How to get your brain off autopilot
Shortcuts can lead to undesirable outcomes when left unchecked.

By: Mind - Brain Health - 3/16/2017

  • High standards can cultivate excellence, but everybody falls short sometimes.

Your brain is programmed to take shortcuts, which at times can be helpful, but it also can lead to undesirable outcomes when left unchecked.  Operators and enablers might recognize that in certain situations these shortcuts can be helpful and provide an adaptive advantage.  You have learned to process information and evaluate ambiguity quickly and make efficient tactical decisions essential for safety, survival, and combat success.

However, these very same shortcuts can cause your brain to run on autopilot, which can lead to inaccurate perceptions, impulsive behaviors, or ineffective problem solving.  Maladaptive “thinking traps,” or cognitive distortions, impact how you operate and perform.  Thinking traps block your ability to be accurate about how you see situations and consequently lead to actions or emotions that can be unproductive.

There are many specific types of thinking traps, but this article focuses on a few specific ones that can impact your performance, both in and out of uniform:

  • Fortune Telling (forecasting negative events in your life)

  • Perfectionism (striving for perfection in everything you do)

  • Arbitrary Inference (jumping to conclusions without considering alternatives)

  • Mind Reading (believing you know how someone feels about you without asking)

Below are explanations to help illustrate how each of these traps might be helpful or harmful.

When you find that any of these traps lead to unhelpful outcomes, you can learn how to recognize each of these in yourself and then do something about it.  When making an assessment of whether a thinking trap is helping or harming you, consider the outcome:  Is the way you’re choosing to think about a situation leading to emotions and behaviors that will help you deal with that situation effectively?  Or is it taking you off track?

Fortune Telling

How it helps.  Fortune telling involves forecasting negative events in your life.  Operators are trained to plan for the worst-case scenario and develop contingencies in case such a scenario happens.  Predicting the worst-case scenario can sometimes lead you to feel prepared as you go out on a mission.  Foresight helps prepare you and your team for dangerous situations, but not all situations require the same level of vigilance.

How it could harm.  Forecasting negative events in your life also can lead you to experience a lot of anxiety.  When this thinking trap goes unchecked, you tend to make negative assessments about bad things happening that might not be entirely grounded in reality.  The kinds of dangers you can be exposed to in a combat environment might not match ones you encounter at home.  For example, the worst-case scenarios you faced on the battlefield are nothing like the situations you might encounter at a PTA meeting.  In the process, you might be passing on a lot of unnecessary anxiety to your spouse or family members.

What next?  When you find yourself engaged in maladaptive fortune telling, take a pause and ask yourself if that bad prediction is something that might actually happen.  If the answer is yes, then it’s time to prepare.  Taking a pause—to assess whether there’s enough evidence to predict that an event will indeed happen—gets your brain off autopilot.  Making meaningful distinctions between worst-case scenarios that are actually likely to happen versus worst-case scenarios that are very unlikely can help you shift focus and be more accurate in your thinking.


How it helps.  Perfectionism is striving for absolute perfection in everything you do.  Having high expectations of yourself has probably led you to live up to the high standards of being an elite operator, as well as to your success in many other domains.  Operators understand that there is zero room for error in some situations.  The smallest mistake can mean the difference between life and death or success and failure.  Striving for perfection is a way of life for operators and enablers and often a reflection of the pride with which you carry out the tasks associated with your duties, from putting on the uniform in the morning to firing your weapon.

How it could harm.  High standards can cultivate excellence, but everybody falls short sometimes.  Not every task in life needs to be carried out with precision.  Maybe you paid the electric bill a few days late, didn’t meet your standards during a workout, or showed up late to your child’s soccer game.  Not forgiving yourself when you mess up can increase your stress level and prevent you from moving on effectively, ultimately impacting your state of mind and mission readiness.  And expecting others to always be perfect can negatively impact the quality of your relationships.

What next?  If you often find you have a difficult time letting go of your failures or setbacks, ask yourself if there are ways you can move on.  Can you focus on what you learned from what went wrong and use that to do better next time?  Reflecting on how a failure can lead to your eventual success can help shift your lens.  Maybe you can think about where in your life perfectionism is needed and where it isn’t.  You also might want to think about the value for your children or teammates in modeling what it looks like to fail, learn, and move on.  Reaching high standards means being willing to fail along the way.

Arbitrary Inference

How it helps.  Arbitrary inference is jumping to conclusions with certainty about your assessment without having considered all available information.  Following your training and intuition to make snap judgements in certain situations has likely helped you survive and navigate through volatile, complex, and ambiguous situations.  Operators are trained to make speedy inferences about what is unfolding in order to act swiftly when necessary.

How it could harm.  While making swift judgements can be helpful at times, other times require accuracy at the expense of speed.  Jumping to conclusions about people or situations can lead you to impulsive behaviors.  Let’s say you get a phone call from the bank that your account is in overdraft.  You automatically think, “My significant other is out spending money again,” and then call him or her and start screaming into the phone.  Acting on your initial and largely unproven assumption (without taking a moment to test for accuracy) can lead to unintended negative outcomes.

What next?  When you notice yourself falling into this trap, try to take a pause.  Is this a situation where you really need to make a very quick assessment?  If not, can you slow down and evaluate the evidence for and against the inference you’re making?  Have you looked at all of the information available before making a judgment?  Just because you’ve been in a similar situation before doesn’t always mean it’s exactly the same.  When you have the time, slowing down to make a thorough assessment can lead to better decisions.

Mind Reading

How it helps.  Mind reading is all about being absolutely sure you know what someone is thinking or feeling without asking.  As an operator or enabler, you spend a lot of time with your teammates.  You learn how they think and act, and you become very in tune with how to work cohesively together to accomplish a mission.  The same might be true for your family.  Anticipating what others are thinking and making a judgment call to guess how they see a situation can be helpful, especially when confirmation of that information isn’t possible.  It’s wonderful when you can guess what your spouse wanted for his or her birthday and see their face light up with joy and surprise.  When you can be two steps ahead of your commander and can get a task done before he asks it can make you appear to be proactive.

How It Could Harm.  No matter how well you think you know someone, you’re probably not 100% accurate all the time about what he or she is thinking.  You might assume that your commander or mother-in-law thinks the worst of you, and then you go on feeling and behaving as though it were true.  When you think you know what other people are thinking, you tend not to communicate or ask for information, which can lead to frustration and misunderstanding.

What Next?  If you find yourself mind reading a lot and making incorrect assumptions about what another person is thinking, you might consider gathering more evidence to support or refute your ideas.  Ask the other person directly for his or her perspective.  Communicate openly about what you want to accomplish.  Not only will you spend less time trying to do guesswork, but you’ll strengthen your relationships in the process.

The human brain is wired to be efficient.  At times, efficiency can support effectiveness, but other times it leaves the door open for error.  You can help optimize your performance at work and at home by knowing how to spot when your brain’s autopilot setting is sending you in the wrong direction and having some strategies to slow down and redirect the process.

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