A Word of Warning from Sherlock Holmes

In my first video on Wisdom I said that we need to be able to define a situation in real and accurate terms and to avoid judgements, mind reads and personal biases. However, these biases are everywhere.

Most of us have heard of the famous detective, Sherlock Holmes, the fictional character Huty1913428invented by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Holmes once remarked to Dr Watson; “Insensibly, one begins to twist the facts to suit theories instead of theories to suit facts”.

Though a cool line in a novel, this quote alludes to a startling truth – that all of us are deceiving ourselves! “What? Not me!” I hear you cry. But yes, even the best of us deceives ourselves on a daily basis with a truck load of self-lies and self-deceptions.

These lies we tell ourselves are deeply rooted in our past experiences, upbringing, culture and even in the biology of our brains. So what are they? They come in the form of ‘cognitive distortions’ and ‘cognitive biases’. There are well over a hundred of these tricks that we play on ourselves and they occur in every area of life; decision making, memory, social contexts, personal beliefs… everywhere! In that video I mentioned just a few. I’ll explain just four here as well as give you a tip for each to reality test the distortion/bias.

OVERGENERALISING – when we overgeneralise, we take a specific example and apply it to other areas where it may not be true or even relevant. It could be with both with good or bad things. For example, if your boss says “well done, you did a good job on that project”, you might overgeneralise this into the idea that everything you do is great, that you can’t make mistakes, and that what you do is always right. Without keeping this in check, you may become haphazard in your approach to things or even dismissive of others. Or the simplest example of overgeneralising is when one thing goes wrong, e.g. at work; and you overgeneralise that the ‘whole day is ruined’ and take your bad mood home to your family.

Tip: listen to how you speak to others (and to yourself); if you use words and thoughts such as ‘all, never, always, every, everywhere’, etc. you may be overgeneralising! Learn to hold events, feeling, ideas, etc. to their specific contexts.

MIND READS – mind reads are when we claim to know the thoughts of others. When you hear yourself say, “I know he/she has got it in for me” … “I knew they weren’t going to say yes”, or quite simply “I know what you’re thinking” – then you’re mind reading.

Tip: ask yourself “How do I know? What is the real-world evidence that lets me know?”

PROPHESYING – prophesying is a bit like ‘negative mind reading into the future’. You take a negative mind read and project it into the future; “I just know I’ll fail” … “it won’t work, people don’t want to buy my product/service”… “they’re bound to let me down”… “she won’t hire me”. The trouble with prophesying is that it stops us from even attempting anything and will often become a self-fulfilling prophecy of doom.

Tip: if you catch yourself prophesying, apply ‘tentative predictive thinking’; look at the evidence and ask yourself, “What could go right, what could go wrong? Based on the evidence, what are the realities of this situation and what possible outcomes could there be?”

JUDGEMENTS – a judgement is forming an idea based on your own assumptions, beliefs, values, prohibitions, permissions, etc. We all judge – for good and for bad – and it’s a necessary process in daily life. However, it can create conflicts and misunderstandings though.

Tip: reality test your thinking. Learn to create judgements based only on real world, sensory based information. Put your beliefs aside, step back from the situation to gain more clarity.

A big warning! Most of what I’ve said to avoid these distortions and biases is to ‘reality test and look for real world evidence’. But be cautious even here – your biases will often distort the ‘evidence’ that can then confirm the bias/distortion! The world of communication is a minefield of potential disasters. NLP and in particular Neuro-Semantic trainings offer ways to identify and guard against such distortions. Sadly most people go through life living an un-real personal reality. The danger here is that reality will catch up with you and the ‘kick in the rear’ that life gives you can be a very painful reality check.

Remember, ‘the mind makes a cruel master, but a wonderful slave’.

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