Misadventures of the Human Brain

When I was a teenager, I remember going with my parents to buy a new car.
The car certainly wasn’t for me, no matter how much I begged and pleaded with the might of my newly minted driver’s license. The car was for my mother; she had gotten into a minor accident, which our insurance company had deemed major enough to cover the cost of a new car. Many years later, it is still one of the few positive interactions I would ever have with insurance companies.

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Brain Blunders: Uncover Everyday Illusions and Fallacies, Defeat Your Flawed Thinking Habits, And Think Smarter (Or Just Less Stupidly) By Peter Hollins

Get the audiobook on Audible at https://bit.ly/brain-blunders

Peter Hollins is a bestselling author, human psychology researcher, and a dedicated student of the human condition. Visit https://www.PeteHollins.com to pick up your FREE human nature cheat sheet: 7 surprising psychology studies that will change the way you think.

Visit the podcast web page on Captivate.fm at https://bit.ly/self-growth-home

For narration information visit Russell Newton at https://bit.ly/VoW-home

For production information visit Newton Media Group LLC at https://bit.ly/newtonmg

Episode Transcript

I distinctly remember this day because I remember the salesperson that we dealt with—or rather tolerated. If you could create an untrustworthy salesperson in a lab, you would come up with this man. If you looked up the word “sleazy” in the dictionary, his picture would be next to it. He was the stereotype of a slimy salesman who would pat your back and keep repeating your name in an annoying fashion. His palms were sweaty and he shook your hand for far too long. It was like he had read all the advice of what not to do in sales and taken it as a challenge.

Things moved quickly because my parents were in a buying mood and it showed plainly on their faces. They were busy people and just wanted to get in, get the car, and get out. This type of sentiment is like blood in the water for salespeople, who want motivated customers that actually spend money.
We took a quick test drive and into the office we went to talk about exactly what model was desired and what the end price would be. I noted that the salesman didn’t bring up the price until as late in the process as possible. Every time my father tried to clarify, he would say something like, “Of course, we’ll get to that right after this. I promise. Just a couple more things to hammer out.”
He was doing this to draw my parents deeper into the process so as to gain their emotional investment in the car. When he finally presented the price with all the amenities my parents wanted (power windows, air-conditioning, a CD player, heated seats), he presented a figure that made my parents gasp. In particular, my father looked shell-shocked, like he had just witnessed a puppy being kicked.
The salesman had done his best to anchor the price exceedingly high, so even if my parents wanted to negotiate, they would have to start there and end up far higher than they wanted to. In other words, because the quoted price was high, it was innately assumed that you couldn’t work too far down from it.
This might have worked on other people, but not my parents, who still kept things that were years past their expiration date “just in case.” Stingy would be an understatement. Not only that, but my parents were raised in a culture where you were mocked if you paid the sticker price on anything and didn’t try to get a good deal. They had grown up going to local markets, and haggling was second nature to them.
My parents set their own price, which was as aggressively low as the salesman’s was aggressively high, and it was the salesman’s turn to gasp. He began to squawk about all the costs involved, but my father didn’t take the bait; he simply reached into a folder he had brought with him and showed printouts of prices from other dealerships that were more in line with his own. He stood up, saying, “I guess they will get my business. It’s too bad. We liked you.”
In what appeared to be the salesman’s final argument to seal the deal at a higher price, he tried to get me on his side by appealing to my sense of desperation of wanting to drive. He said things like, “Kid, if your father doesn’t pull the trigger here, he’ll never get the prices at the other places and you won’t be able to hang out with your friends!” Little did he know I had a strict curfew and could never hang out with my friends regardless. He had tried to make an ally out of me, but I already disliked him, so I would never have agreed with him.
At this point, my parents started walking out and discussing the address for the next dealership, as well as how much they wanted a car that very day. The salesman started pursuing, and in the end, my parents walked out with the car they wanted at the price they wanted. (That car ended up being passed down to me some years later, and I found it profoundly funny that my parents had left the price sticker on the interior top of the front windshield as a reminder of their triumph that day.)
This battle of wills was forever emblazoned in my brain as an example of how people can be seduced into behaviors and thoughts that are completely contrary to what they want. The salesman was trying to raise the price while my parents were trying to lower the price; each side wanted to use a sneaky fallacy in thinking to achieve a specific outcome by clouding judgment. They were each trying to bend reality without tipping the other off.
But really, humans don’t need help with clouding our judgment, thinking, reasoning, and perception. We make poor decisions and exhibit seriously flawed thinking on a daily basis. Our brains try so hard to make sense of the world that it actually works against them. Combine that with emotional thinking and a tendency to jump to conclusions and what do you get?
Well, us: overdeveloped primates with profoundly flawed brains that make suboptimal decisions. Humans really don’t see the world as it is, and this isn’t just due to a difference in opinions or experiences. We have to realize that our brains have a very different purpose than clear and accurate thinking; it wants pure pleasure, survival, and energy maintenance—not terms that often overlap with good judgment.
That would be like depending on your taste buds to make healthy decisions about diet. That’s not their purpose! Your taste buds just want to enjoy themselves and taste what they were designed to taste, regardless of the fat content or number of calories. We can’t very well judge nutrition through how good something tastes because of fat, oil, and grease.
It’s hard to overlook millennia of programming to see the world only in terms of, well, figurative fat, oil, and grease. This can result in funny one-time occurrences or massive errors with damaging consequences. We think we are driven by logic and reason, but it appears that common sense isn’t really as common as we’d like to think.
This book is a manual to the general misjudgment of your brain and why we do what we do in such peculiar and incorrect ways. Wouldn’t it be nice to see the world as it really is and, most importantly, use that accurate information to make your decisions with?
The brain shows its bias as a selfish little monster in small, almost imperceptible ways.
For instance, if you’ve ever been in the middle of a sentence and your mind suddenly went blank, or if you’ve walked into a room and suddenly forgotten what you were doing there, you’ve experienced what is generally known as a brain fart. It’s not because your memory is going or a sign of early-onset Alzheimer’s; it’s an intentional (from your brain’s perspective) lapse in cognition, judgment, and overall thought. It’s as if your mind was an Etch A Sketch and the brain made the call to shake and clear it.
It might feel like an instance where you have just slipped into stupidity, but there is actually a well-founded physiological explanation for your lapses.
Neuroscientists have discovered that roughly seconds before your brain fart, there is a decrease in blood flow to the portion of your brain that is involved in focus and attention. In other words, our brains go on autopilot because we are engaging in something that doesn’t require our full focus or attention—for example, an activity such as driving, sorting your laundry, or walking the dog or any other type of behavior where your brain can be driven by instinct, muscle memory, or pure habit. These are instances where we zone out because your brain isn’t proactively being used. Everything is familiar, and your brain is well-conditioned to react to most contingencies in these situations. Therefore, attention is not deemed necessary.
Remember how I said our brains only want to feel pleasure with little regard for the rest of our bodies? The brain is just trying to get by with as little energy expenditure as possible. When the brain senses it can let its guard down and relax because a repetitive or monotonous task is at hand, it takes a break and conserves energy, and blood flow is decreased as a reaction. The tendency for brain farts stems from a focus on energy conservation for the brain that can lead to lost laundry and even traffic accidents because of our autopilot mode.
This is akin to turning the gas and electricity off in your home at night while people are sleeping in the hopes that no one will need them. You want to keep your utilities bill as low as possible. However, what happens when someone needs to use the phone to call 911 because they are having a heart attack? You may have lowered your utilities bill a little bit, but at what cost? Well, at the very least, disrupted thinking.
The brain, while only roughly 2% of the body’s weight, consumes roughly 20% of its energy and glucose expenditure. It makes sense that the brain would be so lazy whenever it is possible. Keep this in mind as we go through the following chapters and explore flawed thinking and brain blunders. It’s certainly not due to stupidity or lesser intelligence; we are all just victims of how our brains function (and fail us) and need to consciously fight back.