Imagine one day you’re feeling good about life. On a whim you decide you fancy a new second-hand car. You have no idea what to buy. You wander into a local garage to have a look around.
In one corner of the forecourt you spot a bright red Mini. You’ve never thought of having one before, but you have a test drive and decide you love it. You pay a deposit and agree to pick the car up the following day. What happens when you leave the garage?
Well, what you will often find is that you start seeing lots of red Minis; many more than you saw yesterday. You will also see other coloured Minis and other small cars that are a similar red.
Interestingly, you don’t have to deliberately look for these; they just jump out at you. It would be easy to think that there are suddenly more Red Minis on the road. But clearly there aren’t, so what has happened?
Well, the only way we can make sense of this is that because you have decided to buy the Red Mini, Minis are now more important to you. Before they didn’t mean anything to you and so you didn’t notice them, even though just as many were on the road. Now you’ve given them new meaning you notice every one you see.
We don’t simply notice things because they’re there; we notice things more when they matter to us.
The fact that when we leave the garage we don’t have to deliberately look for Minis tells us something important about our thinking; much of it happens automatically without us being aware of it. This is true for all of us, all the time. Whenever we give meaning to something or make it important we notice it automatically. This reminds us that we are active agents each pursuing what matters to us, our inner lives driven by the meaning we give things and shaped by our aspirations and what we believe is important.
The example of the Red Mini applies to both positive and negative meanings we give things; both to things we like and things we don’t.
For example, what happens if we have a new sensation we can’t make sense of? What happens if we’re concerned or even worried about it?
By giving this sensation new meaning we become automatically tuned into it and so notice it more. Also, just as with the Red Mini, we are more likely to start noticing sensations that seem similar; sensations we have always had but had never been concerned with and never had any reason to notice.
Unfortunately, if we don’t realise how this ordinary psychological process works, we assume what we’re now noticing is evidence we should be worried. We become more and more focused on the sensations. The more concerned we become the more meaning we are giving them. The more meaning we give them, the more tuned in and sensitised we are to them.
This is the ordinary psychology of how we can get drawn into health worries. Until we understand the link between the meaning we give things and what we automatically notice, it is very difficult for us to break out of this vicious circle of thinking.
The Red Mini not only applies to sensations but many other things, anything we decide is important. For example, comments people make about us; our looks; other people’s habits that we see as annoying, etc. Another well known example, known as the cocktail party phenomenon is our ability to hear our name above the din of a busy noisy room.