Generally speaking, humans aren't very good at quickly gauging the quality of our choices. We use shortcuts, fall back on stereotypes and make choices based on limited amounts of information. This often works for our minor, day-to-day choices, but we're inadvertently limiting our scope and not considering a wide variety of worthwhile options. In an episode of Seinfeld called The Opposite (see video above), George Costanza decides to toss his gut instincts to the curb and instead consider radical alternatives to what his instincts tell him to do — and it works.
Obviously there's a significant difference between a sitcom and real life, but Costanza's opposite principle is more constructive than you might think. To illustrate my point, here are a few cases where it's a good idea to doubt your brain.
When "What Comes Naturally" Isn't Always In Your Best Interest
We're wired to put more weight on a decision that leads to an immediate reward. Psychology Today puts this rather bluntly:
Our instincts most often drive us toward instant gratification.
Instant gratification is not always a bad thing, but more often than not we prioritise the moment over the future. We convince ourselves that our instincts are right when they're not. The myth that your body "tells you what it needs" when you're craving something is a good example of this. It's a blatant trick your brain plays on you in order to get a reward.
Instant gratification also comes in the form of protection. Your brain treats uncertainty as a threat, and your natural reaction may not be in your best interest because it's trying to protect you from something that's not actually a problem. It might just be that you're worried about the uncertainty of disappointment or embarrassment.
In George Costanza's (clearly absurd) case, avoiding perceived risk led him nowhere. By considering an alternative (described as "the opposite"), he was rewarded with a date and a new job.
Solution: Learn To Differentiate Between "Feeling Right" And "Being Right"
It might seem negligible, but learning to differentiate between "feeling right" and "being right" is key. The first is a knee-jerk reaction to a situation based on your feelings; the second is a quantifiable truth.
As science writer David DiSalvo points out in his book What Makes Your Brain Happy and Why You Should Do the Opposite, knowing the difference requires recognising that difference:
A happy brain interprets uncertainty as a threat and wants us to get back to "right." But what we often overlook is that what we are really trying to recover is the feeling of being right — because it is the emotional response to rightness that shuts off the alarms and puts us at ease... The truth, however, is that the evidence may not align with the source of your certainty and that's a difficult realisation for any one of us to acknowledge.
Certainty is two-fold. On one hand, it's all about the facts (we'll get to that more in the next section); but it's also about emotional forecasting. You might not take a small risk because you feel you know what would happen, but in reality humans are terrible at predicting the future, and you often don't take your own personality into account when making choices. Considering alternatives is a way to find out if a choice is really the best one.
Your History And Self-Perception Has More Influence Than You Think
We're all biased thinkers and a lot of the bias comes from personal history. Some of that history is what we've made for ourselves, and some of it has been inscribed on us by other people's interpretations of us. Scientific American sums it up like so:
We can learn, we can improve, and we can change our habitual approach to the world. Take the example of stereotype threat, an instance where others' perception of us — or what we think that perception is — influences how we in turn act, and does so on the same subconscious level as all primes.
Think of a stereotype threat like this: all your life people have been introducing you as "the quiet one" or "the shy person." Internally you might interpret those introductions as a way to act even when you don't feel like they apply to you. Subsequently, you base decisions on this idea — you remain quiet during a dinner or don't speak up in a conversation — even though it's not what you want to do. Photo by Quinn Dombrowski.
Solution: Challenge Your Personal Myth (Do The Opposite)
This is where Costanza's opposite approach best applies. In order to challenge your "personal myth" you have to do (or at least imagine doing) the exact opposite of what you normally do. As science blog Big Think points out the first step is knowing what you do and that that behaviour can be changed:
What is the mindset you typically have when it comes to yourself? If you don't realise you have it, you can't do anything to combat the influences that come with it when they are working against you, as happens with negative stereotypes that hinder performance-and even when they are working for you (as can happen if you activate positively-associated stereotypes), you may be able to better tap the benefits if you are aware that they are there to begin with.
The second step is to take a little action and give new things a try. The next time you're faced with a social decision (preferably one without horrible repercussions), considering looking at the alternative. You may be pleasantly surprised with the results and if nothing else you'll learn a little about an opposing view of the world.
Your Viewpoint Is Incredibly Limited
You don't know everything and you can't see everything from different viewpoints. We've covered how confirmation bias colours your decisions because you gravitate towards like-minded ideas, but just as important is the idea of an availability heuristic.
The availability heuristic is essentially a decision making shortcut that means "if you can think of it, it must be important". This is when you add emphasis to details because you've heard of them. For instance, if you've seen a lot of stories about zombie-like behavior, you're more willing to accept the fact that zombies are real.
Both confirmation bias and the availability heuristic boil down to one thing: you prioritise one idea because everything else seems unlikely to you. This leads to close-mindedness which can cause bad decisions and block creativity. Photo by Kevin Bowman.
Solution: Reverse Your Assumptions To Understand The Counter Position
You have to accept that you don't know all the facts and what you do know is probably skewed based on your perception of the events. One way to do this is reverse your assumptions to see new ideas. Psychology Today offers one system to do this:
- List all your assumptions about your subject.
- Reverse each assumption. What is its opposite?
- Ask yourself how to accomplish each reversal.
When you reverse your assumptions you often find new ideas along with new viewpoints. This might include ways to solve creative problems, see other points of view on political issues, or better understand an opinion you don't agree with. It's not about changing your mind. It's about finding the other possibilities that exist and making a choice with more variables.
The idea here isn't that you go all out and do the exact opposite of everything (unless your disposition is really that close to George Costanza), but to consider the alternatives to your default behaviour. You'll be surprised at how often you're completely wrong about decisions, risks, and your own perception.
Our brains trick us in all types of different ways that we didn't cover above and most of the time we never notice it happening. Have you ever tried the exact opposite of your usual behaviour with successful results? Share your experiences in the comments.