We all create and believe “Wrong Stories” about others. And today I’m going to explore why I need to PURGE these errors to make room for growth.
Let's start with a simple story.
We’re in a meeting and you’re a bit short with me. And maybe a tiny bit defensive. The End.
Now the meeting’s over, but I still have one more thing to do. I have to decide whether your behavior was situational - just having a bad day. Or whether it was fundamental and definitive - i.e. you’re an ass.
And unfortunately for you, it’s an easy call. I’m kind of hard wired to conclude that you’re an ass.
The culprit here is something psychologist’s call Fundamental Attribution Error (FAE). Our tendency to blame others poor behavior on internal factors - i.e. fundamental personality or character flaws.
So you do not get the benefit of the doubt, you’re guilty until proven innocent. A conclusion that has to be flat out wrong most of the time, doesn’t it? What about all the mood/behavior influencers that have nothing to do with fundamental personality flaws? Sick kids. Little Billy didn’t get to play shortstop last night. Money woes. Relationship issues.
Or even simpler things like hunger or lack of sleep.
Hunger first. Here’s a quote from an article on the topic…
“Hunger is the signal that the brain needs more fuel. When the brain runs dry of fuel, it has difficulty regulating anger. That is why hungry people tend to be cranky.”
Now sleep. Here’s a quote from a great article on this topic…
“After sleep deprivation, the brain’s emotional centers were more than 60 percent more reactive. It’s almost as though, without sleep, the brain had reverted back to more primitive patterns of activity, in that it was unable to put emotional experiences into context and produce controlled, appropriate responses,”
If we then take into account that 40% of Americans don’t get enough sleep. And that between poor planning and bizarro diets, lots of people go through the day HANGRY. That means we are often surrounded by tired, hungry people. Meaning “cranky” people that are “unable to put emotional experiences into context and produce controlled, appropriate responses”.
Which means on a given day someone is likely to be a little short with me in a meeting. Not bad, just a little less friendly than I might have liked. But enough to open the door for FAE. Enough for me to ignore the possibility that Person X was just having a bad day. Enough for me to jump to the more permanent conclusion that Person X is rude.
How “Wrong Stories” Grow
Let’s further assume that I have another encounter with Person X and he’s polite. I now have a dilemma on my hands. Is he an ass or is he nice? If I was rational I’d keep an open mind and gather more data. But I’m not rational. I’m a flawed human being that’s vulnerable to FAE and it’s evil partner Cognitive Dissonance.
Cognitive Dissonance - the mental stress or discomfort experienced by an individual who holds contradictory beliefs at the same time.
My mind sucks at dealing with contradictory beliefs so I force myself to pick a side. My first thought was rude, now I have evidence of politeness. Which path will I choose?
“Most people, when directly confronted by evidence that they are wrong, do not change their point of view or course of action but justify it even more tenaciously. Even irrefutable evidence is rarely enough to pierce the mental armor of self-justification.”
That’s a quote from a book by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson. It's titled Mistakes Were Made But Not By Me. And it warns that once I start down the negative path, it is beyond hard to turn me around.
I will ignore evidence that contradicts my "Wrong Story". They tell frightening stories of prosecutors amping up attacks on defendants who've been cleared by DNA evidence. Ruining other peoples lives rather than admitting their initial judgment was wrong.
I will remove memories that contradict my “Wrong Story”. "Forgetting" about the good stuff a person does and embellishing the bad.
I will “misremember” stuff that contradicts my “Wrong Story”. Which sounds a helluva lot like lying to me.
I will create false memories to reinforce my “Wrong Story”. Literally making shit up and convincing myself that the fabrication is real.
I will cast myself as the victim in this “Wrong Story”. The authors lay out how seductive it is to see ourselves as victims.
Honest to God this book is terrifying. I'm stunned by the lengths we'll go to defend our "Wrong Stories". The reckless damage we’re capable of inflicting.
So we have to watch out for this stuff. It may start out small and harmless, but it's sneaky and it grows like wildfire. A little sleep deprivation, a touch of FAE, a dash of Cognitive Dissonance and BOOM! "Nobody asked my opinion on colors for the marketing brochure" explodes into “That bitch left me out on purpose.”
This stuff has ruined more than a few days for most every manager I've ever met. It has the potential to destroy cultures, increase turnover, crush productivity, and lots of other garbage.
The Other Problem with “Wrong Stories”
So I hope I've convinced you that harboring "Wrong Stories" about others is a dangerous thing. But there's more. Another downside that I think is less obvious but equally damaging.
“I may think I see you as you are, but in truth, I see you as I am. The implications are staggering, and not the least of them is this: The issues in my life are rarely about you. They are almost always about me. All conversations are with myself, and sometimes they involve other people.”
So maybe all this time and energy I’m putting into “Wrong Stories” about others is a distraction. Maybe I’m pointing fingers rather than addressing the real source of the stresses in my life - ME!
"I see you as I am." Maybe the permanent flaws that FAE and cognitive dissonance help me assign to others actually belong to me.
"The issues in my life are rarely about you. They are almost always about me." Maybe I’m the architect of my own misery rather than the mistreated victim I sometimes choose to portray.
"All conversations are with myself." Maybe the flaws of others that are so easy to gossip about are really my own un-admitted flaws.
These are the ways that “Wrong Stories” distract me. Keep my mind busy with garbage. Help me avoid the potentially painful, but ultimately empowering process of looking at myself.
Standing on a pile of innocent bodies while smugly acting as judge and jury might give me a temporary lift. But it makes for poor footing. Real traction, real self growth, begins when I clear this shit out of my mind.
So I have even more to say about “Wrong Stories” but this has gone way too long already. I’ll leave you with a quote from a gentlemen we’re going to talk about in my next post, Srikumar Rao.
“Your life is hemmed in by the things you know to be true that aren’t.”
It sounds to me like he’s suggesting I should PURGE “Wrong Stories” so I can get un “hemmed in”. So I can get on with my growth-fueled life.
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