Finding someone injured and lying in a pool of their own blood isn’t the sort of thing that happens to most of us everyday. But it happens. And plenty of other things take place, too, that surprise and dismay us, or call for uncommon responses. What we do in response to those situations is based on a complex combination of our understandings of our past, present, and future. Some people walk around an injured stranger. Others we stop to help. Our reasons are as mysterious to us as they are to everyone around us, but of course we can always come up with a “logical” explanation for our actions. We’re late for work and might get fired if we’re late again. Or we can’t spare the time and energy to get involved. We can’t stand the sight of blood. Or we just don’t notice anything other than what’s on our phone screen.
If we do notice what’s going on, but we don’t react in a way we feel good about, we have even more mechanisms to keep ourselves moving in what we think is the right direction in life. We can flatly deny that we did anything wrong. Or, if we do think we fell short, we can rationalize just about anything and convince ourselves we had good reason to do what we did. But as conscious as we think our rationale was, our reasons are often based on automatic, knee-jerk reactions to incomplete / wrong information. No, that man had not been drinking early in the day. He was in hypoglycemic crisis. No, his blood was not tainted by a dread virus. It was just all over the ground around him. No, he wasn’t a drug-addicted bum, but a well-known ultra-marathon racer whose body was just beginning to recover from a recent race. But we make all sorts of assumptions and deductions about things we do not – and cannot – know, for more reasons than we can ever know.
And our knee-jerk deductions aren’t always benign. Identifying patterns and deciding that things mean something that they may not, leads to things like prejudice, bias, and mistaken impressions which cause us to mistake behaviors. We feel confident and safe when we feel like we recognize what is happening. It makes sense to us, and that feels good. But a shorthand approach doesn’t always work in our best interests – or in the best interests of the people and situations we’re figuring out. On top of it, our assumptions are rarely set right in the course of a few minutes… or even hours, days, months… sometimes years. We figure stuff out well enough to get some level of comfort, then we move on without giving it much more thought. Our impulse to fill in the blanks with what makes sense to us, and to confirm our own beliefs through selective attention, to find relief in what matters to us (to the exclusion of all else), is deep-seated and instinctive. And it’s extremely hard to override.
The net result, is that we compile a version of the world that suits us and our needs, often at the expense of others. Reality, as we understand it, is much more a question of what we want it to be, than what it actually is.
And in the end, what is may not be what we think it is at all.