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Why They Think They Know What’s Good for You

Bob Baugher, Ph.D.

Highline College

Des Moines, Washington

“You can have more children.” “It’s for the best.” “At least she didn’t suffer.” “It’s God’s will.” Sound familiar? In this article it would be easy to fill this page with such “wisdom” from the confident mouths of those who would tell us what they believe is good for us. Instead I want to help you gain a little insight into the workings of our amazing brains. I’d like to tell you how perfect it is, how despite a few flaws in its thinking process our brains are smooth running engines. But that wouldn’t be true. Instead our brains, encased in darkness, struggle to make sense of the thousands of messages that enter it via our eyes, ears, and skin. And, as shown by the so-called wisdom of those who believe they are helping us, sometimes what our brain does isn’t very pretty. Let’s look.

Just an hour ago I returned from a lecture by a famous psychologist (Dr. Daniel Kahneman) who spoke on the flaws of intuition. When he was finished, I asked him the following question in front of the audience of 500, “Based on what you now know about how our brain works, can you explain why bereaved people are offered clichés and told to get over it and move one?” His answer, “I don’t know.” Perhaps this is the wisest answer anyone can give. However, I believe that some of the substance of his talk can give us a little insight into answering the question.

In his research on how the brain works, Kahneman concluded that the thinking part of our brain consists of two parts: System 1 and System 2. System 1 takes in information, immediately pieces it together and comes up with a story. The people around you who offer the clichés and presume to know answers to your daily struggles are using System 1. The danger of this system, sometimes called “intuition,” is that it presumes the world around it is knowable. In the System 1 brains of the people who observe your grief, there are manufactured stories of what you must be going through. It then “whispers” these assumed facts to System 2, our more rational center of thinking. Why “whisper”? Because if System 1 said, “I’ve looked at the incoming information and, based on all I know, here is my best guess.” then System 2 would respond with, “I’m not willing to rationally accept this.” Instead, System 2 monitors information loosely and believes the whisper.

When we slip into System 1 thinking, we know we are right. It feels good to be sure of one’s correctness, to be confident in one’s beliefs, to be certain of one’s viewpoint. It is a powerful feeling to say to oneself, “I know I’m right!”

Here is one of Kanneman’s examples:

The total cost of a bat and ball is $1.10. The bat is one dollar more than the bat. How much is the ball?

Now, do you see how quickly your System 1 thinking came to its conclusion of ten cents? How sure are you of your correctness? Very? Of course it has to be ten cents, right? Wrong. See if you can determine why the answer is in fact five cents. The swiftness with which your brain came to its confident ten-cent answer is the same System 1 flawed intuition that the people around you use to determine what you should do with your grief, your pain, your life. You can blame them, but I would like to suggest that instead you blame their brain, your brain, and my brain for doing the best it can.

Can anything be done? Unfortunately, not much. As I see it, there are only two possibilities. First, the brains of those self-appointed grief experts could change in an instant upon the death of their own child. Admit it, before tragedy hit your family, you mouthed a cliché or two to bereaved people you came across. Now you know better. (What a heck of a price to pay to “know” better.) If you are like most people, you’ve said, “I wouldn’t wish this on my worst enemy.”

The second thing to do is for you to pick your battles. Changing the way brains function in the face of a bereaved person like you is tough work. Try this: the next time you hear a cliché, rather than saying to yourself, “What an idiot.” Or fantasizing about strangling this person, you might instead say something like, “Here’s another poor soul whose brain has fooled him into thinking he knows what’s best.” Then, with all the tact you can garner, find a way to gently let this person know that you would rather not hear the clichés. And that you would rather hear statements such as, “I know it must be so hard for you.” “Your brother was a cool guy. I remember a time when….” “You talk, I’ll listen.” “Go ahead and feel whatever you feel. I’m here for you.” And the favorite of many parents, “I’d love to hear some stories about the life of your child.

Published in TCF Magazine We Need Not Walk Alone, Fall, 2012.


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