Our society today has a self-awareness crisis. It doesn’t matter where we look—business, politics, entertainment—we see its effects. The news regularly reports about the financial improprieties of business executives. Politicians get caught all the time doing something they knew they should not do. And the grocery store tabloid headlines are always proclaiming how such and such movie star is cheating on so-and-so.
We see people in positions of authority at our workplaces doing things that we think are ill-informed at best and malicious at worst. We see people around us making poor choices that are out of our control and we shake our heads, saying we would do things differently if given the choice. It seems like everyone around us has lost their mind—everyone except ourselves, of course.
But perhaps we are not so immune from making poor choices as we might think. As Dan Ariely tells us in his book Predictably Irrational, “Even good people are not immune to being partially blinded by their own minds.” Dr. Ariely goes on to explain that “we are pawns in a game whose forces we largely fail to comprehend. We usually think of ourselves as sitting in the driver’s seat, with ultimate control over the decisions we make and the direction our life takes; but, alas, this perception has more to do with our desires—with how we want to view ourselves—than with reality.”
If we are more concerned with how we want to view ourselves than with reality, then we will not be self-aware. And these are three things that will get in the way of our self-awareness.
The choices we make today are influenced by the choices we have made before, even if they were poor choices. This lack of self-awareness is due in no small part to what Dr. Ariely calls self-herding. “This happens when we believe something is good (or bad) on the basis of our own previous behavior.” Dr. Ariely explains that doing something beforehand paves the way for us to do it again. If we do it a second time, that reinforces the decision to do it a third time—simply because we have done it twice before. Using the example of seeing people standing in line for a restaurant, Dr. Ariely explains that we perceive the restaurant must be good because people are lining up to get inside. The decision to go to that restaurant is validated simply because others want to go there. The restaurant decision is similar to making any kind of decision: “once we become the first person in line at the restaurant, we begin to line up behind ourself in subsequent experiences.” We do things again simply because we have done them before.
As we unwittingly become entrenched in our own opinions, we also become more resistant to changing our minds and lose more of our capacity for self-awareness. Dr. Bridget Queenan, associate director of the Brain Initiative at the University of California at Santa Barbara, finds that humans like knowing what they know and don’t want to be confused by the facts. “You have instincts for fight and for flight, not so much for insight. … When people are threatened in any way, they retreat from logic. … Little kids are perfectly capable of updating their belief systems and behaviors based on evidence. In fact, they find new and contradictory things really appealing. So why do we stop?” When we don’t know how to reconcile our opinions with the reality around us, we assume that something “out there” is to blame. But we should consider whether we should stick with our paradigm—how we have always looked at the world—or if we need to allow our minds to look at things differently.
We are reluctant to shift our paradigms to comport with reality because of heuristics. Heuristics are mental short-cuts we use to make decisions. Instead of having to evaluate every single decision every single day—such as what we will eat or wear—we tend to use heuristics to avoid having to consider all the potential options available to us. Unfortunately, heuristics can also extend to other decisions we make. When we come to our conclusions, we stick to them, and we don’t want to be bothered with revisiting them. Once we have made up our minds, we assume that we can’t be wrong. As a result, we stick with our opinions that have now become comforting and self-validating.
Self-awareness is not a given. It’s like a muscle that needs to be exercised. And it can atrophy without use. Take the time to question your assumptions, test your worldview, and shift your paradigm as necessary. That way you will not get stuck in a pattern of self-herding, blaming others, or auto-pilot heuristics.
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Robert McFarland is the author of the bestsellers, Dear Boss: What Your Employees Wish You Knew and Dear Employee: What Your Boss Wishes You Knew. Robert is also President of Transformational Impact LLC, a leadership development consultancy helping companies be who they say they are by making their ideals actionable at the nexus of brand and culture.
This article has been adapted from the #1 international bestselling book, Dear Employee: What Your Boss Wishes You Knew.
To find out more about Dear Employee, or to purchase a copy of the book, click here.