The Danger of Mental Auto-Pilot

Have you ever driven somewhere, arrived at your destination, and realized you can’t remember many things you passed along the way or anything on the radio?  While you are driving safely, you mind can shift into auto-pilot and not actively attend to your surroundings.    This happens most when we are familiar with our route.

The same thing can happen when we listen to the thoughts, opinions, or beliefs of someone we trust.  Trust can shift your brain from critical thinking into auto-pilot.  We also shift into mental auto-pilot when we are highly emotional or filled with fear. It is for that reason that people who wish to deceive you will use inflammatory language to stir up those emotions and disturb your critical thinking ability.

The example below is a humorous example of how we can all let our minds shift into auto-pilot when emotions are high:

A student at Eagle Rock Junior High won first prize at the Greater Idaho Falls Science Fair, April 26. He was attempting to show how conditioned we have become to alarmists practicing junk science and spreading fear of everything in our environment. In his project he urged people to sign a petition demanding strict control or total elimination of the chemical “dihydrogen monoxide.”

And for plenty of good reasons, since:

  1. it can cause excessive sweating and vomiting
  2. it is a major component in acid rain
  3. it can cause severe burns in its gaseous state
  4. accidental inhalation can kill you
  5. it contributes to erosion
  6. it decreases effectiveness of automobile brakes
  7. it has been found in tumors of terminal cancer patients

He asked 50 people if they supported a ban of the chemical.

  • Forty-three (43) said yes,
  • six (6) were undecided,
  • and only one (1) knew that the chemical was water.

The title of his prize winning project was, “How Gullible Are We?”

How do you stop your mind from shifting into auto-pilot?

Editor’s Note: Breanne Harris is the Solutions Architect for Pearson TalentLens.  She works with customers to design selection and development plans that incorporate critical thinking assessments and training.  She has a Master’s degree in Organizational Psychology and has experience in recruiting, training, and HR consulting.  She is the chief blogger for Critical Thinkers and occasionally posts at ThinkWatson.  Connect with her on LinkedIn and Twitter for more of her thoughts.

One response to “The Danger of Mental Auto-Pilot”

  1. Matt Warren

    It never hurts to get another reminder of some common ways we fall victim to shoddy thinking. Though it made the rounds long ago, that ‘dihydrogen monoxide’ thing is wonderful. It’s good to keep it in rotation. :)

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