Book Reviews

Matthew E. May’s, Winning the Brain Game

Winning the Brain Game: Fixing the 7 Fatal Flaws of Thinking

Matthew E. May’s Winning the Brain Game: Fixing the 7 Fatal Flaws of Thinking (McGraw-Hill, 2016) is “a mindful guide … for using our minds to win the games our brains are hardwired to play on us, the patterns of tricks that while effective in handling routine problems and quick-fix situations, become traps when we need to invoke our best thinking.” (p. xii)

May, a former professional facilitator at Toyota’s U.S.-based corporate university, glides over a lot of hard problems in this book. As he confesses up front, he is neither scientist nor scholar. He instead sees himself as having written a repair manual. As repair manuals go, this is quite a decent one.

The seven fatal flaws of thinking, as May sees them, are leaping, fixation, overthinking, satisficing, downgrading, not invented here (NIH), and self-censoring. The deadliest of these (though presumably by virtue of being fatal they’re all deadly) is self-censoring, so it’s the one I’ll focus on here.

Self-censoring is succumbing to our inner critic. We come up with a great idea, we may even think it is great, but we kill it anyway. “Self-Censoring is rooted in a kind of personal fear that can not only silence whatever creative instinct we may have, but also render us mindless: exaggerating, catastrophizing, doomsdaying. Welsh novelist Sarah Waters sums it up quite eloquently: ‘Midway through writing a novel, I have regularly experienced moments of bowel-curdling terror, as I contemplate the drivel on the screen before me and see beyond it, in quick succession, the derisive reviews, the friends’ embarrassment, the failing career, the dwindling income, the repossessed house, the divorce…’” (p. 152)

How do we fix this self-censoring? May recommends self-distancing. Self-distancing involves mindfulness—“a higher-order attention, noticing moment-to-moment changes around you.” (p. 161) And it involves invoking the impartial spectator, first introduced by Adam Smith in The Theory of Moral Sentiment and defined as “the ability to observe our behavior as an objective onlooker does, while remaining fully aware of our thoughts, emotions, and circumstances.” (p. 162)

One “trick” to self-distancing is to address yourself in the third person (presumably without being ridiculed like Bob Dole was). For instance, in one study experimenters gave college students five minutes to prepare to speak in front of judges, without notes. A stress-inducing experiment. “One group was told to use first-person pronouns to work through their stress; for example, ‘I shouldn’t be so nervous,’ and ‘I will be fine.’ The other group was told to use their name or a third-person pronoun; for example, ‘Matt, don’t be nervous,’ or ‘You’ll do great.’” (Actually, a second-person pronoun in this example.) “Not only did the judges find the latter group’s performances to be more confident and persuasive, but the participants themselves reported far less shame and rumination than the first-person group.” (p. 163)

If you’re wondering about the reference to rumination here, the author quotes Pamela Weintraub: “By toggling the way we address the self—first person or third—we flip a switch in the cerebral cortex, the center of thought, and another in the amygdala, the seat of fear, moving closer to or further from our sense of self and all its emotional intensity. Gaining psychological distance enables self-control, allowing us to think clearly, perform competently. The language switch also minimizes rumination, a handmaiden of anxiety and depression after we complete a task. Released from negative thoughts, we gain perspective, focus deeply, and plan for the future.” (pp. 163-64)

Although I doubt that the solution to self-censoring is so simple, self-distancing might well be part of the solution. I suspect that the power of shifting away from the first person comes from our perceived need for external validation. We’ve been programmed from our school days (grades) and work experience (evaluations from colleagues and bosses) to be judged by outsiders. If at some meta-level we become that outsider—an encouraging, validating one, of course—we might short circuit our own self-doubts.

Winning the Brain Game: Fixing the 7 Fatal Flaws of Thinking