Author Archives: Maren

Adopting a Fact-Based Worldview

get the factsI just finished reading a book by Dr. Hans Rosling entitled Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World – and Why Things Are Better Than You Think. He was a Swedish physician and researcher whose life’s work focused on the links between economic development, agriculture, poverty, and health. He was also the co-founder and chair of Gapminder Foundation which promotes global development through effective use of data to understand social, economic, and environmental factors.

The book begins with a simple 13-question test to assess the reader’s knowledge about the world. It covers:

  • Primary school education for girls in low-income countries
  • Population distribution across low-, medium-, and high-income countries
  • Percentage of world population living in extreme poverty
  • Global life expectancy
  • Population forecast for children in 2100
  • Primary cause of population growth
  • Deaths due to natural disasters
  • Population distribution across the continents
  • Childhood vaccination rates
  • Differences in education between men and women
  • Endangered species
  • Global access to electricity
  • Climate change

Without fail, his audiences score poorly; they’re overly pessimistic about the state of the world. These findings remain consistent across varying levels of education, profession, and socioeconomic standing. Chimpanzees – with their random selection of answers – outperformed humans.

As the extended book title suggests, Rosling explored 10 reasons why we tend toward a dim view of global development and offered suggestions for how we might self-correct.

Challenges Remedies
The Gap Instinct suggests that we characterize the world in binary terms with gaps between opposing sides. Reality generally shows no such polarization. Many (or most) data points could be in the middle and/or spread across a continuum. Be wary when comparing averages across two groups; look at the distribution of data and the overlaps between them. Don’t get mesmerized by stories about the extremes. Learn about real lives on the ground by getting close to them.
The Negativity Instinct says that bad news is more likely to get publicized and discussed. Good news and gradual-improvement news does not garner headlines. Get the facts from reliable sources. Let yourself hold in tension the notion that things may be bad/unpleasant but getting better. Don’t glorify history; things were rougher than we remember.
The Straight-Line Instinct leads us to assume that trends will proceed linearly. Remember that trend data may have S-bends, slides, bumps, doubling, or flattening.
The Fear Instinct suggests that frightening things – e.g., violence, captivity, contamination – get our attention and distort our view of the world and its risks. Recognize that one’s actual risk is a function of the real danger and the probability that one might be exposed to it. Get the facts and clear your mind before rendering any judgments.
The Size Instinct tells us that any number may seem impressive when it stands alone. It may distort our perspective. Look for relevant comparisons. Remember the 80/20 rule. Consider rates (e.g., per capita) when evaluating different sized groups.
The Generalization Instinct explores our tendency to view members of a group as homogenous and then using that categorization as explanatory. Look for differences and similarities within and across groups. When discussing “the majority,” ask whether it’s 51%, 90+%, or somewhere in between. Don’t get swayed by vivid examples.
The Destiny Instinct presumes that innate characteristics explain development differences across people, countries, religions, or cultures. Become attuned to the constant change in technology, countries, societies, cultures, and religions… especially slow and steady progress.
The Single Perspective Instinct cautions us to beware of instances where we are so convinced that we understand a problem and its solution that we fail to grasp its complexity or be open to alternate approaches to dealing with it. Be humble. Test your ideas, especially among folks who think differently. Look at solutions that may be outside your wheelhouse. Combine numbers with real lives. Beware of simple answers and simple solutions.
The Blame Instinct stems from our desire to find a clear, simple reason for why something has happened. It’s the counterpoint to the Hero Instinct which wants to assign credit for good. Resist the impulse to find a scapegoat or a cast of villains. Bad things happen. Look for multiple interacting causes and the systems that provide remediation.
The Urgency Instinct makes us want to take immediate action in the face of a perceived threat. It may foster impulsivity rather than critical thinking and considered action. Things are rarely as urgent as we make them out to be. Pause. Gather and review good data. Consider multiple future scenarios. Remember that drastic action may do more harm than good.

Rosling admonishes us to practice humility and curiosity. Humility breeds awareness of the limitations in our own knowledge and the difficulty in getting the facts right. Curiosity motivates us to seek out new information and be open to what it tells us… even if it does not accord with our prior sensibilities.

Rosling leaves us with two solid reasons for adopting a fact-based perspective:

“First: a fact-based worldview is more useful for navigating life, just like an accurate GPS is more useful for finding your way in the city. Second, and probably more important: a fact-based worldview is more comfortable. It creates less stress and hopelessness than the dramatic worldview, simply because the dramatic one is so negative and terrifying. When we have a fact-based worldview, we can see that the world is not as bad as it seems – and we can see what we have to do to keep making it better.”

Retooling for the Second Act

In his #1 New York Times best-selling book – From Strength to Strength: Finding Success, Happiness, and Deep Purpose in the Second Half of Life – Harvard professor Arthur C. Brooks provides thoughtful advice for healthy aging. His attention goes to people who have spent their lives determined to be excellent at what they do. Such folks “often wind up finding their inevitable decline terrifying, their successes increasingly unsatisfying, and their relationships lacking.” He calls this phenomenon the striver’s curse.

Here’s the grim reality. Our prefrontal cortex starts to decline in middle age. We gradually lose our capacity for rapid analysis and creative innovation. Skills on which we relied become less sharp, and it’s tougher to acquire new ones. We’re more easily distracted and struggle with recall of names and facts. As proof sources, Brooks notes that the greatest time for scientific discovery is in one’s late thirties. Financial professionals peak in creativity between ages 36 and 50. Big monied entrepreneurs (i.e., those acquiring $1 billion or more in capital) cluster in the 20-34 age range. Yet even as the facts stare us in the face, we may have trouble acknowledging that they apply to us!

fluid and crystallized intelligence Not to worry! While our ability to reason, think flexibly, and solve novel problems (a.k.a., fluid intelligence) may take a dip in later years, our crystallized intelligence continues to rise. We become more skilled at interpreting, combining, synthesizing, and utilizing complex ideas based on our warehouse of knowledge and life experiences. We’ve seen a lot, had some success, made some mistakes, stubbed our toes, and lived to tell the stories. In short, we grow in wisdom. That growth creates opportunity for service and wise counsel.

With that in mind, Brooks advises those passing through middle age and beyond do three things to make the second half of life more enjoyable than the first:

  • Develop relationships
  • Start a spiritual journey
  • Embrace your weaknesses

Some stage-setting needs to occur to get on board with his recommendations. First, let go of a self-concept focused on achievement, worldly rewards, and applause. The drive to succeed crowds out relationships and other enduring sources of happiness. Its joys are short-lived and never enough. Second, jettison attachment to money, power, fame, and material goods; they obscure the essential self and inflame desire. Identify a deep purpose in life and get rid of everything that doesn’t serve it. Third, recognize life’s finitude. Commit to making the most of each day’s opportunities rather than dwelling on what may have been lost in the passage of time.

Develop Relationships. Brook reminds us that our great forests sustain enormous root systems of which individual trees are a part. The secret to strength in maturity lies in recognizing the root system of which we are a part – family, friends, communities. Our intimates help shore up our vulnerabilities while reveling in our valued contributions. We should be especially mindful to cultivate unrelated friends for whom the center of gravity rests in mutual pleasure versus familial obligation. The art of friendship takes practice, time, and commitment. It must not be left up to chance. To that end:

  • Identify folks with whom you’d like to deepen relationship; get dates on the calendar.
  • Be an attentive and respectful friend. Give people what they want and need, not necessarily what is easiest for you to offer.
  • Invest intelligently. Be clear about the mutual benefits for relationship and put some energy into realizing them.

Start a Spiritual Journey. At age 50ish, it’s time to retreat a bit from the old personal and professional duties and allocate more time toward cultivating spirituality and deep wisdom. Develop tolerance for religion’s ambiguities and inconsistencies; look for the beauty and transcendence in faith. Take a broader view of the world with less focus on self.

Make your weakness your strength: Our foibles and follies create opportunities to connect more deeply with others. In trusted companionship, we share common ground and are less likely to engage in false puffery or gloss over our limitations and mistakes. We see the world as it is and find new areas of growth and success. Our resilience overcomes fear, anger, and anxiety. We can relax and take comfort in a more authentic self.

A Toolbox for Balance and Confidence

Life can be challenging. Things don’t always go the way we planned. We may find ourselves on the outside of groups toward which we’d hoped to be an insider. And then big disruptions – like job loss, relationship upheavals, and global pandemics – can upend our lives completely and leave us feeling completely out of sorts.

the light we carryFormer First Lady Michelle Obama understands the roller coaster ride of life – from personal experience and through contact with thousands of people over the years. In The Light We Carry: Overcoming in Uncertain Times, she shares the tools she uses to maintain balance and confidence, to move forward even during life’s rough patches.

While I’ll summarize the main lessons that I gleaned, I recommend direct engagement with the material. She’s a thoughtful writer and wonderful storyteller.

Finding Strength Within Yourself

The Power of Small: Major disruptions can be overwhelming. Huge projects looming on the horizon can be intimidating. Big, seemingly intractable issues can be daunting (and downright discouraging). Instead of standing by and feeling the weight of it, try introducing yourself to something good, simple, and easily accomplished. For Michelle, it was knitting. As her hands worked the yarn, the enforced stillness and steadiness of the task provided a welcome respite from angst and worry. And much like the stitch-by-stitch process of knitting a sweater or hat, she found ways to break the big things in life down to manageable pieces. She could quietly “click” her way out of a hard place. As she said, “I’d had to go small in order to think big again.”

Decoding Fear: We all face loss, harm, and failure. Fear may cause you to avoid situations in which pain might arise. But you’d miss opportunities, and your world may shrink as a result. An alternate strategy calls for understanding the mechanics of fear to discern when it rightfully serves your best interests and when it holds you back. When we befriend fear, tame our inner doubt, and go forth, we increase the likelihood that we’ll come out the other side with new skills and confidence. For Michelle, a critical tool in this regard is preparation. It settles her nerves and gives her the assuredness that she can tackle whatever comes at her.

Starting Kind: Michelle shares an endearing story about a friend’s husband who greets himself in the mirror daily with: “Hey buddy!” In that simple act, he tells himself that he’s glad to see him. It starts the day with a vote of confidence and approval. It acknowledges his light and tells him that he’s enough. That practice may not float your boat, but find ways to silence your inner critic and tell yourself that you’re loved and worthy just as you are.

Am I Seen? Human nature craves belonging, but we may experience moments where we feel different and set apart. That sensibility can make us doubt our fundamental goodness and what we know to be true about ourselves. Michelle encourages us to accept who and what we are and carry our difference with pride. We needn’t live with a burden of judgment from others. We can choose which signals we let in and which we ignore. As her father often reminded her: “No one can make you feel bad if you feel good about yourself.”

Navigating Relationship with Others

Kitchen Table: Good friends provide emotional shelter and a safe haven for your truest self. They travel life’s journey with you and can always be counted upon to show up. Admittedly, no one person satisfies every need, and the “kitchen table” changes with time. But there is joy in investing in one another and reveling in conversations that never finish. It takes time and effort to create and sustain community. We must practice and commit to the art of opening up to others and allowing their stories to intermingle with ours.

Partnering Well: A life shared with a committed partner adds another layer of richness to the journey. That choice finds best expression from a place of knowing who you are and what you need. She says: “When you know your own light, you are then better prepared to share it with another.” As with cultivating friendships, it’s a journey that takes time, effort, and a fair chunk of trial and error. The right partner is someone who will do the work with you, not for you. Openness, vulnerability, and compromise are hallmarks of success.

The Whole of Us: In the age of social media, we are prone to put forth our rosiest life narratives and hide the stories about which we are embarrassed or ashamed. That which we hold back becomes a cloud over our heads and dampens our light. When we embrace all of our stories, we release ourselves from fear and find more of our light. Our courage can have a ripple effect. She says: “The strength of one resolute soul can become the strength of many.” As others drop their guards – perhaps with a “me, too” – we increase connection. We become more human together.

Owning, Protecting, and Strengthening Our Light

The Armor We Wear: Life does not reward openness and vulnerability in all circumstances. There are occasions when we need to armor up. We need to be attuned to those arenas, choose our battles carefully, and manage our resources to address them effectively. Michelle’s armor includes preparedness, adaptability, and excellence. She also makes judicious use of boundaries to separate other people’s issues and worries from her own.

Going High: Amidst a particularly nasty presidential campaign, Michelle delivered a keynote speech in which she said: “When they go low, we go high.” So, what does that mean? Try harder. Be thoughtful. Tell the truth. Do your best by others. Keep perspective. Stay tough. Fight for decency, fairness, and justice. Have a clear message and a call to action that makes it difficult for anyone to write you off. Do what it takes to make your work count.

Why I Believe in Colonoscopies

As a college junior, I got an ominous call from my mother one day. Dad had gone in for a routine colon screening and wound up with a cancer diagnosis. Mercifully, his malady was confined to a set of polyps that the gastroenterologist removed skillfully. Other than the inconvenience of more frequent screenings, he was expected to live a normal life. Mom informed me that as his progeny, I could expect to have this family history influence my diagnostic screenings.

Fast forward a few decades and a high school friend of mine wound up with colon cancer. Unlike my father, he had not gone in for any screenings until he experienced abdominal pain and bleeding. He was diagnosed with Stage IV colon cancer and died within a year and a half, leaving a wife and two young children. He was a great guy. I can begin to tell you how sad I felt about his predicament.

Colorectal cancer is a silent killer, yielding few (if any) symptoms in the early stage of the disease. It typically starts as small, benign clumps of cells (polyps) that turn malignant over time. As they grow, afflicted individuals may notice changes in their bowel habits, rectal bleeding, abdominal discomfort, weakness, fatigue, and/or weight loss. However, their symptoms may come on so gradually that they fail to pay the appropriate attention to them and take action.

The American Cancer Society estimates that 106,180 new cases of colon cancer and 44,850 new cases of rectal cancer were diagnosed in 2022. Risk factors include age, genetic predisposition, family history, personal history of colorectal cancer or polyps, inflammatory intestinal condition, diet (low fiber, high fat), sedentary lifestyle, diabetes, obesity, smoking, and alcohol abuse. When caught early, 9 out of 10 folks can expect to survive at least 5 years. That’s why screening is so important!

Given my family history, I take colorectal screening seriously. I went in for my colonoscopy just last week. During this procedure, a gastroenterologist uses a long, flexible, tubular instrument to explore the length of the colon. It blows air into the colon to expand its field of vision and transmits images back to the doctor. If he or she detects abnormal tissue, it can be extracted and sent to a laboratory for analysis. An anesthesiologist sedates the patient during the procedure and monitors vital signs throughout. In my experience, the only discomfort occurred with the placement of the IV in my wrist and the injection of the sedative, both of which were transient.

Of course, one must empty one’s intestinal tract of all materials to give the doctor a clear look at the lining of the colon. That’s the “fun” part of the whole ordeal. My latest prep entailed:

  • Seven days without nuts, seeds, or whole grains in my diet
  • No dietary supplements for seven days (though prescription medications were AOK)
  • A clear liquid diet the day before my procedure
  • Use of SuTab tablets to induce diarrhea – 12 at 6:00pm the night before and 12 at 4:30 the day of my procedure consumed with a gaggle of water
  • Nothing by mouth after 6:30am

My pre-procedure evening wasn’t all that pleasant, and I didn’t get a whole lot of sleep. But the stuff worked exactly as they’d said it would. My check-in time was 9:30am for a 10:30am procedure; I was out of there by 11:30am. My darling husband provided transportation services as the sedative rendered me ill-equipped to operate machinery or make critical decisions.

Suffice it to say, I wouldn’t invest a whole blog post on the subject of colonoscopies if I didn’t believe in their ability to save lives. The CDC recommends that persons 45 and older get screened. If coloscopies aren’t advised, CT colonography, flexible sigmoidoscopy, and/or stool test might prove insightful. A frank discussion with a primary care provider can shed light on one’s individual circumstances. I dearly wish that my high school friend had availed himself of that.

Of course, cancer prevention should also be top of mind. The Mayo Clinic offers the following guidelines for lifestyle choices to reduce the risk of colorectal cancer:

  • Eat a high fiber diet with plenty of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains
  • Drink alcohol in moderation (if at all).
  • Don’t smoke.
  • Get at least 30 minutes of exercise daily.
  • Maintain a healthy weight.

Overcoming Negative Self-Talk – Part II

In my last post, I discussed the cycle of negative thoughts and emotions that impede performance, decision-making, relationships, health, and happiness. I also summarized research-based strategies that each of us can enact to turn the tide on destructive rumination courtesy of Dr. Ethan Kross’ book Chatter. This post focuses on social support as a resource.

Kross tells us that people are compelled to talk about their negative experiences with others. The more intense the experience, the more they’ll want to discuss it and the more frequently they’ll revisit it in conversation. We crave connection with others when we are hurting. Unfortunately, venting can heighten negative emotions rather than quell them. And we may wind up pushing people away or elicit a response that doesn’t help us move forward.

We need two kinds of support when in throws of a downward spiral, each delivered in the right measure at the right time.

  • We need emotional support to address a wounded soul in need of tenderness and compassion. Kross notes that we don’t need to provide the entire backstory to get it. A recounting may heighten our emotional pain. And we don’t need to enroll our companions in our side of things. We just need a bit of human connection to help us start to pull ourselves out.
  • We also need cognitive support to help us figure out what we’re going to do. With the right listening skills, gentle nudging, and questions, a good friend or colleague can help us gain distance from our turmoil, cool down our emotions, and start the process of identifying practical solutions.

As noted, support needs to come “in the right measure at the right time.” An overly rational response at the onset of a crisis could increase suffering and send the unintended message that the person who hurts is wrong or foolish. An overly empathetic response could amp up the hurt, anger, disappointment, shame, etc. and make it difficult to change perspective.

comforting a friendThough we may be anxious to relieve another person’s suffering, some folks need space when processing their pain. Overt acts of emotional or cognitive support could prove detrimental to their process and the relationship. Such instances may call for nonverbal forms of support. One could pick up the slack on chores, cook meals, run errands, or brings flowers. Sometimes, an affectionate touch says it all.

Kross suggests that different kinds of issues call for support from different types of folks. Some may be particularly good at dealing with work-related issues. Some may show skill in the realm of family dynamics. Others may excel in addressing friendship and matters of the heart. Still others may be experts on health. He suggests creating a “Board of Advisors” whose members span the various competencies we’d need to address life’s vicissitudes.

If ritual provides a source of comfort, it may help to seek out those who share in your traditions. As a case in point, I recall how anxious I felt when facing my first 3-hour written exam at the Duke Divinity School. The chaplain held a service of communion before the exam for all interested parties and made fresh baked bread for the occasion. Steam escaped from the bread as she broke it, and this amazing aroma wafted in the air. My nerves settled right down. I became clear-eyes and focused.

Social media can be an asset or a liability in troubled times. When tragedy has struck a community, it can be a place to connect with those who share your sorrow. It provides reassurance that you are not alone. Yet it too must eventually move from simply sharing an experience to a way forward from suffering. And for deeply personal experiences, social media can be salt in the wound. It may induce envy and trigger self-defeating dialog.

Finally, if no one is around when a difficult mood strikes, you can always gaze at a picture of a loved one. The break in thought pattern and influx of warm emotion can be a healing balm.

Overcoming Negative Self-Talk – Part I

Human beings have an “inner voice.” It’s the radio station to which our brains attune when not engaged actively in other matters. Its objects of attention are overwhelmingly me, myself, and I. When healthy, it provides a lot of useful services. For instance:

  • It serves as a holding tank for information and helps us make sense of the world.
  • It reflects on decisions we’ve made and how they impact our lives.
  • It provides a means to control our baser instincts and emotions as a function of our upbringing and cultural conditioning.
  • It reminisces about the past, considers alternate futures, and bends the imagination toward unlived lives.
  • It keeps track of goals and encourages us to stay the course.
  • It maintains a personal narrative that undergirds our sense of identity.
  • It helps us discern our values and desires.

In Chatter: The Voice in Our Head, Why It Matters, and How to Harness It, Dr. Ethan Kross suggests that this capability confers a survival advantage. We learn, change, and improve through self-reflection. We consider options before proceeding with a course of action. And we are alert to obstacles and dangers that could impede forward progress. Unfortunately, our inner dialogue can also devolve into a cyclical pattern of negative thoughts and emotions that impede performance, decision making, relationships, health, and happiness. For example:

“Who did I think I was taking on all of this responsibility? I’ll never be able to complete the project on time.”

“It has been 6 months since the accident, and I still can’t get over what happened. I keep reliving the experience over and over and thinking about what I should have done.”

“My boss is a real jerk. He never appreciates the time and effort that I put into each assignment. He doesn’t say a word when my work is picture perfect. He only comments when he finds a tiny mistake. I hate my job.”

When chatter hijacks our inner voice, Kross says “we zoom in close on something, inflaming our emotions to the exclusion of all the alternative ways of thinking about the issue that might cool us down.” This loss in perspective hogs neural capacity and interferes with normal executive functioning. We may falter in decision-making and wallow in paralysis by analysis. Automatic, learned skills on which we rely may break down. And the stress of it all may impact gene expression in a way that impacts our health.

Kross serves up several proven strategies to help us disrupt our ruminations and restore clarity of thought. They help us “zoom out” and put some distance between the thinker and the vexing thoughts so that a new conversation can take place. His recommendations:

  • Change the subject in the inner dialog from the first person to the second or third person. Instead of “I feel anxious,” try “[Your Name] is feeling anxious” or “one feels anxious in this circumstance.” The alternate language instantly puts the inner voice into a totally different frame. Moreover, use of neutral subjects (“you” or “one”) normalizes the speaker’s experience – i.e., everyone feels that way sometimes. (“If they got through it, so can I!”) Kross reports that “distanced self-talk allows people to make better first impressions, improves performance on stressful problem-solving tasks, and facilitates wise reasoning.” Moreover, it’s a fast and highly effective life hack!
  • Imagine that the circumstance is happening to a close friend. Talk to yourself as if you were comforting and advising that person.
  • Consider looking at the scenario as if you were a fly on the wall and reporting findings to third parties. Acknowledge multiple viewpoints and see if you can reconcile opposing positions.
  • Broaden your perspective. Rather than getting mired in the issue at hand, consider how this episode fits within the grand narrative of your life. Let it just be a moment that will pass.
  • Reframe the experience as a challenge and not a threat. Remind yourself that you have the wherewithal to overcome obstacles. Narrate your body’s stress response as being in a high state of readiness for the task at hand.
  • Do a little mental time travel. Consider how you’ll recall this episode in a year, 5 years, or 10 years. Again, let it just be a moment in time.
  • Try journaling in the style of an investigative reporter. Write about the experience from the perspective of a dispassionate narrator.
  • Use ritual to your advantage. A ritual can be any sequence of behaviors that are infused with meaning. You can draw from your cultural conditioning, or create ones specific to a habitual challenge. Rituals can clear the mind of useless chatter and help prepare for what comes next. Famous athletes leverage this tactic to ease tension, calm their nerves, and focus their attention.

If working from the inside out doesn’t float your boat, try working from the outside in. By creating order in your environment, you can increase your sense of control. Self-efficacy is a proven strategy to relieve anxiety. Alternatively, take a walk in nature. The sights, sounds, and smells of your surroundings captivates the mind and draws attention away from the nagging issue. The more awe-inspiring the vista, the greater the benefit. Stuck with an urban landscape? No worries. Breathless imagery and nature documentaries can do the trick.

How Self-Justification Works

Have you ever had the experience of looking at family members, friends, or colleagues and thinking: How could these intelligent, thoughtful, sane persons believe in [name that topic] despite all the evidence to the contrary? You may even try to influence their perspectives with facts only to find that they double down on their positions. Guess what? It’s not about them. It’s human nature. And we all have blind spots. Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson explore this terrain in Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad decisions, and Hurtful Acts.

self-justificationTavris and Aronson claim that the engine that drives this phenomenon is cognitive dissonance. It’s a state of being when we hold true two disparate concepts in our minds at the same time. It makes us really, really uncomfortable, so we’ll go to great lengths to quell the contradiction. As a case in point, we can’t reconcile a self-image that says “I am a sensible, competent person” with the notion that “I’ve advocated a belief that is categorically wrong.” So, we’ll let in all of the arguments that continue to reinforce our belief and find ways to discount that which contradicts it.

Tavris and Aronson use a pyramid as a representation of how we form (and stick to) beliefs. When we’re sitting at the top of the pyramid, we’re open to seeing all of its facades. If we start heading south on one of its sides, we can still climb back up to the top if we catch ourselves early in the descent. But the further we traverse down that side, the greater the commitment to sticking with it. When we get to the bottom, it’s the only perspective that we can support. Moreover:

“The more costly a decision in terms of time, money, effort, or inconvenience and the more irrevocable its consequences, the greater the dissonance and the greater the need to reduce it by overemphasizing the good things about the choice made.”

The source of much dissonance lies in our beliefs that we are smarter, nicer, more ethical, more competent, more reasonable, more humble, etc. than average. We go to great pains to preserve these self-concepts and filter our daily experience through them. We may not even be aware consciously of all the little lies we tell ourselves and blind eyes we turn to prevent the acknowledgement that we’ve made mistakes and foolish decisions, or committed harmful acts. To do so would threaten our sense of self. Moreover, our neuro-wiring comes with a predisposition to distort memory in ways that cause us to forget discrepant and discomforting information.

The book explores case studies of self-justification in relationships, psychotherapy, academia, business, politics, the judiciary, science, and medicine. It exposes the dark side of prejudice and how our we/they sensibilities can cause us to justify mistreatment of those we perceive as different/inferior. It provides ample evidence of self-justification’s universality and the great harm it causes when left unchecked.

Knowing how dissonance works will not make us immune to its effects. We all have psychological blinds spots. However, we can strive to bring them into awareness and catch ourselves before getting into trouble. Some tips:

  • Acknowledge the fact that we believe our judgements to be less biased and more independent than others and that our dialog partners feel the same way. Make an effort to be attentive, respectful, and curious about their perspectives. Ask questions. Explore. Give them the benefit of the doubt. You’re more likely to preserve relationship and just may learn something!
  • Check memories with independent accounts to increase the likelihood that you’ll approach the truth rather than your brain’s sanitized perspective.
  • Beware of culturally entrenched convictions – e.g., venting anger makes you feel better. (It doesn’t. It escalates anger.) Look for objective data from controlled experiments funded by neutral parties to guide your thinking.
  • Discuss major decisions with persons who (like you) are still in the process of making them. Don’t rely on testimonials as these witnesses will be steeped in self-justification.
  • When feeling hostility toward a person or group, do a generous deed in their behalf. You’ll start to see them in a warmer light. It’ll also encourage generosity toward others (“virtuous circle”).

At the end of the day, the authors tell us:

“Our greatest hope of self-correction lies in making sure we are not operating in a hall of mirrors in which all we see are distorted reflections of our own desires and convictions. We need a few trusted naysayers in our lives, critics who are willing to puncture our protective bubble of self-justifications and yank us back to reality if we veer too far off.”

Have a Safe and Happy Holiday Season

Years ago, when working as a hospital chaplain, I met a young woman whose mother had fallen off a ladder while putting up her holiday lights. Mom didn’t think anything serious had happened and simply went to her room to lie down for a spell. The daughter became concerned when her mother ceased to be responsive and took her to the emergency room. To her horror, she found out that mom had a brain bleed that caused fatal brain damage. It was devastating news and a painful reminder that holidays are not so happy for everyone.

According to the US Consumer Product Safety Commission, the last two months of the year bring some form of calamity to thousands of holiday decorators. Fractures represent the most commonly reported injury of which half are caused by falls from ladders. While many of us like to save money doing things ourselves, we’re advised to call the professionals to address our roofline decorating and gutter cleaning especially if we’re not in tip top physical or cognitive shape. If we still want to proceed on our own, the American Ladder Institute offers free training for ladder safety.

Fire safety needs to be on the radar during the holiday seasons. USA Fire Protection offers the following tips to mitigate fire risk:

  • Toss strings of lights with broken or worn cords, or loose bulb connections. Unplug strings when replacing bulbs.
  • Use fire resistant decorations especially when placed near an open flame or fireplace.
  • advent wreathIf you use candles, place them on stable surfaces away from other decorations. Do not leave them unattended. Better yet, replace these decorative elements with ones that use tiny lights.
  • If using a live tree, keep it watered. Live trees become a fire hazard when dried out.
  • Do not leave stove-top cooking unattended even when tempted to be a good host or hostess to holiday guests. Have someone else in the house assume that responsibility, or invite your guests to keep you company while you cook.

Though we might wish it otherwise, COVID-19, RSV, and the flu have all made their presence known this season. As of 12/4/2022, the 7-day average deaths from COVID-19 neared 400 persons in the US. Given a preponderance of social gatherings during the holidays, we increase our risk of contracting and spreading disease. Vaccination remains a solid line of defense as does physical distancing and mask use. It’s also a good idea to wash hands regularly and make judicious use of hand sanitizer.

Food and drink can get us into trouble during the holidays. After all, ‘tis the season to be jolly! But there are a few things we can do to keep ourselves from harm:

  • Beware of undercooked turkeys and the stuffing that absorbs its juices. They’re among the Top 10 foods that make people sick during the holidays.
  • Take a pass on the meat tray if it has been sitting on the hors d’oeuvre table for too long.
  • Likewise, beware of eggnog that has spent too long outside the refrigerator or made with raw eggs. It may contain salmonella bacteria.
  • Travel with a designated driver if you plan to drink. If imbibing, try alternating alcoholic drinks with nonalcoholic drinks. You’ll signal to your host that you’ve taken care of your beverage needs and minimize the risk of a hangover the following day.
  • Stay hydrated!

Stress also rears its ugly head during the holidays. Some of us may feel pressure to be the perfect home decorator, host or hostess, gourmet, gift giver, and party attendee in addition to all of our other day-to-day responsibilities. We may start burning the candle at both ends and then wonder why we seem to get sick every year at this time. Let the best holiday gift you give this year be to yourself. Say NO to some things, find short cuts for others, and give yourself permission to find the joy of the season. And, as always, do your best to eat healthfully, get some exercise, and log adequate sleep.

Break Up With Your Phone

In last week’s post, I talked about how and why our brains are wired for distraction and interruption. That facility keeps us alert to threats when our attention is focused on other matters. It works wonders in primitive environments that are rife with peril but doesn’t serve us terribly well in our twenty-first century technology-laden lives.

break up with your phoneAccording to statistica.com, 85% of American adults owned Smartphones as of February 2021. Half claim to use them 5-6 hours per day; another 22% copped to 3-4 hours of daily usage. It’s hardly surprising. They’re key communications devices (calls, email, text) with integrated cameras, Internet access, and a mind-boggling warehouse of downloadable apps. Author Catherine Price acknowledges their utility but explores their deleterious effects in her 2018 book How to Break Up with Your Phone. In particular:

  1. They feed our thirst for novelty with an everchanging media stream (and get us addicted to it).
  2. With an array of configurable alerts and easy access to the associated apps, they’re designed to get us to use them. Every time we hear a “ding,” our distractible brains note the intrusion; curiosity (and Fear of Missing Out) compels our attention. We lose our train of thought on the task at hand and become far less efficient completing it.
  3. A sustained pattern of distraction overloads working memory. We don’t process incoming data and register it effectively across multiple schema in long term memory. This deficiency inhibits our capacity for creativity and complex thought.
  4. They stimulate the pleasure sensors in our brains. We tune in to see if there something good to consume or to relieve boredom or anxiety. Once they’ve captured our attention, they provide no cues to get us to stop. We just numb out.
  5. They provide the illusion of human connection through social media and give us the means to be “liked.” Yet studies have shown that the more we use social media, the less happy we are. We get caught up comparing ourselves to others and fixated on who is (or is not) paying attention to us. We’re also subject to context-specific gleaned from our browser history.
  6. The blue light radiating from Smartphones inhibits sleep by delaying the proper release of melatonin. And to the extent that we encounter something unpleasant during these late-night episodes, we may ruminate on it long past lights out.

In short, despite all their utility, Smartphones can have a negative impact on physical, cognitive, and emotional health. A bit of restraint may improve our lives without impinging on all the great things these devices can do. Here are some suggestions:

  • Pay attention to the habit loops that feed phone addiction. Do your reach for it as soon as you get out of bed? Do you take action whenever you hear an alert? Do you mindless surf the phone while watching TV? Then ask yourself: What’s driving the behavior? Habit? Anxiety? Boredom? Is there a healthier response?
  • Turn off alerts on all but essential applications. Customize the latter to minimize unwanted disruptions.
  • Schedule times for uninterrupted work; turn off the phone and leave it in another room. Enroll family, friends, and colleagues in respecting your privacy during this time.
  • Make it more difficult to check social media by getting rid of the custom apps on the phone. Use the Internet browser for access with the associated inconvenience of logging in. If that seems too extreme, set an alarm on the phone when connecting to apps to limit time spent there.
  • Resist the temptation to look at the phone first thing in the morning or within an hour of bedtime. There are plenty of other hours in the day to plug in!

Feeling the need for a more structured intervention? Grab a copy of Catherine’s book and follow her “30-day plan to take back your life.”

The Distracted Mind

With a looming deadline for a project, I like to clear my calendar, shut off the phones, and hide out in my office until the job is done. It’s my way of creating space for concentrated attention. Yet despite good intentions, I’m not always successful:

  • A random noise can wiggle into my ear and prompt me to investigate its source.
  • I might catch my name and wander what is being said.
  • My mind may wander or start fussing about something completely unrelated to the work at hand.
  • I may start thinking about the email or text messages that I’m missing and grab my phone to satisfy my curiosity.
  • Someone may interrupt my work to deal with an important matter.

With each interruption, I lose my train of thought and have to spend a bit of time getting back on track. It forces me to spend more time on task than I’d budgeted and may affect the quality of my work. Drs. Adam Gazzaley and Larry D. Rosen explore this all-too-common human foible in The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High Tech World.

As documented in prior posts, human cognition has evolved across the millennia to keep us alive. It allocates our finite processing capacity efficiently and effectively:

  • Amidst an ocean of stimuli, we can focus our attention like a spotlight. We determine which senses, spaces, or objects merit perception and action and which ones to ignore. Suppressing irrelevant data yields higher quality representations of the areas of focus.
  • We’re equipped with working memory to hold information active for brief periods of time. It serves as a bridge between current perceptions and future actions and functions best when unencumbered by distraction.
  • We can engage in task switching to manage multiple goals at the same time. Though we may harbor the illusion of parallel processing, our human brains only operate on one thing at a time even when competing tasks do not demand use of the same cognitive controls.

Our prefrontal cortex manages cognitive capacity in service of goal setting and enactment. It excels in evaluation, reasoning, decision making, organization, and planning. Once a direction has been set, it manages our attention, working memory, and task management systems to reach the destination. Extensive connections between the prefrontal cortex and all other brain regions enable continuous processing of sensory, emotional, and motor functions.

Sleep deprivation, stress, and intoxication downregulate our capacity for focused attention. We also lose this facility as we age. While we retain the capacity to direct our cognitive “spotlights,” we’re slow on the draw to weed out distractions. We give them leave to generate internal interference and mess with our working memory. We’re also less effective at task switching.

While distractions and interruptions get in the way of forward progress at any age, both evolved as essential survivalist instincts. When wandering the jungles seeking food or shelter, our ancestors needed to be alert to environmental changes that might signal a threat – the hissing or rattling of a poisonous snake, or the rustling of bushes as a predator nears. Those who were adept at sensing and reacting to new information moved quickly to protect themselves; the others likely perished. The Darwinian victors were also attuned to input that might lead to food, water, or other forms of gratification.

Unfortunately, the jungle in which we find ourselves today presents a gaggle of distractions that have no material bearing on our survival. Email, text, social media, and news alerts constantly vie for our attention. Seventy-five percent of us operate within 5 feet of our phones day and night; 80% of us reach for our phones upon awakening. Forty-one percent of us respond to email and 71% to text ASAP. We expect rapid respond and feel rebuffed when it is not forthcoming. It should come as no surprise that young adults task switch 27x per hour; older adults task switch 17x per hour. This elevated distractibility increases working hours, stress, frustration, time pressure, and effort. So why do we do it?

The human brain craves novelty; we’re driven to seek new information. When consigned to a single task, we may grow bored with what we’re doing and look for something to entertain us. We may get anxious to move on and start thinking about the next thing. We may experience FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out) and grab our phones to check on the latest news. We may tell ourselves that we have to respond to every alert. All such distractions and interruptions make us far less effective at managing our lives and the goals to which we have committed.

Recognizing the cost of unwanted distraction, the authors provide a bevy of behavioral adjustments to minimize them.

  • Focus on one project at a time in a distraction-free environment. Put away nonessential work materials – i.e., clear your desk! Limit yourself to one screen and close irrelevant apps.
  • Eliminate email, text, news, and other alerts. Set expectations for response times with family, friends, and colleagues.
  • Interleave periods of standing and sitting while working on the project.
  • Schedule brief breaks every 45-90 minutes to relieve boredom. Options include: exercise, work in the garden, daydream, take a power nap, have a snack, read a chapter of your book, laugh.

Beyond the foregoing behavioral modifications, the authors also provide recommendations for enhancing cognitive control:

  • Meditation trains the mind in focused attention and open monitoring of thoughts and feelings. Practitioners learn to acknowledge the latter and dismiss them rapidly. Meditation has been shown to improve sustained attention, processing speed, and working memory.
  • Computerized cognitive exercises adaptively challenge specific areas of cognitive capacity causing them to become stronger over time. As a case in point, Akili Interactive offers digital therapeutics to improve cognitive function. Their offerings were developing in collaboration with world renowned neuroscientists.
  • Judicial use of video games can also have a positive impact on attentional capacity, distributed attention, and speed of attentional processing. They’re demanding, adaptive, and fun!
  • Exercise! A steady diet of aerobics and strength training increases brain volume, nerve growth factors, blood flow, functional and structural connections, and neurogenesis.