Can't We Just Avoid Explaining Setbacks Altogether?

Explaining setbacks can get you into trouble. So can't we simply avoid explaining setbacks? Good question. It seems like the obvious answer, right? To avoid making mistakes in your explanations, simply avoid making explanations. There is only one problem with this answer: It is impossible.

Wait a minute. Am I being unnecessarily defeatist? No. Please don’t go off the deep end of optimism by concluding that nothing is impossible. Some situations are hopeless and some things are impossible. And one of those things is preventing your mind from explaining setbacks. Let me illustrate the problem with a few research tidbits.

Researchers sprayed androstenol on a chair in a waiting room. Androstenol is chemically related to male sex hormones. Women coming into the waiting room tended to sit in the sprayed seat, and men tended to avoid sitting there.

But here’s the interesting part: Each person was asked, “Why did you choose to sit in that particular chair?”

Their answers had nothing to do with smelling anything. They said things like, “I wanted to read, so I sat by the magazines,” or “it was closest to the door.”

Neither the men nor the women had any idea their decision was influenced by androstenol. And yet clearly it was.

They had no problem answering the question about why they sat where they sat, and even though their answers were plausible, they were wrong. Isn’t that interesting? Why do you suppose they answered the way they did? Why didn’t they just say, “I don’t know?”

Because they (and you and I) have an automatically-functioning explanation-producing part of our brain. It takes whatever information we’re aware of and makes the most plausible explanation, and it does this whether you want it to or not.

In another study, a different group of researchers told their subjects something like this, “John is a man who ran away from home as a child. Now he is in the Peace Corps. Can you explain how the childhood incident could account for the fact that John decided to join the Peace Corps?”

The subjects were easily able to explain it plausibly.

A different set of subjects were told, “John is a man who ran away from home as a child. He recently committed suicide. Can you explain how the childhood incident could account for the fact that John decided to commit suicide?”

And again, the subjects had no problem at all coming up with plausible explanations.

It reminds me of a story I heard from Earl Nightingale. Twin boys grew up with an alcoholic father. As adults, one of the brothers was an alcoholic and the other never drank. In separate interviews, each was asked, “Why did you turn out the way you did?”

Both brothers gave exactly the same answer: “With a father like mine, what else would I be?”

Several experiments have shown that if you give someone a test and then say, “Based on this test, we have determined you are above average at reading,” and then ask the person to explain it, they can explain it very well.

What the researchers discovered is that it doesn’t matter if the subject is told, “You’re above average at reading,” or “You’re below average at reading.” If people believe the result was from a legitimate test, they can explain it. And explain it believably.

And it didn’t matter what the researchers tested for. If they could lead the subject to believe he or she was above or below average at anything, that person was able to explain it — plausibly.

a hypnotic experiment

Two people sit in a room. One is the researcher. The other is a volunteer who is hypnotized and given a post-hypnotic suggestion: After he awakens from the trance, says the experimenter, the volunteer will respond a particular way to a specific thing. Let’s say the volunteer is told, “When I say ‘it’s a nice day today,’ you will get up, open the door, and look down the hall. But you will not remember that I gave you this instruction.”

The volunteer is awakened and the two talk casually for a few minutes. Then the researcher nonchalantly says, “It’s a nice day today.”

The volunteer gets up, opens the door, and looks down the hall. He comes back and sits down. The researcher asks, “Why did you do that?”

The volunteer says, “It’s stuffy in here. I’m letting in some air.”

The researcher closes the door and they continue talking for a few minutes, and again, the researcher says, “It’s a nice day today.”

And again, the volunteer gets up, opens the door and looks down the hall.

“Why did you open the door again?” asks the researcher.

The volunteer says, “I thought I heard a noise outside.”

This experiment has been repeated many times with different volunteers, always with the same result. People follow the post-hypnotic suggestion and when asked, come up with a plausible reason for their own behavior — a reason that in fact had nothing to do with it.

Again we see there is a part of the brain that just seems to generate explanations — wrong, right, and everywhere in between, and whether or not it has anything to do with the actual cause of the event.

For years, a particular kind of epilepsy was cured by a surgery. The corpus callosum was completely cut. The corpus callosum is a thick bundle of nerve fibers that connect the two hemispheres of the brain. When it is cut, the two hemispheres can no longer communicate with each other. They become almost like two separate brains.

After the surgery, the epilepsy stops with no apparent side-effects, except for odd little things once in awhile. For example, sometimes the person’s right hand tries to do something different than the left hand. One hand tries to pull the pants up and the other tries to pull them down. (The left hemisphere of the brain controls the right hand, and the right hemisphere controls the left hand.)

This is such a unique condition, lots of experiments have been done with these people. One in particular is illuminating: Each subject is shown two pictures at the same time, one to their left visual field (which goes to the right hemisphere) and a different picture to their right visual field (which goes to the left hemisphere). So the two sides of the same person’s brain is each shown a different picture.

For example, a picture of a snow-covered meadow was shown to the left visual field. (Keep in mind that the right hemisphere is nonverbal in most people.)

A picture of a bird claw was shown to the person’s right visual field (going to the verbal left hemisphere).

Then the person is shown a big collection of pictures and asked, “Which one of these pictures goes with what you just saw?” Both arms move — the left-hand finger points to a shovel (to go with the snow). But the right-hand finger points to a picture of a chicken (to go with the claw).

The researchers then asked the person, “Why did you point to two different pictures?” And a plausible explanation comes without hesitation, something like this: “Well, the chicken goes with the claw and you clean out the chicken coop with the shovel.”

In other words, the explanation-generating part of the brain is clearly in the left (verbal) hemisphere and it didn’t see the snow scene. But it did see what the two hands pointed to and explained it easily, no problem and without hesitation.

Now, here’s the point of all of this: Your brain makes explanations of events, whether you want it to or not. You can check your explanations for accuracy, but you do not have the option of just avoiding making explanations. Your mind makes explanations immediately and automatically. You can’t stop it.

But you can improve it.

This article is excerpted from the book, Antivirus For Your Mind.

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