Those old tools often cause you to do the opposite of what you should. When this happens, most people don’t stop, think and search for new tools, methods or how they might adapt old ones. Instead, they insist on using old tools in the same ways – thinking that if they try harder and work at it longer, they’ll break through. Where the world was once navigable in black and white, people today must make a conscious effort to understand myriad shades of gray. Your instinctive, long-evolved craving for simplicity and neat, clear-cut narratives cause you to resist this truth. But to succeed today, resist simple explanations, explore your alternatives and options and consider other people’s perspectives. Resist and overcome natural instincts by understanding how they trap you.
Five evolutionary “mindtraps” impair your decision making and effectiveness.
Everyone craves “simple stories.” You seek the neat “plot line,” and when you don’t get it, you make it up. You look at the world thinking that you see it for what it is. In reality, you see it only through the narrowest lens of who “you are.” Evolution did not favor the loner or outlier, so consciously or not, you seek common ground. You go with the consensus even if you have doubts. As a parent, partner or leader, you fear losing control. You have invested in your self-image for so long that you cling to it for dear life. When you apply old mind-sets and biases against new complexities, you unwittingly fall into one or more of these five mindtraps:
First, don’t get “trapped by simple stories.”
People tell stories. Most narratives abbreviate and simplify detailed and complex truths. They follow a familiar plot and pattern: a beginning, a middle and end. You crave a neat story with explanations and clear “cause and effect.” This applies to every new thing you encounter. If something bad happens, subconsciously or not, you develop a narrative to help you understand and classify it. If the situation has informational gaps, you fill them in. And if the situation is complex and redolent with nuance, you simplify it.
“Frustratingly, the fact that our reflexes lead us astray in complex and uncertain times doesn’t seem to make us less likely to use them.”
Suppose you’re a journalist, and you and two other reporters attend a press briefing about the disaster that struck a series of Japanese nuclear power stations during the 2011 earthquake and tsunami. One station was destroyed, leading to meltdown and an environmental and safety disaster. Two others, close by, survived undamaged. Depending on the filter through which you listen to the briefing, you might write about a heroic leader who averted disaster by inspiring his team versus an ill-prepared leader at the destroyed plant. Another reporter might credit better disaster planning at the plants that survived. A third might chalk up their survival to better safety measures.
“Your desire for a simple story blinds you to a real one.”
Three articles might appear in three publications, each with different explanations. By simplifying the story, you miss the truth: A combination of crisis leadership, disaster planning and better safety measures made the difference. That combination is complex and violates people’s preference for a neat, simple and short story.
“We each look at the world and believe we see it as it is. In truth, we see it as we are, a gap that is as large as it is invisible.”
Suppose you manage a team at work. Last week, you lost your cool in a meeting and yelled at your team about an approaching deadline. This week, you notice subtle changes in the behavior of several employees. One invites you to a meeting, then abruptly cancels it. You notice another scheduled a one-on-one appointment with your boss. A third seems unwilling to look you in the eye.
“Alter patterns, not outcomes.”
When you ask who’s coming for your usual Thursday after-work team beer, everyone glances at each other and no one joins you. By Friday morning, you’re convinced you have a big problem. You’ve woven a narrative about a mutiny. You watch them carefully all day, antennae up. You see only those things which confirm your suspicions. By Friday night, you can’t sleep. You put what you’ve seen together with the simple narratives you created about each team member. The one you’ve labeled ambitious is meeting with your boss, the one you’ve labeled difficult won’t look you in the eye, and so on. You know that they plan to undermine you. You fear for your job and career, and you get angry.
“The gift of the mindtraps – the thing they evolved to do in the first place – is to give us a shortcut to make decisions so that we are not swamped by all the complexities around us.”
You forget your team has high engagement scores and low turnover. You blind yourself to alternative explanations. On Monday, you meet with your ambitious team member. He asks about your weekend. Then he casually mentions he’s meeting with your boss that afternoon to discuss the upcoming executive retreat. Now you remember: You had assigned him to the executive retreat planning committee. His meeting with your boss makes perfect sense.
“If we hold the possibility that we might be wrong, whole new vistas open up for us. We become more curious, better listeners and better problem solvers.”
You ask questions about his co-workers. You find out the employee who won’t look you in the eye was downcast because she’d lost her pet the weekend before. You learn that no one wanted a beer on Thursday because they worked late to meet the deadline you yelled about. In this scenario, you fell into a mindtrap and saw only the evidence that supported your self-created story. You played into the simple stories you invented for each employee – possibly months or years earlier, within five minutes of meeting them. On the slightest of evidence, you might have shattered their trust if you’d followed through on your suspicions.
“Perhaps the most important rule for escaping the traps while not getting blown off course is to connect to a deep purpose and live toward that.”
To escape the simple-story trap, question your narratives. Think up at least two other alternative stories. Try to see situations through other people’s perspectives to gain a more unbiased view. Make a conscious effort to rely less on your simple stories when making consequential decisions.
Second, “just because it feels right doesn’t mean it is right.”
You form opinions that feel right to you. If you feel challenged, you come up with logical arguments to support an opinion you arrived at emotionally. Like most people, you make nearly all decisions emotionally and justify them rationally. Your opinions become your truth, and you entangle yourself in being right about them. You stop considering information that conflicts with your opinion. Your need to be right puts you in a trap, locking you into an option or decision that the conflicting data and information you shut out might improve.
“In complex, fast-changing situations, we will not ever be able to agree on the one best thing, because that simply doesn’t exist.”
To escape the rightness trap, reframe your thinking from “I know this” to “I believe this.” This opens the door to other possibilities. Next, ask: “How could I be wrong?” This puts you in a mind-set to consider alternatives and might encourage you to listen to opposing opinions. Escape the rightness trap by remaining open to the possibility of being wrong.
Third, don’t agree just to be agreeable.
No one likes rejection. The pain of social disapproval or ostracism hurts as much as the pain of serious injury. This makes speaking up against a group consensus difficult. Human beings seek fairness and compromise because it leads to agreement, bonding and belonging. Agreement and bonding once were essential to physical survival. They remain essential for most people’s psychological survival. In complex conditions, compromises rarely deliver best outcomes. When groups don’t compromise, they tend to polarize and to split into opposing camps. Once polarization takes place, conflicting information doesn’t register.
“It is easy to cast the person across from you as the villain in your story without remembering she is the hero in her own story.”
To escape the agreement trap, regard conflict as a route to improving your relationships with a person or group holding opposing views. Focus on resolving the differences, not on winning an argument. Practice listening to understand rather than listening to win. Instead of compromising around a hybrid, ineffectual solution, or splitting into two camps, agree to experiment. Try ideas from both perspectives on a small scale to see what works. Given the complexities at play in most problems and decision making, one right answer doesn’t exist. Weave in perspectives and ideas from all sides.
Fourth, “trying to take charge strips you of influence.”
The need for control can make you do the opposite of what you should. The things you might most like to control often prove the least possible to control, like your children’s life choices. Don’t think that letting go of illusory control will ruin your happiness. Knowing you can’t really control most things liberates you.
“We create what are basically stick-figure drawings of the people in our lives and then believe in them.”
To escape the control trap, think about what you can control versus what you can influence. For example, Google wants employees to collaborate, so it offers free lunches in cafeterias to draw people into an environment conducive to chance encounters. When you don’t like something, instead of attempting to wrestle it into being the thing you want, look for the forces or causes that shape it, and work to influence those. You might find better alternatives you haven’t yet considered.
Fifth, beware of your ego – it can freeze you in place and prevent your growth.
You want to project your best self, reputation or image. So you strive to look good and hide your weaknesses, uncertainties and vulnerabilities. This takes so much effort, it blinds you to evidence, information and learning that might harm your ego, but it could help you to grow and improve. You waste productive time protecting your ego, and get stuck in place.
“When we try to defend our egos rather than grow and change, we end up perfectly designed for a world that happened already, instead of growing better able to handle the world that is coming next.”
As you age, you might come to care less about how other people perceive you. You form your own beliefs, values and standards. This otherwise-positive evolution can put you in another trap, in which you protect your values and beliefs and exclude information that might help you update or modify them. Escape these ego traps by realizing that people can and do change throughout their lives. Think about the change and growth you want for yourself. Consider why you believe what you believe. Question yourself not to find fault, but to better understand.
Practice mindfulness to help you avoid mindtraps.
Search for and find your deep purpose. It can replace mindtraps. Listen to your body: Consider it a powerful second mind. Take note of how your body feels in different circumstances – tensing, stressing, relaxed, in pain, and so on.
“Without the larger purpose, our lives are not only less meaningful but shorter too.”
Pay attention to your emotions. To manage them more effectively, gain awareness of your feelings and how they affect your decisions and behaviors. Treat others and yourself with more sympathy. Let yourself and others off the hook, and connect to your empathy and curiosity. You never fully escape the mindtraps, since evolution baked them into your DNA. Understanding them – and knowing yourself and others – will let you avoid them more often.