Why We Focus On The Wrong Things

by Steven Hayes PH.D. from PSYCHOLOGY TODAY June 2019

Even when we know better, we act in irrational ways. We worry about problems that will likely never arise, and we care what complete strangers think of us —people we have never met before and will never meet again. We criticize and beat ourselves up over small mistakes, even though we know such condemnation isn’t helpful.  The mind is full of quirks and flaws, and much of what we think and do is not logical. When we look at our evolutionary past, however, things start of make sense.

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Our ancestors lived in small tribes surrounded by the challenges of the environment — dangerous animals lurked nearby and hostile neighbors complete for resources. When people worked together to manage threats and challenges, they were more likely to produce children and pass on their genes to future generations.  But this required sensitivity to signs of danger, something established instinctively as well as through contrition and associative learning.

Identifying signs of danger through association is a primeval strategy for animals, and there’s been plenty of time to perfect it.  Using language to avoid threats — I saw a beast the river, so watch out — is a more recent and uniquely human skill.  We’ve had  a few hundred through years to refine this ability, with might have been enough, but our cognitive abilities keep changing our world at light speed.

We live in a different world than our grandparents did, and that is due to large part to symbolic language and its expansion into verbal problem-solving. That computer in our pocket is only one example. Because of such, our mental skills are now greatly overextending our primitive abilities to detect and respond to danger  With this insight, many of our modern emotional difficulties become clear.

Here are ways we struggle emotionally and why they make sense.


We often struggle with negative fearsome thoughts. We are quick to see danger and assume that the worst is yet to come.  Negative thinking, it seems makes life harder and more difficult than it is.  In our day-to-day lives, we are safer than ever before, but we’ve never felt as threatened— for example by mass shootings and constant insecurity. It is not hard to imagine every stranger we see at night as a violent criminal.

In an evolutionary time frame, however, detecting possible danger was critical to survival for you and your tribe. Suppose you see a fuzzy round shape in the near distance. You can be a positive thinker and assume that it’s just a big rock and go on your way. Or, you can be a negative thinker and assume the worst: It’s a bear waiting to eat you.

If you make a mistake as a negative thinker, it’s no big deal. You get scared, change your route, and that’s about it. If, however, you make a mistake as positive thinking, and the rock turns out to be a bear, you become lunch.  Within limited negative thinking is the better strategy , which is why you and I descend from a long line of negative thinkers and sentinels of danger. 

The problem now is that the vast majority of our “dangers” are cognitively created. We worry about almost everything. If we cannot rein in the part of our minds, and our natural tendency to detect and avoid danger can overwhelm our ability to live life.


We often chew over hurtful memories. We remember when we said something embarrassing or when we felt most vulnerable or hurt.  And even though the incident happened long ago, we still feel the sting of it as if it occurred yesterday.  The mind makes u relive the pain again and again, whether we like it or not.

For our ancestors, rehearsing past dangers likely helped them avoid future peril. Suppose they encountered a danger animal and barely got away. It would be useful to replay the experience in their had and review their brush with death in detail — what they did wrong, or what they could have done differently . It might better prepare them for the next face-to-face meeting with a wild animal. To some degree, rumination likely increased our ancestors chance of survival.

As mental problem-solving took over our minds, we want to ruminate over more and more things: slights, fears about health and abilities, or the possible sources of our struggles. What once may have been helpful has been combined with symbolic know-how to make this process toxic.


We often worry about our reputations. We worry about status and what other people might say about us behind closed doors. and because of this worry, we set up rules for what is and isn’t acceptable behavior.  We invent rules for what we are “supposed” to wear, what we are “supposed” to think and feel.

But in prehistoric times, worrying about reputation was good for survival. Humans are extremely vulnerable on they own, and if our ancestors want to survive, they needed to ensure their position within the group. By recognizing their impact on others, their ability to cooperate — and to survive — increased. Social sensitivity was a benefit.

Today, failing to acquire enough “likes” on social media can make a person feel like an outcast. We police our every behavior, making life smaller and smaller with each additional rule. As we play false to avoid exclusion, we feel false when we are included.


We frequently compare ourselves, and our achievements, to others.  And when we fall short of our expectations, which inevitably happens, we are quick to beat ourselves up.  We see our shortcomings as failures of character and conclude that we are simple not good enough, leaving us feeling hurt and vulnerable.

Four our ancestors what matters most was not whether people felt good about themselves, or whether they outperformed everyone else. What truly mattered was whether they could work together to survive. Some degree of self-comparison was likely an advance. Watch young children play and you will see that the emotional pain of losing is a motivator to close the gap between themselves and others. This has always been so.

Today, self-comparison and self-criticism can reach outlandish lengthens. For one thing, we no longer compare ourselves exclusively to our clan members but to Photoshopped images, the rich and family, and even fictional characters with fantastic life stories. We can imagine that if we are no practically perfect in every way, we are failures. It’s no wonder that feelings of insecurity have been on the rise.


We never seem satisfied with what we have. We are always changing got next big thing, hoping it will give us the fulfillment and happiness we have waited for. Unfortunately, the moment we achieve a goal, our newfound happiness quickly wanted.  The newly acquired car becomes just a car, and we turn our eyes to the nest item.  The uncheck need for more is a recipe for greed and suffering.

In prehistoric times, however, acquiring more things was absolutely essential.  In an unpredictable environment, more food more weapons, and more of any resource could be vital for survival.  The limits on “more” ewer practical and physical; even a clan leader couldn’t count on the availability of essential resources. But in the present day, needing more is kiting the ecosystem we depend on.


Our brains and behavioral predisposition were not developed for the challenges of the 21st century with its steady media diet of frightening events and social comparisons. Why de we do the things we do? The mind is trying to solve an ancient problem of safety and belonging, using mental process that were not designed for the modern world.

We have evolved to think this way, and we can’t change. We will not stop thinking about what might go wrong in the near or distant future. Nor will we be able to consistently resist the urge to ruminate, worry about people’s opineion of us, compare ourselves to others, and yearn for more. We are simple not built that way.

We can learn to change the relationship we have with ourselves.  We can learn to worry and think painful thought without getting caught up in them. Instead of being scared by our inner mental life and letting it dominate our actions, we can recognize it for what it is and refocus on what actually matters. This will take time, patience and practice. (and compassion, kindness and mercy turned inward, a note from Don Elium)

When you find yourself obsessing  over unpleasant thoughts and feelings, take a deep breath and ask how a struggle like this could have helped your distant ancestors. It might bring a greater sense of self-comparison (kindness and mercy). More often than not, you may find that your problem-solving mind is just trying to keep you safe and in the group. It is just the kin of primate you are.

Steven C. Hayes PH.D., a professor of psychology at the University of Nevada is the author of Get Our Of Your Mind and Into Your Life. This is an article from the magazine PSYCHOLOGY TODAY, June 2019.