Turn the Magpie Tendency to Your Advantage

By default your brain spends every day gathering evidence in support of negative thoughts you have. But you don't have to keep the default setting.

Our brains present us with a very selective view of the world. They look out for and collect evidence to support the thoughts we already have, and they ignore the rest. And because human brains have a negativity bias, they are mostly busy gathering evidence that things suck, which creates more negative thoughts, which our brains then confirm by finding more negative evidence. And on and on.

I think of this as our brain’s magpie tendency. For centuries, conventional wisdom held that magpies were attracted to shiny objects and would steal them and take them back to their nests.

Apparently this isn’t really true, but I love the metaphor because of how indifferent the birds would presumably be to the normal function of an object. Like a bird doesn’t steal a teaspoon because it needs some silverware. It just sees the spoon and is like, “Oooh, shiny”.

I think our brains are kind of like that with evidence-gathering. They’re more concerned with amassing evidence than whether it’s evidence for a thought that’s actually useful to us. This is a crucial fact, because it means there’s a simple and powerful way to turn this magpie tendency to your advantage. Basically, you send your brain looking for evidence in support of a thought that you want to believe.

It sounds absurdly basic, but doing this has legit changed my my life. For years, I believed that I was unusually isolated, due to moving away from friends and family, living in a city where people are incredibly spread out, etc. To be clear: I didn't think this was a thought I had--it was a reality I lived in. Then my coach at the time challenged me to find evidence for the OPPOSITE reading of my life. What if I was actually loved and connected? Every day for three months I wrote down three pieces of evidence from my day that I was loved and connected.

By the end of that time, I had completely transformed my experience of my life without anything else changing. I started to see all the ways in which I was deeply connected to people all over, not just friends and family but colleagues and students and on and on.

It was like I had taken off a pair of glasses that colored the world with isolation and disconnection and put on a pair that lit up all these rich connections and forms of love. And, not surprisingly, the more I had this thought, the more open I was to other people, which meant I reinforced the thought and created more evidence. Incredibly, I've continued to feel this way through an entire year of being more or less alone in my flat.

Here’s how to get started

You can do this really successfully yourself, as I did with my connection evidence, but it can also be useful/fun to do it with more than one person, basically for the same reasons having an exercise buddy can help.

  1. Pick something that is bothering you about yourself or life, then formulate it as a thought. So if you've got a list of complaints about your job, your general negative thought about it might be 'My job sucks'. Then look for a positive thought you could potentially believe that describes the opposite. So in this case, it might be 'There are things to like about my job'. Other positive thought examples: ‘Exercise isn’t hard’ or ‘I can save money’ or something about a specific person ('Mom loves me,' 'My boss does not hate me,' etc.).

  2. Each day for 30 days, find one to three pieces of evidence in support of this thought. So for 'There are things to like about my job,' you might list things like, ‘it is not as far away from my house as my last job, there are smart people on my team, I have an amusing coworker' etc.

  3. Write down the evidence you’ve found each day somewhere, like your notes app or a journal etc. If you’re doing this with other people, a group chat works well as a place to share your daily lists—and you often get a lot out of seeing other people’s lists as well.

A few other suggestions:

For some thoughts, it makes sense to focus on finding evidence from each day, like I did for my connection project. For others a more general approach works better. When a friend decided to do this challenge for the thought ‘Exercise isn’t hard’, example, she didn’t look for evidence from her own daily actions because she wasn’t exercising yet. So she looked for any evidence she could from the world around her, like ‘I loved skiing when I was a kid’ or ‘My son loves to run on the playground’ or whatever.

You’ll be amazed at how ingenious your brain will get at finding evidence for the new thought once you actually make it clear that this is the task at hand. Plus the same snowball effect you get with negative thoughts starts to work to your advantage. The more you reinforce the thought, the more evidence for it you'll find. Soon that new perspective will start to shape your actions, which means you'll create more evidence, and on and on.

Any questions, drop them in the comments! And let me know how it goes.