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Why Do Good People With Good Intentions Get It Wrong So Very Often?

Chernobyl, The Impeachment Hearings, and The Brain-

I know you have witnessed this yourself. Good people with good intentions DO get it wrong so very often. They believe they are on the right path, but it turns out to be misguided - a decision that looks like the best choice but one that could have been seen not to be.

Well, if you want to learn the answer to this question, there is insight to be gained from the 1986 nuclear accident at Chernobyl and a good lesson to be had from the current impeachment hearings. Stay with me here.

Suppose for a moment you are talking with a colleague, or maybe someone who reports to you, or maybe your boss. As the conversation rolls on, it becomes apparent that there is a disconnect between your notion about what’s going on and theirs. And let’s say that you both review the facts as you know them, and yet there is still disagreement about what to do? How is it that two people can look at the same thing and yet see it so differently?

In the last blog post ( The World You Live In), we saw how the brain makes ’sense’ of any situation by crafting a story that best explains the situation as it sees it, balancing the tension between its two perspectives- ‘the world as it is’ and ‘the world as I want it to be.’ But before this narrative even comes to mind, there has already been a good deal of processing in the Hidden Brain, outside of awareness. What you think is a product of just your ‘deliberation’ and ‘reasoning’ is far from it.

If you have watched the miniseries, Chernobyl, ( or read first hand documents of the events surrounding the nuclear power plant catastrophe, what seems clear is that a series of misguided decisions and choices were made by those involved because they had an agenda about how it should all work out- the world as they wanted it to be. Where they messed up was not balancing this notion against the world as it is. And as in almost every disaster, there were many opportunities to change the course of the events, many chances to alter the trajectory of what eventually came to be, until those events took on a life of their own, with a momentum that could not be overcome. And it’s not just disasters. Haven’t you seen the same dynamic play out where you work when it comes to a given change, whether a proposed change or a change in attitude?

What if the plant manager had aborted the ‘safety’ test when industries implored him to delay the start for ten hours because they needed the power.? What if he had realized that even though he would be there to oversee the test, that would not be enough to overcome the challenges to staff that had no experience or training in the procedure? What if he had responded to their concerns when things began to go sideways, before it was too late to change the trajectory of the disaster? What if the powers that be had not suppressed the information years before about the reactor’s fatal flaw? What if the plant manager’s promotion did not hinge on getting this long overdue test completed? And what if he had adequately weighed the possibility that a failed test might result in a disaster for the community, his country, surrounding countries, not to mention his career? What if the central committee was not invested in Soviet reputation as the source of its power and influence? What if at each step, people had heeded the discrepancies pointed out by the scientists- the gap between the world as they wanted it to be vs. the world as it was? In hindsight, it’s not too hard to follow the trail of misguided choices that culminated in disaster. (; chapter 6: It’s All About The Sorting Criteria)

Yet, pause and consider this: at each step, people had a story- a narrative and explanation based on what mattered the most to them at that time- a version not based on either a complete accounting of the circumstances or a full array of the concerns present. And with each story, people were willing and able to dismiss and overlook key circumstances and concerns to preserve that version at all cost- to pay attention only to that which substantiated the way they saw it- the world as they wanted it to be.

What kept them so committed to those individual stories? What caused them to willingly overlook conflicting information that might have called that version of the story into question and averted a disaster, not just for those around them, but for themselves as well? At each opportunity, what kept intelligent, well intentioned people from getting it right? (; chapter 2: The Power of Plausibility)

Enter the impeachment hearings. To be clear, I am not suggesting that these impeachment hearings are going to result in a catastrophe. But stand back for a moment. It’s not to hard to see similar dynamic at play. Each person starts with ‘their story’ and tries their darnedest to cast the ‘facts’ in a way that conforms to that story. If you start off believing that the president abused his power, is there anything that would cause you to consider that maybe he didn’t—-maybe there isn’t, but what would that take? If you believe the president is just the victim of a hoax, then what would it take to suggest he, indeed, did overstep his bounds—maybe you don’t see much forthcoming to say so, but what if he did?

Have you noticed how many people are deploying their ‘inner press secretary’ to preserve the world the way they want it to be rather than the way the world is, in other words, the way it really went down. Dismissing the conflicting information in order to preserve the belief they started with- this is all too evident in the questions and comments made on both sides of the aisle. Is each person compiling a mix of data, information, belief, and hope in order to craft their story or defend that story? Is there any attempt to balance the world as they want it to be against the world as it is? (, chapter 5, “How a Decision Gets Made’)

In some instances during these hearings, the seemingly ‘logical’ contortions being advanced by some just demonstrates how powerful this ‘inner press secretary’ can be. I am pretty sure that each person on both sides of the aisle believe they are right. I am pretty sure each one of them are trying their best to cast this in its best light. And I am also sure each one is missing or dismissing relevant, crucial features to their story. I am also sure that each of us is doing the same.

This is the brain in action, acting just the way it is wired to operate- using as little energy as it takes to craft a story that is just good enough to respond. It starts from one’s worldview- unwritten, unauthorized, unrealized, often unaware beliefs about how the world works and the rules for navigating through this uncertain realm. Where does this come from? - likely one's genetics, upbringing, and experience. Onto this is grafted the most immediate concerns about the issue at hand and weaved onto this tapestry is the notion of what success is believed to be. And, despite what you have come to understand, most of this processing takes place well outside of your awareness. It is this version that comes to mind passed to the inner press secretary, whose role it is to assemble the ‘facts’, memories, and experience that tow the party line. This is then used to decide how to act and what to do. Potentially important things are missed, or, of even more consequence, dismissed In both generating this story, and as we see from these examples above, preserving that story.

The power of the brain’s inner press secretary role is not to be underestimated. The story, itself, or the choice to dismiss, are not necessarily the ‘logical, rational’ process we envision. The measure of success our brain acts upon to drive its story is not necessarily something we fully ‘control.’

The question is not whether your brain deals with the world in this way. It does.

The question is what do you do with the story your mind delivers to you. Just because you start out with a particular belief about what is happening does not mean it’s the best perspective on the particular issue at hand. It doesn’t mean you have to or should act on that bias.

How can you keep your mind from delivering this story to you? Well, you can’t. It’s just not possible. After all, this is who you are and what your brain does. But you do have the power to decide whether your inner press secretary has the best path to your success, and whether that is the story you want to act on. Just because that is what comes to mind doesn’t mean that is what you have to do.

How can you improve your odds of not getting it wrong, as so many well intentioned good people do? Here is the secret ingredient: consider your story/narrative/explanation/notion the starting point, not the end game; an hypothesis to be tested rather than an indisputable fact to be embraced; it may be the best version, but it may not.

When the initial story is the end point and the sum total of what you choose to believe, by the time you become aware, that story often has assumed a life of its own, with a momentum that is hard to overcome, putting you on a trajectory defending a story that accelerates toward a misguided choice, and possibly disaster.

If you want to tackle this dilemma, the first place to look is towards the worldview/ideology. Without an openness to consider that yours may not be the best for this situation, any other 'rational,' analytical,' 'reasoned,' 'correct' points cannot even be heard. The brain is not in a frame of mind to absorb them. But wait, how does that work since this is all stuff a person may not even be aware of, right?

Start here:

What would it mean if my worldview doesn't serve me so well on this issue?

What if that opposing view better serves my interests?

What does that do to my story?

Only then will your brain be in a frame of mind to hear these:

What am I missing?

What am I dismissing to preserve my story?

What do I want the outcome to look like and is it an outcome others can get on board with?

There are always options, even if you can’t see them right now.

The brain has the capacity to test its version of ‘the world as I want it to be’ against the standard of ‘the world as it is,’ in order to avoid the substantial risk that the choice is a misguided one - it looked like the best option at the time, but could have been seen to not have been the best one available. The default mode for your brain is to jump on board with its initial version. It is an active process that takes energy and openness to the possibilities to do otherwise.

Nuclear explosion, impeaching a president, a struggle at home or work, day to day decisions and choices— not every decision or choice you make has the potential to result in catastrophe. But from the brain’s perspective, it is all the same.

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