The famous Müller-Lyer illusion shows two or three lines – all physically the same length but they do not appear that way because of the fins at the ends. The eye extends the length of the lines with fins even though the line itself is all exactly the same. You can see the illusion here.

A fascinating extension of this experiment appeared in the book Thinking, Fast and Slow by Nobel Prize economist Daniel Kahneman. He points out that even if you KNOW that the lines are the same length, your automatic mental response will always be to see one line longer. He makes the argument that in a conflict between automatic reactions and controlled responses, you must first consciously recognize the auto-response and then intentionally choose to override it – every single time. The automatic response will automatically kick in.

The best that you can do is to repeatedly recognize a pattern or a situation that generates an automatic response from you and cultivate the habit of immediately questioning it. You can’t shut off the responders in your brain, but you can learn to more quickly activate another portion of your brain to exercise control and decision-making.

Think about aspects of the environment that generate automatic responses for you. What patterns do you need to flag so that the control aspect of your brain goes on high alert when they are present? What triggers a reaction that you would like to override? You can’t stop that initial stare, but you can control your next reaction to it – if you consciously activate the self-control aspect of our brain.

Source: Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman, 2011


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