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How to Get Your Brain Off of Autopilot

Use these science-based strategies to think intentionally instead.

DW labs Incorporated/Shutterstock
Source: DW labs Incorporated/Shutterstock

Imagine you are driving on autopilot, as we all do much of the time. Suddenly the car in front of you unexpectedly cuts you off. You slam on your brakes and feel scared and indignant. Maybe you flash your lights or honk your horn. What’s your gut feeling about the other driver? I know my first thought would be that the driver is rude and obnoxious.

Now imagine a different situation: You’re driving on autopilot, minding your own business, and you suddenly realize you need to turn right at the next intersection. You quickly switch lanes and suddenly hear someone behind you honking their horn. You now realize that there was someone in your blind spot but you forgot to check it in the rush to switch lanes, so you cut them off pretty badly. Do you think that you are a rude driver? The vast majority of us would not—after all, we did not deliberately cut off the other driver; we just failed to see their car.

Let’s imagine another situation: Your friend hurt herself and you are rushing her to the emergency room. You are driving aggressively and cutting in front of other cars. Are you a rude driver? You'd probably say you are not; you’re merely doing the right thing for this situation.

Why do we give ourselves a pass while assigning an obnoxious status to other people? Why does our gut always make ourselves out to be the good guys, and other people the bad guys? There is clearly a disconnect between our gut reactions and reality. This pattern is not a coincidence: Our immediate gut reaction attributes the behavior of other people to their personality, and not to the situation in which the behavior occurs. The scientific name for this type of thinking and feeling is the fundamental attribution error, also called the correspondence bias.

This means that if we see someone behaving rudely, we immediately and intuitively feel that this person is rude. We don’t stop to consider whether an unusual situation may cause the individual to act that way. With the example of the driver, maybe the person who cut you off did not see you. Maybe they were driving their friend to the emergency room. But that’s not what our automatic reaction tells us. On the other hand, we attribute our own behavior to the situation, and not our personality. Much of the time we believe that we have valid explanations for our actions.

Learning about the fundamental attribution error helped me quite a bit. I became less judgmental of others. I realized that the people around me were not nearly as bad as my gut feelings intuitively assumed. This decreased my stress levels, and I gained more peace and calm. Moreover, I realized that my intuitive self-evaluation is excessively positive, and that I am not quite the good guy my gut reaction tells me. I also realized that those around me who are unaware of this error in thinking are more judgmental of me than my intuition suggests. I now strive to be more mindful and thoughtful about the impression I make on others.

The fundamental attribution error is one of many problems in our natural thinking and feeling patterns. It is certainly very helpful to learn about all of these errors, but it’s hard to focus on avoiding them in our daily life. A more effective strategy for evaluating reality more intentionally to have more clarity, and thus gain greater agency, is known as “map and territory.” This strategy involves recognizing the difference between the mental map of the world that we have in our heads and the reality of the actual world as it exists—the territory.

Internalizing this concept has not been easy for me. It’s painful to realize that your understanding of the world is never perfect, and that your map will never match the territory. At the same time, this realization was strangely freeing. It made me recognize that no one is perfect, and that I do not have to strive for perfection in my view of the world. Instead, what would be most beneficial to me is to try to refine my map to make it more accurate. This intentional approach made me more willing to admit to myself that though I intuitively and emotionally feel something is right, I may be mistaken. At the same time, the concept of map and territory makes me really optimistic, because it provides a constant opportunity to learn and improve my assessment of the situation.

Others to whom I taught this concept in videotaped workshops also benefited from learning about the fundamental attribution error, and the idea of map and territory. One workshop participant wrote in an anonymous feedback form: "With relation to the fundamental attribution error, it gives me a chance to keep a more open mind. Which will help me to relate to others more, and see a different view of the 'map' in my head.”

What are the strategies for effectively learning this information, and internalizing the behaviors and mental patterns that will help you succeed? Educational psychology research shows that engaging with the information actively, personalizing it to your life, linking it to your goals, and deciding on a plan and specific next steps you will take are the best practices. Answer the questions below to learn more and gain long-lasting benefits from this article:

  • What do you think of the concept of map and territory?
  • How can it be used to address the fundamental attribution error?
  • Where can the notion of map and territory help you in your life?
  • What challenges might arise in applying this concept, and how can these challenges be addressed?
  • What plan can you make and what specific steps can you take to internalize these strategies?

Dr. Gleb Tsipursky runs Intentional Insights, a nonprofit that helps you reach your goals using science to build an altruistic and flourishing world. He authored Find Your Purpose Using Science, among other books, and is a tenure-track professor at Ohio State University. Consider signing up to the Intentional Insights newsletter, volunteering, donating, or buying merchandise. You can support him personally on Patreon. Get in touch with him at