How Our Minds Play Tricks on Us

How Our Minds Play Tricks on Us

I recall an interesting anecdote that speaks volumes about the workings of the human mind. Henry was driving on a dark country road late at night far from home. All of a sudden, one of his tires went flat. He pulled over, opened the trunk, and saw there was no jack there. “What do I do now?” he said to himself. There were no houses nearby, but he recalled passing one a mile back. So, as he trudged off in that direction, a series of thoughts kept him company as he walked:

“It’s almost midnight, not the best time to knock on a stranger’s door. The people who live there are likely to be annoyed, even angry. Maybe they are the suspicious type who think every stranger wants to do them harm. They could get angry and not even listen to what I have to say. If that’s the case, they might say “our jack is not for rent.” With that attitude, they might say they have a shotgun and threaten to shoot me if I don’t leave their property immediately.”

Just as these thoughts were making Henry seethe, he reached the porch and knocked on the door. When the owner opened it and said, “Can I help you? ” Henry shouted, “Keep your precious jack,” and stomped away!

Note that Henry’s behavior was not a spontaneous response to a feeling. Rather, it was the result of extended thought. The process was, of course, badly flawed (as well as humorous). He assumed what would happen rather than waiting for it to happen.

Let’s look even more closely at another case of flawed thinking.

Agnes is a 35 year old professional woman who lost her job and, lacking an emergency fund, had difficulty paying her monthly bills. After asking friends if she could borrow $35,000, and being refused, she turned to her older brother Tom. His response was generous. He not only loaned her the amount she asked for, but added $5000 so she could seek a new job without worrying. A little over two months later she found a job that paid more than she had earned previously. She promptly moved to a larger apartment and bought a new car. Then a year passed, during which she made no effort to pay her brother even a small part of what she owed him. Nor did she call or write him.

Let’s leave the rest of this theoretical story to our imaginations and instead consider what went on in Agnes’ mind during the year after getting the new job. In other words, what thoughts caused her to go from grateful determination to repay her brother, to a lack of interest or downright aversion to doing so. Here is what likely happened:

When Agnes was looking for the new job, she probably was thinking what a wonderful brother she was blessed with, how kind he had been to her, and how she would not only repay him as soon as possible, but do something special for him—perhaps take him on a cruise. However, when she got the job, her thoughts turned to herself, which after all is the fundamental default focus for humans (except those who work exceptionally hard to change it). That focus produced thoughts like these, month by month, pretty much in this order:

1) “I worked hard to get this new job and had to put aside all pleasures. Now that I’ve got it, I want to celebrate a bit, enjoy myself, and start acting on my wish list.” (2) “Tom was good to me. I’m glad he has been so successful that he could afford laying out that kind of money.” 3) “I know Tom is in great financial shape, so it won’t harm him if I delay repaying him for a few months, until it’s a little easier for me to do so.” (4) “If Tom were concerned about my not starting to pay him back, he would have said something about it by now. The fact that he hasn’t probably means he’s comfortable with the situation.” 5) “$40 thousand is an awful lot of money to me, but not much at all to him. It would be nice if he just forgave the loan.” 6) “I hate being beholden to someone, especially a family member. It makes me feel awful. He must know I feel that way.” 7) “It certainly wasn’t my fault that I lost my job. It could happen to anyone. It’s really cruel of Tom to make me feel guilty about having been in need.”

There are a number of flaws in Agnes’ thinking. In point three she assumes that her brother won’t be harmed by her postponing payment of the loan. She has no way of knowing that; besides, the appropriate question is about whether he approves of the postponement, not whether it would “harm” him. In point four, she assumes that his silence can only be interpreted as approval, when it could as easily be understood as expecting his sister to keep her word without prodding. Point five assumes foolishly that if an action is “nice,” he is obligated to do it. Points six and seven go off the rails of logical thought. His generous treatment of her showed that he sympathized with her and supported her. The charge of cruelty is absurd on its face. And he had no role in her “feeling guilty” about anything. Besides, the only guilt that is relevant is the guilt she ought to feel for having broken her promise to repay her brother in a timely fashion.

The consequences of Henry’s action will be brief and mild. He will likely spend a night or more in his car until a kind driver stops and helps him change his tire. The man whose door he knocked on will shake his head in wonder at the strange fellow who knocked and then walked away in a huff.

In contrast, the consequences in Agnes’ case are likely to be serious. She could be alienated from her brother for a much longer time. In fact, if she does not gain the humility to admit the fault was hers and not his, their relationship could be destroyed. The chances of her gaining that humility are not very good because her change in perspective occurred over a long period of time and moved so smoothly from one stage to another that the first stage—appreciation and the determination to repay—may have faded from her mind.

There are three morals to these stories. The first is that critical thinking is a more reliable guide to behavior than emotion. The second is that such thinking should not be haphazard but controlled and directed toward truth.The difference is best illustrated by imagining you are riding a horse toward a specific destination. If you drop the reins and let the horse meander, there is no telling where you will end. Only if you take the reins and direct the horse can you be sure of reaching your destination. The third is that the aim of thinking critically is not only to evaluate other people’s words and actions, but equally important (if not more so) to evaluate our own words and actions. It’s the only way to be sure our minds aren’t playing tricks on us.

Copyright © 2023 by Vincent Ryan Ruggiero. All rights reserved

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Vincent Ryan Ruggiero