How we LIE to ourselves

There are people out there who see the world very differently than we do. They’re as smart as we are, and they’re as convinced that they’re right as we are.

Obviously, we can’t all be right, but we all believe that we are. So what exactly is going on here?

Nobody has direct access to an objective, external reality. What we call “reality” is our subjective, personal reality, and it’s heavily influenced by our biases and social conditioning.

Some of what we consider facts are just our opinions, and many of them are wrong.

This is a hard pill to swallow. We all think we’re right and people who disagree with us are wrong. Otherwise, we’d believe what they do.

We’re biased, but we’re unaware of our biases. And we have a tendency to discount ideas that don’t fit into our belief system.

Have you heard the Sufi tale of the elephant and the blind men?

A group of blind men heard a strange animal moving around them but didn’t know what it was. They’d never seen an elephant before, so they approached it and started touching it to figure out what it was.

One of them touched the trunk and said it felt like a snake.  One felt its tail and said it felt like a rope. One touched the side and said it felt like a wall. 

So, who was right and who was wrong? They were all right and wrong. They were all describing different parts of the elephant, but neither of them had access to the entire elephant.

This is known as availability bias. We only see the part of reality that we’re exposed to by our parents, teachers, friends and our culture, and we wrongly conclude that the part we see is an accurate representation of all reality.

This is like the blind man who, after touching the elephant’s trunk, concluded that elephants are similar to snakes.

Every time the man feels the trunk, he receives more confirmation that elephants are snakes. This is known as confirmation bias.

If you grew up with optimistic parents, chances are you tend to see the good things in life. If you grew up with pessimistic parents, chances are you tend to see the bad things in life.

Either way, you find what you’re looking for and it confirms your pre-existing beliefs.

We consume media that agrees with our views. We hang out with people who share our opinions. And we are influenced by social media algorithms designed to show us content we agree with.

We continue touching the elephant’s trunk and perceiving a snake. So when someone tells us an elephant is like a wall, we conclude they’re stupid because we know elephants are snakes.

It’s hard to open up to other points of view when we’re so certain that ours is right. It’s hard to accept that our map of reality only plots a piece of the land, and that other people’s maps plot other pieces.

So, here’s an idea.

Talk to people you disagree with and understand how they arrived to their conclusions. Go into it with an open mind. Don’t try to prove them wrong or change their minds. Seek to understand what life experiences lead them to see things differently.

Fresh perspectives help us see a different aspect of reality that we might have overlooked in the past. We don’t have to agree with them, but there’s so much power in understanding why others see walls where we see snakes.