Remind Yourself of the Four Biases

By far the most useful technique in the whole world of self-help is reminding yourself of insights you've already learned. It's the most basic, the most simple, the most obvious, and the most neglected way to improve yourself.

You learn things and then you forget them. It's not just you. It's all of us. But since at the moment there is just you and me here and I'm doing all the talking, let's talk about you. How many times have you had a great insight and then forgotten all about it only to have the insight again and then you remember that you already had that insight? You'd already "learned" it — but what does that mean?

Learning something is only the beginning, and I think that's what we forget. When you learned your multiplication tables, and you were trying to remember what seven times seven equaled, did you say, "Oh, forty-nine. Now I know." No! You reminded yourself of it over and over. It didn't do any good to "learn" that seven times seven is forty nine. The only thing that helped was to drill it into your head over and over until you could remember it whenever you needed to remember it.

You have "learned" the four biases (the brain, the media, reality, and communication) all function in many ways as if they had a negative bias. So you've "learned" about the four biases, but that's not good enough. For it to do you any good, you have to drill them into your head so you remember the biases when need to remember it: When one of the biases is making you feel bad.

If you know about a bias right now, it isn't worth much. If you remember a bias while you are under its influence, it can do you a lot of good indeed.

In an interview with Bruce Willis right after he and his wife, Demi Moore, split up, he was asked if he still believed in marriage. "There was a time," he answered, "when I said, 'I'm not gonna marry.' At least now I allow for the possibility. I don't know if it's gonna happen, but I haven't slammed that door shut and bolted it."

That's a perfect example of what to do. The brain has a negative bias, and reality has a negative bias. So given a difficult marriage and a divorce, and given the brain's tendency to overgeneralize and be too certain, it is natural to say, "I'm never gonna marry again." But if at that time you can remind yourself of the biases, it can reduce the negativity. It keeps you from slamming a door on a possibility. It keeps you from becoming pessimistic or cynical or defeatist. Reminding yourself of those biases protects you from a lamprey invasion.

So the question is when and how? When do you remind yourself and how exactly do you do it? This is a fairly straightforward task: You want to really know that your brain and reality and communication and the media all have the ability to skew your attitude toward the negative, and you want to know it like you know seven times seven. You want to know it well enough that it comes to mind easily. You want to know it well enough that every single time you feel even the slightest negative feeling, the first thing that pops into your head is, "Am I being influenced by a negative bias?"

How do you learn something that well? It's not easy because the mind is so easily bored. Your mind seeks novelty. It doesn't want to go over something it has already gone over. One way to remind yourself is to write up the four biases on a piece of paper, with a short description of each one, and post it on the bathroom mirror.

But you know what will happen? After two or three days, or at the most a week, you'll stop seeing that piece of paper. It might as well not be there. It won't remind you any more. Your mind will notice it the first few times you look in the mirror, but then something happens in the mind that says, "I already know that's there, and I already know what it says, so I am no longer going to notice it." At that point, the posted piece of paper loses its effectiveness as a reminder.

So what do you do? Forget about it? Throw the piece of paper away? Or not even bother because in only a few days your mind will stop noticing it?

No. Don't give up so easily! How did you learn the multiplication tables? You tested yourself. And you were tested by others. You can do the same thing. Put a list of the four biases in your pocket and quiz yourself three or four times a day for several weeks. Sometime during the day when you think about it, ask yourself, "What are the four biases?" And try to say them all. Or every time you get in your car, try to recall all four before you start it.

There is no right or best way to remind yourself. Just remind yourself in any way you can. Put a screen saver on your computer that reminds you. Use a reminder service to help you. Get an alarm clock that plays a message of your choice and wake up to a description of the four biases.

But keep in mind most of these different ways will "habituate" quickly. In other words, you'll get used to them and they'll stop reminding you. No big deal. You'll just have to get creative. Pay your child to quiz you every day. Post something on the mirror and a couple days later, move it to the refrigerator. Ask your spouse to move it for you every few days. Move it around or change its form, or do anything you can to make you keep noticing and reminding yourself of the four biases until you can do the actual thing I'm recommending: To remind yourself of the biases when you feel bad.

When you can do that, you have gone a long way toward protecting yourself from infection by pessimism. When you can do that, pessimism will have a difficult time worming its way into your mind against your will.

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