Why is that? Why do we latch on to stories and statistics on the price of education that confirm a belief that might not be true? Part of the reason is that the story of rising tuition is a convenient narrative: college is expensive and it's just getting pricier, so that's probably the reason you (or your children) will have five figures of student loan debt. You are not to blame: it's those greedy crooks at the university. Never mind that half of parents are not saving anything for their children's education, and as a group we are saving at a lower rate for college in 2014 than we were in 2010. Of course, things are hard now a days, with the economy and all. On top of the university administration, we can also point at the recession. (Of course, the economy is generally better in 2014 than it was in 2010.) But no one ever says, "I would rather have cable television than put $100 a month into my child's college fund." Because, well, that's really terrible and depressing. So we tell ourselves something else. Something better.
These convenient narratives are part of our day-to-day routines. It would be too difficult to get through certain tough situations without them. If my job is soul-crushing but I have no better alternative right now, or I'm in a dead-end relationship but breaking up might be messy and protracted, the reality of my circumstances might be too much to deal with all at once. So I'll tell myself things really aren't so bad, and put a good face on it. Because while I might not be able to remedy the problem today, I still need to get through today. But there are downsides to this sort of mental storytelling.
For instance, I don't like admitting that I'm gaining weight as I get older. I can't keep eating and exercising like I'm 24 when I'm actually 34. It's a hard reality to face, this whole stupid aging thing. Still, I find that when I want buy a pizza after a tough day at work, I'll tell myself that I'm just outsourcing a low-value task (like Tim Ferriss!) and getting a good deal, to boot. Think of all those easy to re-heat leftovers, and the time I'll save in preparing lunches. Plus, I worked hard today, and I can afford to get takeout from time to time. Fast forward a bit, and I'm eating pizza every lunch for a week, and ensuring I'll weigh just a little more when I work up the courage to step on the scale again. When the pizza is gone, another tough day at work comes along like clockwork, and wouldn't it be easier just to order some takeout tonight? Lather, rinse, repeat.
I tell myself this convenient narrative because changing my diet will be hard, and I like eating pizza, and fried chicken, and cheesecake with strawberries, too. These stories I tell myself are a key link in my habit loop. Between my urge to eat delicious carbs, and the moment I shove the warm cheesy goodness into my waiting pie hole, a nagging voice reminds me that I should probably eat a salad. That dumb voice might derail my plans for carby-goodness. Cue Jason Hull's Monkey Brain, who comes up with some convincing narratives off the cuff:
One pizza won't derail your goals. Especially since you're going to hit the gym really hard later in the week, once work slows down. Besides, do you really want to chop up all those veggies and grill a chicken breast? The chicken's still frozen, and it'd be tastier if you marinated it anyway. Just get the pizza today, start to defrost the chicken, and then tomorrow, we'll have the chicken and a really big salad. Honest.The narrative is the velvet handcuff that keeps me chained to my bad eating habit. Of course, I know on some level that I'm just lying to myself. So does the consumer who engages in retail therapy, putting more on his credit card than he can pay off at the end of the month. So does the parent who manages to have a fancy data plan for his cell phone and can swing a monthly payment for a new-ish Honda, but can't seem to find a hundred bucks a month for Junior's college fund. He knows the savings for college is the bigger priority, just like I know a healthy diet is important for my overall health. But change is elusive.
In each case, the convenient narrative tells us that, yes, we understand. Yes, we'll make the hard choices, the right choices. We'll better ourselves and do the right thing. Change will come...just not right now. Later. Tomorrow, even.
So how do we deal with these self-directed stories? Well, you can always try to tell yourself an alternative narrative:
Putting these notes in strategic places, like near your computer if you always order pizza online, is a good tactic. Just be sure to tell your significant other that the note is in no way directed at her, because she's clearly very thin, and beautiful, and yes, attractive, of course.
A better plan might be to simply write down the self-defeating narratives we tell ourselves. There is something powerful about the written word. Our thoughts can be manipulative and convincing in the moment they are first conceived in our noggins, especially in a weak moment. But on paper, we can come back and evaluate them when we're more level headed...and less hungry.
*Photo is from rdpeyton at Flickr Creative Commons.