Ben Franklin famously said, “Three things are extremely hard: steel, a diamond, and to know one’s self.” Now you might be thinking you know yourself well because you can describe your likes, dislikes, hobbies, career, family roles, etc. What Ben Franklin was talking about was understanding at a deeper level. Understanding why you do what you do gives insight into who you really are.
Why is it so hard to know yourself? Below are five psychological reasons that stand out to me. As you read, think about yourself in relation to each one.
If you’ve ever walked on a naturally worn path in the woods that’s a good example of habits. The more people walk on the dirt path the more other people will walk on that path even though there might be hundreds of ways to zig zag through the woods and get to the same end point. A well-worn path is easy to follow.
Habits are like paths that are often formed before you realize it. They make life easier because they save you time and energy. And that’s also what makes habits hard to change. Habits usually serve a purpose and therefore have to be replaced with new, better habits.
If you were in the woods it wouldn’t be enough to tell yourself you’re not going to walk on the path (an attempt to break the habit) you’d have to navigate a new path and that’s never easy.
Cognitive dissonance is the human tendency to rationalize what we believe or do so we can avoid feeling hypocritical. For example, you might acknowledge you could eat better BUT you’ll self-generate reasons to confirm why what you’re currently do is acceptable. Your rationalization might include the following: healthy food is over-priced, you’re on the go all the time, or your job has you eating out several nights a week.
There’s a saying in sales – people buy based on emotion and justify with logic. That justification is how people rationalize buying things they don’t need and can’t afford (The deal was too good!) so they don’t feel bad about themselves. Likewise, with many things in life people simply create reasons – true or not – to explain their behavior in ways that allow them to feel better about themselves.
Confirmation bias happens when you only seek or respond to information that confirms your current beliefs. Confirming what you already believe is easier and less time consuming than challenging your beliefs and ways of doing things. This is one more reason it’s hard for you to change.
We seldom state what we believe, acknowledge we could be wrong, then seek to honestly challenge our beliefs by looking at opposing data. Instead we take the easy road without realizing we’re doing it because it helps us avoid feeling hypocritical. This is why most people lock into one media source (MSNBC, Fox, CNN) for their news.
Confirmation bias and cognitive dissonance together create a powerful one-two punch to keep you mindlessly doing what you’ve always done.
Impact of Influence
Over the past 15 years I’ve immersed myself to learn about influence. Something I’ve seen consistently with people is a resistance to the idea that attempts at influence impact them. They’ll readily admit influence techniques impact others, but not them because they’re too smart.
I’ll let you in on a secret…even though I teach influence sometimes I’m persuaded by things I’m unaware of. I pretty much view the world through the lens of influence and if it can impact me at times without notice then how much more with untrained people? Most influence operates at the subconscious level and that’s why you’re unaware when it’s impacting you. And that leads me to my last area of impact…
Most neuroscientists estimate 85%-95% of what we do in a given day is driven by our subconscious. In other words, the vast majority of the time we act without consciously thinking about what we’re doing or saying!
Imagine your subconscious is an umbrella over your habits, cognitive dissonance, confirmation bias and influence. Each of those primarily operates without your awareness because they impact you at the subconscious level.
This unconscious behavior is a huge reason why it’s so hard for us to know ourselves and understand why we do what we do. If you’re not aware of what’s going on in your mind how can you really know why you do what you?
Think about the Wizard of Oz for a moment. At the end of the movie the curtain was pulled back to reveal the great and mighty Oz was actually just a little old man with a megaphone pulling some strings. Pull the curtain back in your life and you’ll begin to see the reasons for why you do what you do. But beware, doing so will take time, energy and courage and that’s why Ben Franklin was so right when he said, “Three things are hard: steel, a diamond and to know one’s self.”
Brian Ahearn, CMCT®, is the Chief Influence Officer at InfluencePEOPLE. His Lynda.com course, Persuasive Selling, has been viewed more than 110,000 times! Have you seen it yet? Watch it to learn how to ethically engage the psychology of persuasion throughout the sales process.