You Are Not That Smart by David McRaney

Is one or more of these scenarios familiar??

Scenario one: You promise yourself that Monday will be “your day” to get back to the gym — you “know” that you will be motivated and raring to go!! Come Monday you can’t seem to find any of that pep you “knew” you would have — you are “too tired,” “too busy,” or “too stressed” to work out.

In this scenario your mind was tricked by “present bias.”

Scenario two: You tell yourself that you will only buy healthy foods at the grocery store. When you get home you are shocked; your bags are full of unhealthy snacks. What happened?

Your brain was tricked through “priming.”

Scenario three: You state that this week you will just say “no” to dessert. Then, your future self goes to a party and decides to indulge “just this once,” justifying the behaviour with “everyone would judge me” if I didn’t partake.

Your mind was tricked into self-sabotaging through the “spotlight effect.”

As McRaney would say, humans are often “not that smart” — our brains trick our unconscious minds. The solution? Foster awareness — learn how to spot and then use typical cognitive distortions for “good not evil.” Curious? Read to find out how.

Basic premise

The basic premise of You are Not That Smart is that although most of us believe we drive the bus of our life, in reality, unless we are adept at “thinking about thinking,” the brain (the unconscious) tricks the mind (conscious thought) into a false sense of control and autonomy.

The brain is not a computer accurately depicting the world around us. It constructs our reality. We create a biopic of our life in our own head. This biopic is needed to some degree; it helps us stay hopeful and motivated, and we can’t be aware of everything or remember everything, so our brain helpfully edits. The editing becomes unhelpful when one believes it as gospel rather than akin to a “based on a true story” movie, where the gist is true but the details are foggy and often embellished to serve a point.

Think of your reality (your sense of self) as a collage of consciousness that exists in your skull, based on framing of experiences and the memories and emotions orbiting your sensations and cognition.

You will continue to be inadvertently swept forward by your unconscious until you become aware of how your brain is wired. You have to learn to “watch” — to “observe” — your internal thoughts and assumptions. You have to become better at “thinking about thinking.”

In Kathleen speak, you need to learn how to call bullshit on your internal negative brain propaganda — learn how to recognize and name unconscious habits, triggers, thought patterns, and beliefs. Only then will you truly be in control of your own life and thus your health.

How does this connect to health?

Once you understand how your brain and mind interact, you can use that awareness to construct the reality needed to become your “fit future self.” Adopting a healthier lifestyle requires one to step outside oneself, to observe thoughts, habits, behaviours, etc., and to learn how to “not believe everything you think.”

Thoughts are not facts. Thoughts are not acts. Thoughts are just thoughts. Just because you have a thought or a craving (I am too busy, I am too tired, I want chocolate) does not make it accurate AND does not mean you have to act. You can feel you “deserve” a cookie and still say NO to having it. You are not your cravings. Until you learn (through practice and repetition) the skill of stepping back and observing thoughts, behaviours, etc., you will continue to have a disconnect between how you state you want to live (weight loss, etc.) and your lived reality.

How are we “not that smart”? Four ways your brain may be sabotaging the future fit you!!

Present bias  

Present bias is the inability to understand how your future self will feel, to grasp that your preferences change over time, and to know that what you want now is not the same thing you will want later — that how you feel at this moment will not be how you will always feel.

How is this relevant to health?

Present bias often knocks us off our health game — but once you are aware of present bias, you can use the knowledge to your advantage.

Being tired in the present is often used as a reason not to go to the gym. When I feel tired, I use the knowledge of present bias to my advantage: “Kathleen, you know you will feel more energized after a run. You feel tired now, but you will not always feel tired. Don’t give in to present bias.”

A food example: You make a resolution to not “eat crap” CONVINCED that your future self will feel as motivated as you do now, only to binge when future you is exhausted and frustrated after a long day. The next time you have a resolution, KNOW you will not necessarily feel motivated in the future. Set up systems to save yourself from the future exhausted, less motivated you. For example, get rid of all the junk food in the house.

Note that adopting a healthier lifestyle is all about understanding the relationship between “want,” “should,” “now,” and “later.”  For most of us what we want (dessert, to stay up late, etc.) is often diametrically opposed to what we know we should do (eat vegetables and go to bed early). When possible, work to change your taste buds so you enjoy healthier options — or at least see their value. Changing preferences takes time — to understand the value you often first have to experience the positive effects of the choice. To do that you have to understand that at least at the beginning your future “wants” will be less than heathy and thus “later” is a murky place where anything could go wrong. Set up systems to save yourself from your future self (no junk food in house, exercise bag packed and ready to go, get a fitness buddy).

Priming

Priming refers to how things/objects/colours/etc. unconsciously influence us. Priming is not inherently bad. Our attention can’t be focused on everything at once. Our unconscious is trying to help us by “nudging” us to feel or think in certain ways when we see or experience different colours, cultural meaning, words, objects, personalities, etc. The trick is to — as with all of this mind/brain information — use it for “health good.” Once you know that priming is a part of life, you can prime yourself to be healthier — be an “agent” of priming.

Use the power of rituals, systems, norms, ideology, etc. to your advantage. Create environments conducive to the mental space you want to achieve. Post inspirational photos, write a grocery list so you don’t go on mental cruise control and buy a bunch of junk you don’t want, set your gym clothing out so you see it, or connect certain music to you being a “bad ass gym goer” and play it when you don’t want to work out.

Spotlight effect

The spotlight effect is the cognitive distortion that leads us to believe people are “watching us” and thus everything we do REALLY matters. Most of us can’t help but be the “centre of our universe” — we are paying attention to what we do all the time. The key is to remember that everyone else is simultaneously paying attention to their own universe.

How is this connected to health? So many people justify making less-than-ideal food choices because they think they have to “try the food at a party because what will people think?” Or that they have to drink because “it will seem weird otherwise.” Or that they can’t go to the gym because “everyone will think they are fat idiots.” JUST GO. Eat what you know is healthy. Do YOU. You are not that important. Chances are people will not think anything. If they do notice you, they will disregard or forget you almost immediately.

On a connected note, to quote Dr Seuss, “those who mind don’t matter and those who matter don’t mind.” If someone judges you then they are an idiot and screw them. Haters will always hate. Those who care about you will be ecstatic you are adopting healthier habits. Do you. Don’t let anyone control your health.

Self-serving bias

Self-serving bias is the cognitive distortion that allows us to accept credit when we succeed but blame bad luck, unfair rules, a bad boss, difficult instructors, etc. when we fail.

You know this distortion. When your diet is working and you are on your health horse you believe you are killing it. You fall off your horse and the world is to blame — your family is the worst, the diet stopped working, work is just too crazy, you deserve to “live life,” etc., etc., etc.

If you want to adopt a healthier lifestyle you HAVE TO OWN YOUR CHOICES — both the positive and the negative. Yes, give yourself a high-five for all of your little wins, but hold yourself accountable when you wobble. Don’t metaphorically whip yourself, just have a growth mindset. Learn from the experience — use the info as data for next time.

Conclusion

Take the stories you create about yourself with a grain of salt. Become adept at “thinking about thinking.” Learn to question your mind — ask “is this real or just “negative brain propaganda”? Understand that there are always two of you — the current you and the future you. Future you will be influenced by different ideas and desires. Future you will have an alternate palette of brain functions with which to paint reality. Current you might see the benefits of making the positive health choice, but the “now you” will not be facing those choices. Future you can’t be trusted. Future you might give in and then you will go back to current you feeling ashamed and frustrated. “Now you” must trick future you into making good choices by making good choices for both parities. Set up systems AND work on fostering a positive, productive inner dialogue that can recognize and name cognitive distortions and call bullshit on any unhelpful negative brain propaganda.

Now, obviously, a positive, productive inner dialogue and strong systems will not guarantee results, BUT they at least open the door for change. A negative outlook and negligible systems set you up for failure.

Which road do you want to take? The road that guarantees shit-health creek or the road that at least has a fork that can lead to healthy creek!!! As always, your choice!!