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Is Your Brain Undermining Your Best Interests?

Sometimes it is better not to listen to your brain.

"How our brains react in a given situation may very well undermine our best interests in the short and/or long term," says David DiSalvo, author of What Makes Your Brain Happy and Why You Should Do the Opposite. His book explores "why humans so often do things not in our best interest...(and) what attributes of our brains underlie the self-undermining thoughts and actions that plague every person born on this planet."

Subtle "imprints" on the brain and how they got there seem to explain why perhaps you should not listen to your "happy brain," described by DiSalvo as the tendency to go to a default position or choice that "places the greatest value on avoiding loss, lessening risk, and averting harm. However, those protective tendencies can go too far and become obstacles instead of virtues."

What gets in the way of sound decisions is what DiSalvo calls neuro-imprinting much of which comes from group trust and stereotyping. When it comes to deciding to start a family (or not) or to have a second baby, for example, several things are at work beyond the practicalities of money, living space, wanting a son or daughter...

Your peers are very influential in how you make childbearing decisions. Do you trust the people telling you to have a child? Or, to have another child? Probably your mother, mother-in-law, and other close relatives who (one would hope) have your best interests at heart are on the go-for-it cheering squad. They are telling you that having a child or more children is good; in other words, it works for them and/or for the people you and they know. Thus, children make your friends and family happy, then it follows that a child or more children will work for you and make you happy, too.

Even more than group attitude and trust, I believe stereotyping leaves the strongest imprint on the brain and is extremely influential in decision-making about most things-be ita politician to vote for, a country to visit, or whether or not to have children or how many. I have talked in the past about how and why stereotypes stick, but DiSalvo adds a key insight into how stereotyping influences decision-making especially in the absence of people we trust. In his book he discusses a study on group-based trust done by researchers at Australian National University and Hokkaido University in Japan. Although the study centers on group trust and judgments we make about others, it explains, that when we are not sure about the people in a group, we rely on stereotypes.

When we are on the fence about having a second child, for instance, the antiquated, yet firmly imbedded stigma of the lonely, spoiled single child immediately colors our decision-making. Or, as DiSalvo notes, "neuro-science research has identified neural structures in our brains correlating to our social biases-so there is worthy evidence that social bias is, at least to some degree, wired into our noggins."

In the case of only children, social bias and wrong-thinking was abysmally evident in Jennifer Graham's Boston Globe op-ed. She went so far as to call having one child, "child abuse." She succeeded in re-enforcing the negative stereotypes that have been disproven repeatedly in the last 100+ years. Yet, the stereotypes remain imprinted in the minds of many men and women who, for assorted reasons, don't want or can't have a second child as well as in the minds of those who are undecided. In the forward to DiSalvo's book, Wray Herbert, author of On Second Thought: Outsmarting Your Mind's Hard-Wired Habits, points out that "We all trade in stereotypes and scripts all the time, using them as efficient shortcuts to conserve time and mental energy. But...they can skew our judgment."

David DiSalvo confirms that the tendency is for the brain to go to the default position, in this case, buying into the negatives about only children, instead of knowing "when to think and act contrary to our brain's native leanings." Not so easy because the pattern of thought around family and what it should be is so entrenched. But, DiSalvo warns us: "Be aware of the influence your pre-existing beliefs are exerting on your current thinking." When it comes to family size, it may be best to do the opposite of what your neuro-imprinting is telling you.

Copyright @ 2012 by Susan Newman

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