article is part of a series called Antivirus
For Your Mind.
EXPLAINING SETBACKS can get you into trouble.
So can't we simply avoid explaining setbacks? Good question.
It seems like the obvious answer, right? To avoid making mistakes
in your explanations, simply avoid making explanations. There
is only one problem with this answer: It is impossible.
Wait a minute. Am I being unnecessarily
defeatist? No. Please dont go off the deep end of optimism
by concluding that nothing is impossible. Some situations
are hopeless and some things are impossible. And
one of those things is preventing your mind from explaining setbacks.
Let me illustrate the problem with a few research tidbits.
Researchers sprayed androstenol on a chair
in a waiting room. Androstenol is chemically related to male
sex hormones. Women coming into the waiting room tended to sit
in the sprayed seat, and men tended to avoid sitting there.
But heres the interesting part: Each
person was asked, Why did you choose to sit in that particular
Their answers had nothing to do with smelling
anything. They said things like, I wanted to read, so I
sat by the magazines, or it was closest to the door.
Neither the men nor the women had any idea
their decision was influenced by androstenol. And yet clearly
They had no problem answering the question
about why they sat where they sat, and even though their answers
were plausible, they were wrong. Isnt that interesting?
Why do you suppose they answered the way they did? Why didnt
they just say, I dont know?
Because they (and you and I) have an automatically-functioning
explanation-producing part of our brain. It takes whatever information
were aware of and makes the most plausible explanation,
and it does this whether you want it to or not.
In another study, a different group of
researchers told their subjects something like this, John
is a man who ran away from home as a child. Now he is in the
Peace Corps. Can you explain how the childhood incident could
account for the fact that John decided to join the Peace Corps?
The subjects were easily able to explain
A different set of subjects were told,
John is a man who ran away from home as a child. He recently
committed suicide. Can you explain how the childhood incident
could account for the fact that John decided to commit suicide?
And again, the subjects had no problem
at all coming up with plausible explanations.
It reminds me of a story I heard from Earl
Nightingale. Twin boys grew up with an alcoholic father. As adults,
one of the brothers was an alcoholic and the other never drank.
In separate interviews, each was asked, Why did you turn
out the way you did?
Both brothers gave exactly the same answer:
With a father like mine, what else would I be?
Several experiments have shown that if
you give someone a test and then say, Based on this test,
we have determined you are above average at reading, and
then ask the person to explain it, they can explain it very well.
What the researchers discovered is that
it doesnt matter if the subject is told, Youre
above average at reading, or Youre below average
at reading. If people believe the result was from a legitimate
test, they can explain it. And explain it believably.
And it didnt matter what the researchers
tested for. If they could lead the subject to believe he or she
was above or below average at anything, that person was able
to explain it plausibly.
a hypnotic experiment
Two people sit in a room. One is the researcher.
The other is a volunteer who is hypnotized and given a post-hypnotic
suggestion: After he awakens from the trance, says the experimenter,
the volunteer will respond a particular way to a specific thing.
Lets say the volunteer is told, When I say its
a nice day today, you will get up, open the door, and look
down the hall. But you will not remember that I gave you this
The volunteer is awakened and the two talk
casually for a few minutes. Then the researcher nonchalantly
says, Its a nice day today.
The volunteer gets up, opens the door,
and looks down the hall. He comes back and sits down. The researcher
asks, Why did you do that?
The volunteer says, Its stuffy
in here. Im letting in some air.
The researcher closes the door and they
continue talking for a few minutes, and again, the researcher
says, Its a nice day today.
And again, the volunteer gets up, opens
the door and looks down the hall.
Why did you open the door again?
asks the researcher.
The volunteer says, I thought I heard
a noise outside.
This experiment has been repeated many
times with different volunteers, always with the same result.
People follow the post-hypnotic suggestion and when asked, come
up with a plausible reason for their own behavior a reason
that in fact had nothing to do with it.
Again we see there is a part of the brain
that just seems to generate explanations wrong, right,
and everywhere in between, and whether or not it has anything
to do with the actual cause of the event.
For years, a particular kind of epilepsy
was cured by a surgery. The corpus callosum was completely cut.
The corpus callosum is a thick bundle of nerve fibers that connect
the two hemispheres of the brain. When it is cut, the two hemispheres
can no longer communicate with each other. They become almost
like two separate brains.
After the surgery, the epilepsy stops with
no apparent side-effects, except for odd little things once in
awhile. For example, sometimes the persons right hand tries
to do something different than the left hand. One hand tries
to pull the pants up and the other tries to pull them down. (The
left hemisphere of the brain controls the right hand, and the
right hemisphere controls the left hand.)
This is such a unique condition, lots of
experiments have been done with these people. One in particular
is illuminating: Each subject is shown two pictures at the same
time, one to their left visual field (which goes to the right
hemisphere) and a different picture to their right visual field
(which goes to the left hemisphere). So the two sides of the
same persons brain is each shown a different picture.
For example, a picture of a snow-covered
meadow was shown to the left visual field. (Keep in mind that
the right hemisphere is nonverbal in most people.)
A picture of a bird claw was shown to the
persons right visual field (going to the verbal left hemisphere).
Then the person is shown a big collection
of pictures and asked, Which one of these pictures goes
with what you just saw? Both arms move the left-hand
finger points to a shovel (to go with the snow). But the right-hand
finger points to a picture of a chicken (to go with the claw).
The researchers then asked the person,
Why did you point to two different pictures? And
a plausible explanation comes without hesitation, something like
this: Well, the chicken goes with the claw and you clean
out the chicken coop with the shovel.
In other words, the explanation-generating
part of the brain is clearly in the left (verbal) hemisphere
and it didnt see the snow scene. But it did see what the
two hands pointed to and explained it easily, no problem and
Now, heres the point of all of this:
Your brain makes explanations of events, whether you want it
to or not. You can check your explanations for accuracy, but
you do not have the option of just avoiding making explanations.
Your mind makes explanations immediately and automatically. You
cant stop it.
But you can improve it.
Read the next chapter: How
To Improve Your Explanations Of Setbacks
This series has been published as a book.
Check it out here.