People accidentally swallow eight spiders every year in their sleep. Although debunked numerous times, this myth remains the most widely circulated “fact” of the 21st century, according to the National Institute of Arachnological Research.
Did you believe me? Because I just lied to you.
Proving such a statement would be tedious. Also, a quick internet search would reveal that the National Institute of Arachnological Research doesn’t exist.
Why do myths persist despite published research proving the opposite? Because somewhere in your memory, you’ve stored something that sounds familiar—your gut. It might have been a sibling trying to scare you. You might have a mild spider phobia, so the myth triggers an emotional rather than a skeptical response. You might have read it in a 1993 article by Lisa Holst, who was ironically trying to demonstrate why people readily accept “facts” shared through email chains.
But it can be dangerous to rely on your gut, or what experts call System 1 thinking: automatic judgments that stem from associations stored in the memory. This type of thinking develops over time as people attempt to make sense of seemingly random events that occur around them. The more we make sense of our environment, the more control—or perceived control—we have over our lives.
But our gut can lead us astray. Multiple biases allow us to focus on the wrong information or seek information that matches what we already believe rather than all available information. Ask yourself these questions to build your rational-thinking skills.
1. What would I say to a friend?
Create space between your thoughts and feelings. You can do that by pretending to give advice to a friend, which allows your brain to switch from rumination to problem-solving. The more highly charged the situation, the more you need to separate yourself from momentary feelings.
Recent studies have found that journaling in the third person allows you to evaluate yourself and your situations more clearly and thoughtfully.
Uncertainty is terrifying. It’s easier and less stressful to imagine a single outcome, so we do. Instead researchers say you should imagine multiple outcomes to improve your accuracy and logical thinking.
If you’re imagining the possible success of your future business in five years, come up with three figures that determine that success: high, medium and low. Your high and low numbers should be improbable but not unrealistic. This approach allows you to not be blindsided by extremes on either end, and to plan for the possibility of them happening.
3. What is the counterargument to this decision or belief?
We like to be right. We like others to agree with our decision or belief. But when we’re thinking with an often incorrect System 1 mind, we’re blind to other options or perspectives. Use the following tips to frame a counterargument and help assess your position more rationally:
- Be generous in your research and thoughtfulness when building a counterargument.
- Shift your motives from winning to gaining value. Julia Galef, co-founder of the Center for Applied Rationality, says this allows her to imagine a scenario where she never loses, because one of her options will likely help her succeed.
- List the points of agreement between both arguments.
- Compare both arguments side by side, as if someone else wrote them.
Shifting your mindset to someone else’s view isn’t easy. Galef advises using mindfulness techniques to identify when your emotions are running high—particularly when someone is challenging your beliefs. Focus on seeking the truth rather than on winning.
4. Why am I attached to this decision or belief?
People often cling to irrational beliefs because they’re attached to their identity. Maybe your spouse says an alternate route is faster than the one you’ve always taken. You overreact, maybe because you think your spouse is insulting your intelligence. Researchers say your sense of self-worth is a significant factor in rational thinking.
One study found that when people feel positively about themselves, they’re more likely to accept uncomfortable facts. Before looking at information that challenges your beliefs, write down your top three qualities and recall examples of each. Explain your reaction so your spouse knows how to better present alternatives in the future.
5. Is this too good to be true?
Your mom was right: information that sounds too good to be true often uses generic or flowery language to cover factual inconsistencies. For example, Colgate found trouble after claiming more than 80 percent of dentists recommended their brand. What they failed to include was that those dentists recommended Colgate along with other brands.
Pay special attention to the words chosen—recommended versus preferred, for example. Also watch for averages without context and whether the claim seems completely one-sided. If it feels too good (or bad), it probably is, so dig a little deeper.
6. Is this harmful?
Seeking truth is important, but so is knowing when you shouldn’t waste your time proving meaningless falsehoods. For example, during a casual conversation at a networking event, someone might tell you they hold the record for the most hot dogs eaten in 10 minutes in the state of Georgia.
Before you whip out your best “according to” voice, ask yourself if this lie is harmful. The claim, though potentially false, doesn’t affect anyone except the actual Georgia hot-dog eating champion, but only if that winner is relying on sponsorship funding from people at the same networking event.
If you’re planning to work with this person, maybe you should determine whether they’re a compulsive liar. Otherwise, smile, nod and politely exit the conversation.
Rational thinking requires removing emotional responses, checking biases and considering other options before trying to convince your grandmother that she’s eaten 680 spiders in her life.
By the way, according to Bill Shear, former president of the American Arachnological Society, “Spiders regard us much like they’d regard a big rock,” so it looks like you’re safe. You can look it up.
This article originally appeared in the October 2017 issue of SUCCESS magazine.