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It’s a “mindfield”


Image by Nevit Dilmen

We are now on week 5 of Coursera’s Know Thyself which focuses on Timothy Wilson and his book Strangers to Ourselves

The study question I chose for this week is

What is the “psychological immune system”? In light of your answer, please elucidate Wilson’s remark that the conflict between the need for accuracy and the need to feel good about ourselves is, “one of the major battlegrounds of the self”

According to Wilson the mind needs to gather accurate information to make decisions and judgements. We do it all the time, gauging people’s facial expressions to determine their mood or assessing the danger level of a situation. However, he felt that there are two facets to the unconscious mind. As well as accuracy the mind has a “spin doctor” whose purpose is to make you feel better about decisions you have made. Didn’t get the job you wanted? Well the salary wasn’t good. Been dumped? Well he was no good anyway. Failed the exam? Well it’s not a subject you will be using in your career anyway. We all do it and according to Wilson we don’t even realise we are “boosting our psychological immune system”. It’s known as as boosting our psychological immune system because it protects our emotional well being.

Of course we know people who operate on the either end of the scale, those whose mind is a sea of accurate information and nothing else. The “spin doctor” is absent and this can manifest itself as pessimism or depression. We also know people whose “spin doctor” is operating on a high spin and everything is great and will be great. They could be described as naive or not living in the real world. It’s about hitting the right balance.

How much “spin” or accuracy you have affects the decisions you make. If you have lots if spin you may take more risks, do things out of your comfort zone because you feel “everything will be okay”. Being on the opposite scale may mean that you get bogged down in the facts, issues and concerns and not dare take a risk. For those of us in the middle there will be times when we are faced with making a decision and we have to work out what to do, any decision will be based on how we think it will turn out.

Not looking after our psychological immune system is also one of the factors in the bad decisions we make when it comes to affective forecasting. This is basically being able to predict how we will feel in the future, something which we are notoriously bad at. We often overestimate how positive we would feel about a significant windfall for example.

Because we are unaware that we boost our psychological immune system, when we end up feeling better about a situation then originally predicted, we attribute it to something else for example God. It also affects decisions in other ways. Wilson used an example of buying a jumper from a shop without a returns policy. People will try and rationalise a bad purchasing decision as there is nothing that can be done about it. However, if there is a generous returns policy there is little or no need to justify the decision. As a result people are often happier with decisions they can’t change as they are already in the process of boosting their psychological immune system.

This is just a short piece on the subject but already I can see why it is a battlefield. We are constantly trying to make ourselves feel better and justify our decisions (without realising) and yet we are so bad at predicting how we are going to feel in the future.

Do we really know our own minds?




  1. YogitaRed8 says:

    This is quite thought provoking, and reminds me of another coursera “The Beginner’s Guide to Irrationality”. Although this course is about behaviorial economics, the first week’s materials have highlighted that we to a great extent don’t seem to know our own minds as much as we would like to think we do.

    Also, we have seen through multiple and varied research, we try to justify our thinking, our decisions through different sets of bias…it is very interesting to see how we almost self-manipulate to makes sense of ourselves.

  2. leazengage says:

    I also found this question of the “spin doctor” interesting. You can see people doing it all the time. We want to make sense of our lives, our beliefs, and our experiences. So, we spin them. Just as the Wilson bias test might give us results that we aren’t comfortable with, it seems true that there are battles that we all struggle with throughout life. All the best to you! 🙂

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