How to Prevent Losing Your Grip on Reality

Has the world gone mad? Are you repeatedly getting shocked by political and economic outcomes? Are there more and more people that are just getting further away from you in political reference points? Well, you’re not alone. My social media feeds have no shortage of people freaking out and rationalizing their shock. The easiest go-to is to claim that the world is full of idiots who were lied to. It’s comforting. I used to think like this when I was a smug socialist at the age of 19. However, it doesn’t get you very far. From what I think I can remember, I was miserable and frustrated.

I’ve come a long way since then. The last four years have been pretty amazing. I haven’t predicted everything correctly, but I haven’t been bashed from pillar to post with unexpected turns of events either. My life just keeps getting better and better and I’ve navigated trends fairly well giving me a slight edge. This happened because I managed to keep a grip on reality. Naturally, it freaks people out who don’t have a grip, but luckily I’m not living my life for them. Now I’m not a mega mastermind. My improvement came from learning simple rules and reminding myself of them.

The first rule I have to keep reminding myself of is that memories are terrible. Now, we’ve all been there, forgotten somebody’s name, or what happened at an event. This isn’t particularly jarring as we’re human and we know we forget things. What is scary is the stuff we don’t know that we don’t know, false memories. We look back at our big memories with confidence. They were important defining moments that shaped us and our view of the world. So, when 9/11 happened, this gave psychologists a great opportunity to survey 3000 people on their memories of that day over time [link]. In just one year, 67% of the memories were inconsistent with the first interview. In three years 57% were inconsistent with facts, and only 40% actually remembered what their emotions were like. An interesting case was of a schoolgirl who remembered seeing smoke going past her classroom window over the water. However, her classroom window didn’t face the water, the wind was blowing the opposite way. Her memory contains fear of her mum who was working in New York City at the time. However, the mother confirmed that she was in a different state entirely at that time [link]. If something as big as 9/11 still doesn’t command accurate recall of emotions and details, what are the chances that your recall of social transactions, emotions, and details of lesser events are accurate? A habit that I’ve adopted is writing most stuff down in a notebook:

This goes everywhere with me… yes I’m one of those people who also takes a backpack everywhere

Richard Branson himself is well known for carrying one with him at all times [link]. Once you do it you can’t go back. I write down the date and a short title of what the interaction is. I’m telling you, I am always shocking myself at things I’m forgetting were covered in an interaction. To me this is scary. Not knowing something but knowing this doesn’t really lead to much. However, a number of false data points can lead you straight off the path.

But wait, it gets better. Accessing those altered memories you’re prone to confirmation bias. This means that when you think of someone, you access the memories that highlight and reinforce your idea of them [link]. This is why people are always proclaiming that the next Hitler has just been voted in only to be outraged by actions and policies that the previously elected official did. And when you get a dose of reality, such as an election result you didn’t see coming, you are at risk of undergoing cognitive dissonance. This is where you keep warping the new finding until it fits your previous understanding of reality [link]. Classic recent examples are concluding that the country is full of racists, or idiots who believed lies that you’re too smart to buy. It’s not that they could have different priorities, experiences, or information, or that your memory failed you. What’s scary is that there’s a growing number of blogs like the junior doctors blog that clearly have a political stance. Whenever something political happens that isn’t in line with the political stance, they conclude that the country is full of idiots and that they’re so smart. The funny thing is that most of its readers seem to struggle with basic probability theory. Whilst these publications are comforting, don’t seek solace in them. If you want to understand why something like Trump, listen to people who predicted it before it happened, not someone trying to rationalize it afterward. A good example is an interview with the Dilbert comic strip artist Douglas Adams. He is a leftist who publically predicted Trump’s win a year before it happened. Here’s the full interview at Stanford [link].


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