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Your brain is a liar: It will find what it wants before it even starts looking

Wednesday, March 3, 2010
posted by Douglas Keene

Brains are pretty amazing. And the research on how our brains affect us comes out so fast it’s hard to keep up with–so we’re simply giving you a post with a hodge-podge of research findings. Prepare to be amazed (or perhaps amused).

Farnam Street blog reminds us that we tend to put more stock in things we already believe than in things that disconfirm/disprove our pre-existing beliefs. When I was in graduate school it  constituted the snarky observation that we tend to “draw the curve before we plot the data”.  We know what we are looking for, and it leads us to find it (more often than it is actually there).  That might also explain why we “sharply and persistently” disagree with scientific experts on complex issues from climate change to disposing of nuclear waste. We think we know better.  And who can we trust more than our own selves?

Well, here’s the bad news. We shouldn’t really trust ourselves. Our brains are inveterate liars. They trick us and make us believe things are true that are simply likely not true.  (What a wonderful excuse—“It wasn’t me that lied, it was my brain…”)

  • Ever been in a group that results in you experiencing a lot of pain and discomfort? Like a running group or a fitness boot camp? The more pain and discomfort or willpower it takes to endure a group experience—the more likely we are to say we really like that group. The worse it is, the more we say we like it! We have to have some way to explain why we would do that to ourselves. Perhaps this explains the bonding often seen among jurors on lengthy and difficult trials.
  • Even when we sort of know someone is being insincere when they flatter us, we like it so much that we tend to do more of what they want then we would if not insincerely flattered. Hmmm. How about this? “This jury is one of the brightest groups I have ever seen—I’m sure you won’t be misled by vapid rhetoric—you want the real facts.”
  • Ever said “time flew by” and therefore assumed you must have been having fun? Faulty logic for sure but also your brain lying yet again. The researchers in this study lied to participants about how much time had passed in their completion of a dry and boring task and the participants thought they must have enjoyed it since they thought the time had flown. “Gee. We thought that testimony on accounting rules would take only two hours but can you believe this? He talked for six hours!” (Maybe that one wouldn’t work so well….)
  • We believe we know that cell phone towers affect us negatively with “rashes, headaches, nausea and disrupted sleep”. We even have symptom remission when we travel away from the tower. Oddly enough, the cell phone tower in this particular lawsuit was turned off and could not possibly have been causing the reactions experienced by a community of people with simultaneously lying brains.
  • Our brains lie to us in ways that make us feel horribly self-consciousenraged and aggressive; cognitively lazy; spiteful in the form of shadenfreude;  and make us afraid of rampant mind-control turning us into zombies.

The point of all this is that our brains process things idiosyncratically. What I see/hear is perhaps not what you see and hear. You want to be sure that your case narrative communicates the same things to all (or at least most) of your jurors.  Even though we see what we believe, we are also aware that we make mistakes.  Join the jurors in their initial misimpression, and guide them to clarity and accurate understanding.  Don’t provoke jurors to disagree with you. Get your brains all on the same page.

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