10 Reasons You Aren’t Who You Think You Are
Ask most people to name the universe’s greatest mystery and they’ll probably answer “Donald Trump’s hair.” But for all that it’s fun to make snide remarks about national laughingstocks, the real answer is something far, far stranger—you. Yes, you. Even though you may think you know yourself completely, the truth is that you’ve been sharing valuable existence-space with a total stranger for decades. A stranger who is more fascinating, more interesting, and more unpleasant than you could possibly imagine.
10You’re Probably In The One Percent
We’ve all heard of the One Percent: the guys who take our bailouts, pay no taxes, and generally act like the sort of supervillains Walt Disney would reject as “too cartoonish.” And here’s the kicker—you’re probably one of them.
See, there’s a couple of ways of looking at the One Percent. The first, most common one, is as the top-earners of developed Western economies—the guys with mega yachts and offshore tax havens. The other is as the top earners of the entire globe. And this is where you come in.
According to the UN, around half the world’s population lives on less than $2 a day. About one-third live on less than $1. Thanks to all these starving people, the entry barrier into the global one percent is actually pretty low. As in $34,000 a year. If you’re American and middle class, you’re almost certainly earning, or will one day earn, that amount. The average McDonald’s store manager earns more. Even if, like me, you can only dream of the dizzying heights of $34,000 a year, it still likely works out that you’re in the top 3–5 percent. In short, you’re not only richer than you think, you’re richer than nearly every other human being in existence.
9You’re Uglier Than You Think
Quick: what score would you give yourself for attractiveness? If you said seven or higher, congratulations! You’re probably lying. But don’t worry, you’re not the only one. According to science, nearly all of us overrate our attractiveness to an almost hilarious degree.
In a famous experiment, a couple of scientists got hold of a bunch of volunteers and took pictures of them. They then modified those pictures to create a sequence ranging from what we’re gonna call “super uglified,” through “normal” and on into “supermodel hot.” The next step was to present the volunteers with these new photos and ask them to pick out the unmodified one. Want to guess how that went?
Almost every time, people picked the “hot” version as the unmodified photo of themselves. But this wasn’t just some sort of general face-blindness; when asked to sort through the photos of other volunteers they’d only briefly met, the subjects tended to pick the “normal” one without hesitation. The depressing conclusion is that we all think we’re either a seven or an eight, when the reality is probably that everyone sees us as a distinctly average five. And while we’re on the subject of averages…
8You’re Significantly More Average Than You Think
Time and again, studies have shown that we all tend to think of ourselves as above average at just about everything. As Scientific American amusingly pointed out, 93 percent of drivers think they’re above average, as do 94 percent of college professors, which you may recognize as statistically impossible. Even in some high-paying, qualification-heavy jobs, people are basically much worse than they think. A recent study found that stock brokers are literally worse at their jobs than random monkeys, yet brokers also tend to believe they’re worth the money. So what’s going on?
Well, T.S. Eliot once wrote “humankind cannot stand very much reality.” And it turns out he was bang on the money. Scientists think that if we didn’t have delusions of superiority then our ego would go into meltdown—with devastating consequences for our mental health. See, the only people who don’t constantly overrate themselves are people with depression. They tend to score way under; giving themselves, say, a three, where most of us would give them a six or seven. This suggests our self-delusion is vital to our well-being. So yeah, maybe forget everything I’ve just said, huh?
7You’re Less Rational Than You Think
Do you care passionately about something? Do the words “gun control” make you want to punch the nearest liberal/conservative? Do you have any political or religious or otherwise deep beliefs? Then you can kiss any illusion of rationality goodbye. According to science, your beliefs have clouded your mind to the point where you literally won’t believe that two and two makes four.
Earlier this year, researchers questioned 1,111 study participants about their political views, then asked them to do some simple mathematical questions. Once they’d gauged the numerical ability of each subject, they gave them one of two fake scientific studies and asked them to draw conclusions from the data. One was about the effectiveness of facial cream, the other was about the effectiveness of gun control. But here’s the kicker: They both used the same fake numbers, pointing toward an inescapable conclusion. Want to guess what happened next?
The self-proclaimed liberals and conservatives given the gun control study literally forgot how to do math. Faced with what appeared to be hard facts that contradicted their deepest beliefs, they subconsciously decided that mathematics must be wrong instead, and engaged in all sorts of hilarious mental contortions to arrive at the answer they wanted. In short, anyone with a strong opinion is almost certainly an illogical, borderline dangerous, charlatan who should never, ever be trusted.
6You Might Be Immortal
After all that mostly bad (and slightly weird) news, here’s one to cheer you up: There’s a possibility that you’re immortal. Seriously, you may very well be the one person who will never, ever die. And, even better, it won’t be long before you find out.
I’m talking about the theory of quantum immortality, a quirk of the quantum universe that might allow you to perpetually cheat death. We’ve all heard of the multiple worlds theory, which posits that every choice we make results in the universe splitting into two parallel universes, one where we ate in Chick-fil-A and one where we retained our self-respect (or whatever). Now for the slightly tricky bit: The quantum world relies on an “observer” who causes all possible outcomes to collapse into one, actual outcome, just by being there. In the case of the myriad possibilities that encompass your sprawling parallel lives, that “observer” may well be you.
If that’s true, it has some bizarre implications. Since you wouldn’t be able to observe a universe where you die (for obvious reasons), you pretty much by default have to observe one where you survive. This means your life will always branch out into a parallel universe where you’re still alive—at least as far as you’re concerned. In the parallel universes of your friends and family, they’ll see you die a trillion times over while they go on to live forever. It sounds insane, and it probably is, but there’s the slightest chance it’s also true.
5You Come From Space
OK, before you think I’ve gone completely mad and started taking requests from David Icke, let me say that I don’t mean you personally come from space. Of course not, that would be silly. What I mean is that every single bit of you comes from out there, right down to the bones in your body.
It’s all thanks to those wonderful things called atoms. Now, atoms are pretty difficult to destroy, so whenever one ends up in something—be it me, you, your tablet, or Newt Gingrich—it’s probably been around for a long time. Really long—longer than America, the human race, or even the Earth has existed. So long that it’s estimated nearly every single atom in you was forged in the heart of a star billions of years ago. And that’s before we get onto stuff like hydrogen atoms, which arose in the immediate aftermath of the Big Bang.
This means every individual fragment of your being has been kicking around for some 13 billion years, swirling round inside a star, being blasted out into space and helping to build the Earth itself. They’ve even been part of geniuses like Shakespeare, with each of us sharing around 200 billion of the Bard’s atoms. In short, even the most fundamental buildings blocks of you have their own strange history of which we know next to nothing.
4You’ll Never Find Happiness
Are you unhappy or discontented, but fairly sure things will pick up in the future? Well, I’ve got some bad news bud: They probably won’t. Unless you’re suffering from depression (and if you are, then in all seriousness, please tell someone; don’t leave it too late), you’re almost certainly as happy now as you will ever be—even if you win the lottery.
In a well-known experiment, researchers analyzed the happiness of people who had won the lottery or had terrible accidents, and compared them against a control group. As might be expected, the lottery winners considered their win a happy event while the accident victims remembered their accident as deeply traumatic. But then things got puzzling. On almost every other criteria not to do directly with their win, the lottery winners ranked as no happier than the control group, and not much happier than the accident victims.
Now, there are several schools of thought about this. One is that we have a base level of happiness we will always return to after a period of time, even if we’ve just married the girl or guy of our dreams and been made a fully licensed bikini inspector. The other is that the things we think will make us happy, and therefore the things we aim for, will usually do anything but. So we might think a lottery win will solve all our problems, but even if we suddenly became rich we still wouldn’t escape our basic family or social problems. The upshot is that you’ll probably never be completely happy, no matter what you do.
3You’re Incapable Of Making Intelligent Choices
We’ve already covered how our brains all turn to mush if we have to make ideological choices, but what about neutral everyday decisions? Like, say, whether to drive to New York or catch a plane? Well, I’ve got some bad news for you. Even something as simple as your travel choice can involve the most illogical of mental gymnastics.
Our brains, unfortunately, are near-incapable of handling probability. Take our car and plane example above. In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, you could board a flight to New York and be literally the only person on board. Everyone else was driving because it seemed safer, even though it objectively wasn’t. According to two separate studies conducted at the time, this mass decision to drive resulted in an additional 1,000 road fatalities in the last months of 2001. By comparison, the number of successful post-9/11 terrorist hijackings currently stands at zero.
But it’s not just following a mass tragedy that our brains go into intelligence shutdown. As Psychology Today has pointed out, we tend to drive faster once we’ve got our seat belts on, and drive closer to cyclists who are wearing helmets, despite demonstrably not living in a world where headgear and seat belts give us magical powers. In fact, nearly every time we make a decision factoring in risk or probability, we manage to do it in the dumbest way possible.
2You’re Destined For Poverty
Unemployment, poverty, and a reliance on welfare are things we tend to only associate with a certain kind of person: “welfare queens” and other sub-humans. But we’re kidding ourselves if we think we’re any different. According to a recent Associated Press report, 80 percent of US adults will fall into one or all of those categories at some point. Yeah, that means you too.
Now, obviously this is a statistical measure, and doesn’t guarantee everyone reading this will fall into poverty. For example, those among you with degrees are far less likely to experience economic hardship than those with only high school education. But the shocking fact is that 79 percent of adults (i.e., most of you reading this) will experience poverty by the time they reach 60. That means food stamps, welfare, unemployment, and panicking over bills. The good news is that it’ll probably last a maximum of a year, unless you’re particularly unlucky. The bad news is you’ll have to spend that year being sneered at by every keyboard warrior on the Internet.
1Your Memories Are Fake
It sounds like a cheap spy thriller: You discover one day that all your memories are fake and the past you have is very different from the one you remember. Only it’s real and it affects every single one of us, including you.
Scientists have known for a long time that memory is essentially unreliable, but finding out exactly how unreliable is weird to say the least. Remember where you were when, say, 9/11 happened? Remember what you did? Well, now get this: You’re probably wrong. In a famous study, students were asked to write down their experience of the exploding Challenger shuttle immediately after it happened. Three years later, they were asked to write down their memories again and then compare the two. Creepily, the two versions almost never matched. One student even went so far as to claim of his original version, “That’s my handwriting, but that’s not what happened.”
So even the brightest memories you have, the ones that really seared themselves into your brain, probably didn’t happen anything like you remember. But at least we haven’t got to the stage where people are implanting false memories in our heads, right? Sorry, wrong again. In 2002, researchers managed to convince a number of subjects that they had flown in a hot air balloon as children, simply by showing them a doctored photo of the “journey.” The subjects created entire fake memories around these photoshopped images that felt just as vivid as the real thing—which raises the awesome possibility that Chris Nolan never actually made Inception, but simply planted the memory of it in every single head on the planet. Mind = blown.