Your Brain Does Things You Do Not Want

The moment we see something we instantly judge whether it is positive or negative. We do this all the time, automatically and preconsciously, to everything around us. I’m telling you: your brain does things you do not want!

All input is directly classified as either good or bad. Whether we appreciate specific input as really good or good (or really bad or just bad) does not really matter for this classification.

This has enormous implications. If you want it or not, everybody you encounter is immediately classified as either good or bad.  The impact on your subsequent judgments is huge, and this influences how you behave towards a person or object.

Most people want to be unprejudiced about differences in race, age, or employment.  The problem with automatic judgments is that they are not based on what we want to think, but on what we have experienced over and over again. All the negative news in newspapers, all the jokes and remarks made by people around you: they all weigh in on your experience. This means that we cannot escape having stereotypes about most people.

Sometimes I am aware of my own negative judgment. One way to experience this is by doing an Implicit Association Test. It is horrible to feel my own prejudice in the slowness of my response. Go see if you have prejudice on gender and race.

Why is it so hard to change your automatic judgments? This is because the amount of times you – or others around you – judge something outweighs by far the value that we give such a judgment. So even when you consider your judgment ‘that women are inferior’ as negative, this is not outweighed by the number of times this judgment is affirmed around you.

Efforts are made however to gain a better understanding of this issue.  Research has been done to find out how individuals can influence their automatic judgment through exercises.

One way is to make use of the messages that our bodily movements convey to us. Whenever we move an object or person towards ourselves we automatically reinforce a positive judgment. Whenever we create distance between an object or person and ourselves, this is automatically interpreted as a negative sign. Knowing this, pictures on a mobile phone can be used to train new automatic responses. Imagine what would happen if you moved the picture of a cigarette away from you a 100 times: you would slightly change your way of thinking about cigarettes through using your body.

Automatic judgment is great: in general, it takes care of adequate responses. It, however, also shows how vulnerable we are to judgments that are incorrect and how influential this vulnerability can be. Prejudices are kept alive exactly because our automatic judgment is sometimes mistaken and not corrected but sometimes we just don’t know, like with the Scientology movement which makes me so angry at times. When this happens in public, in the media, for example, it can really harm people. So if you are a writer, next time think twice about assigning negative attributes to a person: you are influencing other people’s thoughts.

In order to turn your automatic judgments to your advantage, write a note saying something like ‘work is fun’ or ‘I love breakfast’ and put it up on your wall to see it again and again.

Good deeds are contagious

If you share your money, you have less. If you share your enthusiasm or love, it will only grow.

Your brain has both positive and negative feedback loops that are connected to different kinds of experiences like Sunday family traditions. Pro-social behavior is one of the things that make us feel happy. These actions are also enjoyed by those around us, and function as a social mirror that can help others behave more social too.

Being pro-social will create an environment that is more pleasant to all. Some good deeds that trigger positive loops:

  • Helping someone gives both you and the other(s) a great feeling.
  • Being honest and being treated honestly, gives us a feeling of respect and trust.
  • Giving someone trust will give him the desire to prove you right. He will be more trustworthy.
  • The warm glow of giving can already be found in toddlers.

Don’t forget (as I sometimes do) to also ask others for help, because this feeling of helping and being helped is mutually beneficial! Let’s face it. We all pretend to be busy, but no one is really busy, it’s all about setting priorities.

How a bonus can destroy creativity

In our society as it is today, a lot of emphasis put on individual achievements and they are often rewarded with bonuses. If we think of humans as egoistic and self-centered this makes perfect sense.

Research shows, however, that bonuses and punishment often have a reverse effect. For example, they take away the pleasure in doing the act itself and replace it with the pleasure of getting a bonus.

How we lose creativity and internal motivation

A loss of intrinsic motivation is seen in really young children: rewarding children for drawing a picture will take away the pleasure of drawing itself. Instead, the pleasure of getting a reward is set up. Giving a reward for drawing once will influence the child for a long time. The next time the child will expect a reward and if you do not give her a reward she will not draw.

Creativity also decreases

Not only is intrinsic motivation lost, but there is also a loss in creativity. Having to think about a reward, makes that one’s brain is focused on this idea. That leaves less room for other thoughts.

Telling someone he will get a bonus if he does really well will get him to try hard, but with blinders on. In another experiment, where (grown-up) people had to creatively find a solution with the offered materials, they measured how much quicker those were that got a $100 reward. Those that were not offered a reward were both more creative in their solutions and faster in finding a solution.

A bonus can be useful

If you have to do something that is really boring, or mainly needs some trigger to get done (laying bricks, picking strawberries) rewarding the amount of work done is a great idea. When creativity is needed it is questionable to reward people with a bonus. The capacity that should be used for getting to creative solutions is occupied with thinking about the bonus.

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