“What do you think his story is?” My mom asked as we wandered through San Francisco’s Union Square. We had been sightseeing through the city all day, and just finished having dinner, when we saw him. She was pointing to a homeless man sleeping in the doorway of a closed shop.
My response was, “I don’t know, but I bet it isn’t as simple as we hope it is.” My mom looked puzzled, so I continued to explain. “We like to believe it’s something they chose upon themselves. A reason that is easy and clear-cut, a definitive mistake that we can easily point out and blame them for: drugs, alcoholism, or people actually WANTING to be homeless. This allows us to judge them rather than empathize, and it allows us to ignore them with a clear conscience.”
(Pretty deep thought huh? I was even taken back by it myself.)
I continued: “Instead of addiction, laziness, or choice, it could be something more complicated. Maybe he has a mental illness and his mother who took care of him recently passed away. It could be possible that he started a business that wasn’t TOO BIG TO FAIL and he lost everything. The possibilities are definitely unique to each person and infinite if you really think about it.”
Since practicing mindfulness, I have seen life in more detail, and can put greater perspective into my thoughts. I have been better at avoiding what I like to call “in the rut thinking,” and I am better at seeing the ripple effect my thoughts have on my own moods, feelings, and choices. With an open mind it is easier to see new possibilities and solutions to chronic and habitual problems, and this was one of those “AH-HA moments.”
Instead of seeing this guy as a GROUP of nameless and faceless homeless people, I finally saw this man as an individual, a unique person, who I chose not to categorize.
When constantly faced with the same stimuli, our brains get desensitized to it. When we see the same things over and over again it is easy getting stuck in categorical thinking. The scientific name for this is social cognition, and it has been a useful skill throughout mankind’s evolution. Think of it is a file cabinet of previous thoughts, emotions, or other stereotypes that your brain stores for easy reference. This increases your cognitive efficiency because instead of having to rationalize and investigate each situation on a unique and individual level, your brain simply goes back to a former frame of reference and makes comparisons.
At certain times of our life, social cognition is very useful. It’s a “herding instinct” that can prove crucial in times of chaos. When others are running away from something, it’s best to join them. It’s also great at providing intuition, letting us know if a situation is dangerous or if a person is acting suspiciously. Social cognition can serve its purpose, but it can also be detrimental.
One of my favorite quotes in life is a great example of social cognition at its worst: “If you always DO what you always DID, you will always GET what you always GOT.” There are times in our life when we need to be able to see beyond the mental constraints our brain places upon us. Moments that call for a revolutionary change, or times where we have become so desensitized to the stimuli around us that our thoughts are locked into a mindless rut.
Your brain is a muscle, and like any muscle, it can be trained and improved. By using mindfulness meditation and clearing your thoughts on a regular basis, the world will show itself in a whole new perspective. You will begin to analyze your routines and actions, and snap out of these mentally dormant stages when social cognition takes over.
Great leaders and companies are proactive in overcoming these plagues of social cognition. They see constraints as only temporary obstacles, and work hard to create new strategies to solve problems that others see as the status quo. The cliché of “thinking outside of the box” comes to mind, but I hate that overused term with a passion!
I challenge you to look at your daily routines for you and your workplace, and try to analyze them with a clear and open mind. By examining the routines of not only yourself, but your workplace as well, you will see the inefficient routines and complacent thoughts that you have overlooked for quite a while.
Create space, and respond!