7 Things Mentally Tough People Never Do—Based On Science

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Understanding what mentally tough people don’t do is often just as important as understanding what … [+] good habits they cultivate.


I’ve written elsewhere about some of the good habits mentally tough people cultivate. For example, many of them take inspiration from famous quotes that offer advice on addressing immediate and impending, stressful circumstances. Here you can find one such quote for each day of the month—each backed by scientific support for what its sage suggests offers mental strength.

Yet, while my list of mentally tough habits is a short one it’s just as important for us to know what habits mentally strong people avoid. Understanding these can help us eliminate taking wrong turns on our own journeys toward gathering resilience in the face of difficult challenges.

Here then are 7 things mentally tough people never do (or at least try never to do):

  1. They never make important decisions when emotional: There’s a large, scientific literature on how our emotions can mess up our decision-making. The way it works is different for each person and often relates to our personal traumas and past experiences. Nonetheless, the upshot is that emotions can play good-cop/bad-cop on us and we need to know which one’s bluffing. For example, many professional shoppers (take one of my ex-girlfriends, for instance) would insist shopping is an emotional undertaking. If you’re not in love with a given item in the store, she’d say, you’ll never wear it when you get back home. That’s actually a fair assertion. The same can be said for buying a home or even choosing a mate. If you don’t have an emotional affinity for the home you live in or the one you care for, you’ll likely suffer other psychological consequences—even if your decision to “select” them made perfect logical sense at the time. The problem comes when the decision is emotional as opposed to simply involving emotion. That happens when our emotions are charged. In such cases, we don’t process information. For example, we won’t spot something we really hate about a house, a person or a new red sweater until our emotions calm down. Mentally tough people, however, know this, so they try hard to step back from the situation. They allow their emotions recede. They seek control to regain control over them, then weigh them in appropriate proportion. Only then do such people make a decision. In fact, even then, they often advice from someone emotionally distant from the situation.
  2. They don’t ignore the necessity to make a decision. At the same time, mentally strong people don’t hesitate unnecessarily. They realize making a decision is critical and often time-sensitive. By contrast, most of us hesitate when it comes to making big decisions. We exhibit a bias known as the ambiguity effect which leads us to delay our decisions in the hopes of gathering more information. Yet, the problem with this sort of unreasonable delay is two-fold. First, we wait for information that might never come or that might not aid us in making the decision (i.e., information bias). Second, after we realize we won’t get the information we seek, we resort to past experience (often triggered by something that resembles our past experience). This is called anchoring. Thus, if we’re trying decide about taking a new job or attending a given school, we wait on information that cannot realistically appear—such as data that will tell us whether we’ll be happy or successful. Subconsciously, we then start searching for clues that might give us an answer—such as the color of the prospective employer’s office building or the prospective school’s student dormitories. Ultimately, such irrelevant information stirs up bad (or good) memories. Yet, by believing it will determine (in this case) our happiness, we decide for or against the employer or school on a false basis. By contrast, mentally tough people think only about what relevant information they need to make a decision. They also consider whether the information their gut tells them is necessary is actually reasonable to expect.
  3. They don’t draw conclusions without gathering sufficient information. By the same token, mentally tough people recognize situations where they lack enough information to reach any meaningful conclusions. For example, in a discussion with other people, they recognize the point where opinion has crept in and extrapolation has begun. At that point, they pull back: since no useful conclusion can be drawn—what remains is only opinion. Not so with the mentally weak. They often fall for a fallacy of logic known as faulty generalization. Not only do they believe they’ve enough information to draw a conclusion, they bring irrelevant information in to support that faulty conclusion. (With Election time coming up, this could become a nationwide problem.) The problem can only be avoided by questioning whether you have the (bad) habit of drawing a conclusion without sufficient support for the logic leading to it.
  4. They don’t seek information that supports their conclusion. This is a different thing. Mentally tough people look at both the pros and cons of their decisions—not just at a comparison of pros of choices or cons of choices. Unfortunately, most of us fall for this cognitive bias, known as confirmation. It’s even propagated by the scientific method (which seeks evidence in support of rejecting a hypothesis—confirming what we suspect). In other words, in deciding to buy a new car, for example, we build a case for ourselves regarding why we should buy the car. We never take seriously all the reasons we shouldn’t or a comparison of the ‘should’s against the ‘shouldn’ts’. The way mentally strong people get around this bias is by trying suspending judgment in coming to an initial conclusion. Again, they back away and try to move any inclination to go for or against something, then weigh the evidence. It’s tough, but it can be achieved with practice.
  5. They don’t assume others agree (or must agree) with them. Sadly, many of us assume other people agree or must agree with us or we label them ‘stupid’ or biased. This bias, known as naive realism, is pervasive. Not only does it stem from our other thinking errors—like faulty generalization and confirmation—it leads us to believe we live in reality while others, who disagree with us, live in false realities. Indeed, we might be right about something, but that doesn’t mean others are necessarily wrong about the same thing. There could be multiple, alternative explanations. In any case, mentally strong people see this trap and avoid it. They recognize part of surviving a major life challenge involves accepting the validity of others’s experiences. They also avoid taking on any judgmental, cognitive load. Others might cope with the same challenge, for example, in a completely different but equally effective way—owing to their completely different circumstances. Indeed, mentally tough people recognize that if others accepted their ‘way’ as the only way, their doing so might not only be ineffective, but harmful. The mentally strong thus avoid bringing this un-needed stress upon themselves. What works for Bob works for Bob, and that’s it in their minds. I’m Susan.
  6. They don’t assume they cannot be wrong. At the same time, the mentally strong person realizes their “way,” or their thinking, or their coping mechanism, might be inferior to that of others’s. In other words, the mentally strong person is quick to learn and slow to dismiss alternative ways of thinking and doing. Using their capacity to gather sufficient information, weigh the facts fairly, not jump to conclusions and avoid the other pitfalls mentioned above, they realize they can be wrong. This is a feature of intellectual humility, a powerful mental faculty I’ve written about elsewhere that can be instrumental in gathering mental strength in one fail swoop.
  7. They don’t avoid change or hesitate to change. Recognizing the possibility of being wrong, the mentally strong person doesn’t hesitate to put change into action. The typical circumstances are easy to imagine. Given a stressful or challenging situation, the mental warrior realizes that past ways of dealing with a situation were not effective. He or she then recalls advice they initially resisted—such as literally doing the opposite of catering to their own desires, like responding in an argument, etc. The mentally tough person is not afraid to implement the new strategy (e.g., by using silence, changing the subject, etc.) And he or she even takes note of the new strategy’s effects. If it works, they see it through. If it doesn’t, they keep searching for better solutions. The important point is that they are not averse to adopting something new as long as it works.

The importance of understanding how to avoid pitfalls of mental strength and resilience cannot be understated. Indeed, very often our mental toughness is most needed when others rely upon us—that is, when the stakes are highest. In such cases, it’s easy to stumble because of the added feelings of duty and responsibility. That’s precisely when understanding the pitfalls of mental strength can help. They act as guideposts for those times when our thinking might be treading the wrong path.

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