J.D. Moyer

beat maker, sci-fi writer, self-experimenter

Overcoming Our Cognitive Bias Towards Excessive Caution Using the 3rd Person View

Adventure is in the eye of the beholder.

In my last post, Strategies for Multi-Class Characters, I touched on the idea of how seeing ourselves as characters in a game can be a fun and useful exercise.  One reason I’m so enamored with mental exercises in which I see myself in the 3rd person (as a character in a game or a novel) is that it helps impart a certain lightness and clarity to decision making.  When we’re in first-person view, sitting behind our own eyes so to speak, we feel the potential consequences of our actions quite heavily.  It’s hard to take big, disruptive actions, even if we know those actions will vastly improve our lives.

On the other hand, if we momentarily look at our own life as a story, or fantasy game, or even a dream instance, we can suddenly see our possible future paths with much more clarity; it becomes easier to take positive action in our real lives.  You wouldn’t think twice about sending your adventurer off to fight dragons or explore underwater caves or walk through a time travel portal, but in real life it’s sometimes hard to do something as straightforward as learning a new skill or going on a trip or starting a creative project.

Think about how easily we come up with action plans for acquaintances we know only superficially.  Within a few days of meeting someone it might be obvious to us what they need to do in order to drastically improve their lives.  So-and-so needs to drop that loser boyfriend and go back to school.  That guy over there?  He should quit drinking, move to Jamaica, and marry that woman he fell in love with last summer.  It’s all so clear.  But in our own lives, or even in the lives of those people we love and feel very close to (and are thus invested in) the decisions feel murkier, the right paths and best options less obvious.

Hmm ... could be a good opportunity but it might cost me half a banana.

Evolutionary psychologists are discovering that human beings have a strong cognitive bias towards loss aversion.  That is, we fear losing stuff (money, status, love) more than we hunger for gain.  In fact, we will do almost anything to avoid even the slightest loss, while we can be incredibly lazy about taking small steps towards enormous gains.  I, for example, will spend twenty minutes on the phone with my bank trying to get a fee reversed, when logically I’d be better off doing work for a client, or working on a track, or even writing a blog post.  The financial and/or emotional rewards of the alternative activities far outweigh the cost of the bank fee, but since the bank fee feels like a loss — the bank is taking my money — I’m willing to spend a lot of time and energy fighting it.

This same bias plays out on larger scales as well.  We’re willing to tolerate sub-par situations because we want to hold on to the meager benefits those situations provide.  Our life focus becomes shallow and we lose track of the big picture — what do we want the narrative arc of our life to look like?  What kind of story do we want to live?  What kind of impact do we want to have on those around us and the world we live in?

Unfortunately we can’t just flip a switch and start making rational decisions, weighing potential losses and potential benefits of various actions evenly.  Millions of years of evolution guarantees that we’re stuck with our bias.  Our only option is to trick ourselves.

Flip the switch -- all bets are off.

The 3rd person view is a good trick to get around the loss aversion bias.  Play yourself as a character in a game.  Write your own narrative and live your own novel.

Psychologically, the fear of even minor losses holds us back, but when we take the “I” out of the equation and start seeing ourselves as a “he” or “she,” those minor potential losses cease to matter so much, and the potential rewards become more clear.

Pitfalls?

I’ve worried at times that this approach might be narcissistic.  Does it lead to too much focus on self, at the expense paying attention to (and considering the needs of) family, friends, and community?

Maybe — but only if the narrative we write for ourselves doesn’t include fully engaging with our family, friends, and community.  Our narratives should have a heroic element — and narratives that are simply about fulfilling our own needs and desires aren’t really heroic.  To be heroic you need to engage with other people, and with the world, and make positive changes.  Non-heroic wish-fulfillment narratives (acquire this thing, have this experience, etc.) probably aren’t sufficiently energizing for most people.

What about recklessness?  Is it possible that if we take the 3rd person view towards our own lives, we’ll be impelled to take drastic, unwise, reckless actions?  I don’t think so.  In my own experiments with this mental exercise, the actions I’ve ended up taking have been 1) low risk, 2) more-or-less reversible, and 3) carefully considered.  The idea is to see your own life more clearly, and with less weight, so that you can actually make more rational decisions about what paths to take.  It’s probably more reckless to only see your life from the inside, from the first-person view.  Inertia and non-action can be reckless too.

Personal Results

Taking the 3rd person view has led to a number of concrete actions in my own life.  It led to taking a 6-week workation in Costa Rica with my family.  It led to me taking a prolonged break from club DJing (never say never) and instead focusing more on writing (including this blog).  Just as many life areas have remained unchanged — I’m happy with the way lots of things are going for my “character.”

When I’m able to take a 3rd person perspective on my own life, it gives me a wonderfully freeing feeling that my life is not that important.  I’m just one character among billions.  Why not doing something fun, or flippant, or daring, or new, or brave?  If it doesn’t hurt other people, why not do exactly what I want to do? Why not try the thing I’m considering, and see what happens?  Why not set an ambitious goal and charge at it full speed?

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2 Comments

  1. Zora, in Act 2 of Episode #178 of “This American Life” is a good example of someone who uses this technique; in her case she is inspired by an avatar/hero version of herself from her own dreams/subconscious mind. In her case her dream avatar feels like her true self; “real” life simply feels like a different world with a different rule set. While the narrator implies that Zora’s approach to life might be a psychological coping mechanism to deal with deep-seated emotional issues, Zora’s use of “The List” unarguably propels her towards a fascinating life.

    http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/178/superpowers

  2. Another interesting example, this one in a recovery context:

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