I have written in the past about the idea and model that our brains act as press secretaries, taking the information that comes into the mind and presenting it in a way that makes everything happening in the mind look as good as it possibly can. This idea comes back in Robin Hanson and Kevin Simler’s book The Elephant in the Brain where the authors expand on the idea. They write,
“Above all, it’s the job of our brain’s Press Secretary to avoid acknowledging our darker motives – to tiptoe around the elephant in the brain. Just as a president’s press secretary should never acknowledge that the president is pursuing a policy in order to get reelected or to appease his financial backers, our brain’s Press Secretary will be reluctant to admit that we’re doing things for purely personal gain, especially when that gain may come at the expense of others. To the extent that we have such motives, the Press Secretary would be wise to remain strategically ignorant of them.”
I really like the way that the authors describe the role of the conscious part of our brains as acting as a press secretary. By keeping us consciously unaware of our motivations for action, we can be strategically ignorant of why we do what we do. Strategic ignorance is common when we pretend that the things we do don’t have external consequences for others, when we don’t want to face the reality of science, or when we just want to avoid doing some unappealing task. In most cases we probably recognize that we are not fooling anyone when we claim we don’t know what’s really happening, but at least it gives us a slight cushion to be comfortable while hoping that the negative consequences don’t come back to bite us.
Hanson and Simler continue the metaphor, “What’s more – and this is where things might start to gt uncomfortable-there’s a very real sense in which we are the Press Secretaries within our minds. In other words, the parts of the mind that we identify with, the parts we think of as our conscious selves…” It is easy to ignore the parts of ourselves that don’t align with the story we want to tell and present to the world about what great people we are. It turns out it is so easy because we are not consciously aware of those parts of ourselves. We are just the press secretary who is handed the script about all the great things happening within us. We purposefully avoid those parts of us that look bad, because we don’t want to acknowledge they are there and have to explain ourselves in spite of those negative aspects of who we are. By simply ignoring those parts of us and sticking to the happy script, we can look great and feel great about the wonderful things we do, even if those wonderful things don’t measure up to the sanitized version we present to the world. There is a lot taking place behind the scenes, but lucky for us, we are just the front facing conscious press secretary who doesn’t see any of it.
“It doesn’t actually matter where our fear of consequences originates. What’s important is acknowledging that it’s there,” Colin Wright states in his book Considerations. What Wright is addressing in his chapter about consequences is the way we tend to think about the repercussions of our actions. He lays out the idea that very few of the negative consequences we fear are permanent. Throughout the chapter he dives into our fear of consequences, where that fear originates, and ways to bypass that fear.
For Wright, pretending that we do not have any fears does not help us move forward. He believes it is important for us to open up about our fears and identify them through processes of self awareness. When we begin to look at what we are afraid of and what keeps us from acting, we begin to see ways to overcome the obstacles that scare us. When we let go of the consequences of our actions and examine ways in which we can overcome negative reactions we are preparing ourselves to have courage and handle the negative in a respectable manner. This idea is similar to those of Richard Wiseman in his book 59 Seconds, where he identified studies which suggested that journaling about the obstacles we will face and how we will overcome those obstacles can better prepare us for our journey and help us feel better about our journey.
Wright also explains the ways in which we take small consequences and magnify them beyond their true scope. When we imagine that small consequences carry more weight than what they actually do, we begin making decisions as if they precede life or death consequences. This puts an unreasonable amount of stress on our lives, and complicates our decision making process. When we begin to understand our fear and thoroughly think through the consequences of our actions, we can begin to enjoy more freedom in our life without being paralyzed by the ‘what if’ mindset of life.
In the United States we really like the idea that things are either good or bad. My personal belief is that we get locked in to these “either or” ways of thinking because it is easier than trying to process information. Good or bad, Republican or Democrat, lazy or hardworking, all provide shortcuts in our mind for us to classify people and decisions. In Packing Light, Allison Vesterfelt writes “sometimes there are not right and wrong decisions. There are just different choices with different benefits, different ramifications, and different baggage.” This quote unpackages so much in my mind of the hold-ups that I have when looking at other people. When you watch mass media, politicians are portrayed as good or evil (or often evil and more/less evil) and their decisions are often criticized as either good or bad for society and the country. It is so difficult to imagine how many decisions go into a single piece of legislature, and all of the different benefits and ramifications that go along with a single decision in any piece of legislature. After reading this quote and trying to stop seeing things in the black or white, I have noticed how often it is that we take a mental short cut and describe something as being either one thing or the other. Vesterfelt’s quote helps me realize that we cannot simply ascribe categories to any one thing. Looking at something as an “either/or” limits your understanding of that thing or person. Our lives are very complex, and the decisions we make come from the web of complexities that we see our lives and choices through. For an outsider a decision may appear to obviously be right or wrong, but we have to remember that in that situation we are filtering that decision through our own perception without having and vision of the pressures and factors that went into the decision for the other person.
By simply accepting that nothing is either right or wrong, and that nothing fits into the duality and dichotomy that our mind seems to love, we can take a softer position on other people, our own actions, and the composition of the world. When you try to analyze something to understand what part of it is a plus or a minus, you not only gain a deeper understanding of the world, but you stop making hateful decisions, and can build compassion in your life. We all make decisions with some of them being easy, difficult, great, or not ideal, and by not berating ourselves and others for our decisions but by trying to be mindful of why we or others made decisions we can broaden our vision, and understand others better.
With Vesterfelt’s quote, the core of her idea is that we can spend too much time worrying about our own decisions and become stuck in a routine that rewards inaction versus action. When you are so caught up worrying if the next decision is the right decision, you get to a crucial point where the decision must be made, and it is easier to take not action and remain in the status quo. This is where Vesterfelt was building an awareness of her decisions so that she could avoid classifying any decision as right or wrong. She began to see that any decision she made would have both positive and negative consequences, but that the only way for her to grow is by embracing the consequences and fully applying herself to whatever decisions she makes.