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A series of scenes from the popular movie Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade illustrate that all-too-human tendency to "know better" -- and yet ignore that which we know.
Intrepid explorer Indy and the beautiful-but-evil Elsa Schneider have at last found the Holy Grail -- a vaselike object they have gone through all sorts of difficulty to find. But no sooner does Elsa hold the Grail in her hand than an earthquake causes the ground beneath her to tremble and split apart. Suddenly she finds herself dangling dangerously above a deep chasm. All that saves her is Indiana Jones desperately holding on to one of her arms.
The Grail has slipped out of her hand and landed on an outcropping just out of her reach. Elsa stretches her free arm in an effort to retrieve it. Indy warns her that his grip is weakening. "I can't hold you," he says frantically. "Give me your other hand!" Elsa ignores him. Only the Grail has her attention. "I can reach it," she insists. But as she reaches out one more time, she slips from Indy's grasp and falls to her death.
Indiana Jones now knows -- how could he not? -- how dangerous it is to try to reach for the Grail, and yet when, only seconds later, he too finds himself dangling above the abyss, he forgets everything he knows and takes a turn at trying to grab it. This time, it is Indy's father hanging desperately on to one arm while Indy reaches with the other. "I can't hold you," says the elder Jones. "Give me your other hand!""I can reach it," says Indy, He is thinking only of how badly he wantsthat Grail, even though just minutes before he was pleading with the foolish Elsa just as his father now pleads with him. Luckily for Indiana Jones -- and for his fans in the theater -- he comes to his senses before he, too, drops into the deep.
And that is what all of us would like to do -- come to our senses before we have done something disastrous, defeating, depressing, or just plain dumb. Alas, all too often, we drop into some chasm of our own making before we do.
When Your Smarts Desert YouHasn't this happened to you? After the fact --after you have said or done something you regret, or failed to take what now seems to have been an obvious, sensible step, you groan: "How could I have been so dumb?" Or you smack your forehead with your palm in frustration and moan: "I could have done it so easily. Why didn't l?" Or, perhaps, someone close to you says: "I can't understand it. You know better than that."
You hear about famous people who, given their position in life, must be pretty smart, doing incredibly dumb things that ruin a valued relationship, sink a business, cost a bundle, wipe out a chance for an important government office, cancel a lifetime of effort, or simply embarrass that famous someone all over the front page and the evening news. And you wonder: What were they thinking about? What happened to their vaunted brain power?
What happened is unlikely to have a physical explanation. They were not suddenly struck by a lightning bolt or a radiowave from Mars. Psychologists know that some very specific reasons cause smart people to do things they surely would not have done had they made better use of their thinking abilities.
If you review the reasons your smarts deserted you when you needed them, you are likely to say something like: "I wasn't thinking." Or: "I was so discouraged by that time, my brains had turned to mush." Or: "I was so nervous about it, so keyed up, I just blanked out." When we say, after the fact: "I knew better, but..." it usually is because we really do know better. What happened was that we based our action on emotional thinking rather than on logical reasoning -- and got into trouble.
The Power of Thought
The way we think about a situation can literally either make it easier to handle or make it almost impossible to deal with. The way we think about a situation can calm us down or stir us up. It's even true that simply thinking about an experience from a different point of view can affect the way we experience pain. Psychologists have discovered, for example, that soldiers wounded on the battlefield report feeling less pain than civilians who, in the objective view of physicians, have suffered equal wounds.
Why should this be so? In theory, one might assume equal wounds would cause equal pain. The difference lies in the way the two groups think about the wound. To the soldier, the wound might mean: "I'm leaving the battlefield and I'm still alive. Hooray!" From this point of view, the wound is a relief. Not a great thing to have happen, of course but certainly not the worst possibility a battlefield offers. That feeling of relief diminishes pain. From a civilian point of view, however, being wounded raises the possibility of death, rather than an escape from it. The civilian expects continued health, not a sudden need for hospitalization. Therefore, the civilian feels anxiety rather than relief, and anxiety increases pain.
An old story about a man who wants to borrow his neighbor's lawn mower also illustrates just how the way we think can affect our moods. In this story, when Bert, the would-be borrower, leaves his own house, he's confident that his good friend and neighbor, Ed, will be happy to lend him his lawn mower. He is thinking: "Good old Ed. He's such a nice guy." But as he walks down the road, he has second thoughts. "What if he says no?"Ten Dumbest Mistakes Smart People Make and How to Avoid Them. Copyright � by Arthur Freeman. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.