How can you be sure if what you’re thinking is really true?
It’s uncomfortable to think that our brains might be making us believe in things that are false. And yet, everybody is susceptible to these fundamental psychological flaws.
Your judgement, your decisions, and even your memory are all swayed by these factors.
Modern psychological research tells us that if you can be certain about something, it’s that our thoughts and memories do not accurately reflect reality.
In fact, they’re just an internal representation of the world created by our brains.
And in the creation of our models of the world, our brains are swayed by certain biases and errors that cloud our judgement, distort our memories and make us believe what isn’t true.
In this article, you’ll be introduced to five such biases and how they influence our thoughts. And you’ll also discover how you can prevent these biases from influencing your thoughts and behaviour.
Also known as the “I-knew-it-all-along” effect, this phenomenon tells us that we have a very strong tendency to believe an outcome after learning that it is true.
After we know the outcome of a situation, we often say that it’s predictable. And we might point out all the signs that suggest that the outcome was inevitable.
But when you give ask another group of people to guess the outcome of a situation without telling them the actual result, you’ll find that most people cannot actually predict it.
This is all too common when you hear financial analysts giving reasons as to why a market moves in a certain direction.
When the market dips, they give you all sorts of reasons such as the price of oil or a war that is happening halfway round the world.
They say it with such confidence that it’s almost as if they had predicted the outcome. But ask them to actually predict a future event, you’ll find that they’re suddenly not as accurate as before.
In a study, some psychologists told a group of people that “research has found that separation from your partner actually strengths the relationship”.
(After all, if you see each other too often, you’ll end up getting too used to each other, and you might even get bored of your partner.)
Then they asked that group if they would have expected this outcome to be true.
Unsurprisingly, most of them said yes.
However, when they told a second group a different result that “separation weakens the relationship” and this is also why long-distance relationships are so difficult to maintain.
Most of them also said “yes” when asked if they would have expected that outcome.
Of course, this cannot be the case, because you cannot simultaneously believe in two directly opposite results at the same time.
It’s actually the hindsight bias at work.
When people are told the results of the experiments, they were more likely to believe that the outcome is true. And they even go as far as to (unconsciously) trick their minds into believing it.
Humans have a tendency to think that we know more than we actually do. And this can occur in three different ways.
First, we tend to overestimate how well we are capable of performing a certain task.
Have you ever planned to complete a certain task or project within a certain timeframe, but overshot it big time? You’re not alone.
When you’re planning, we tend to grossly overestimate how efficient we are at completing a certain task. And hence, we’ll usually underestimate (and under allocate) the time needed to complete it.
This happens because we tend to overestimate the amount of control we have over a situation.
In reality, there are many thing that may occur that could cause delays in our projects, and we can’t actually predict or prevent most of them.
We also generally tend to overestimate how fast we can complete the work. This is especially true for complicated tasks, because we cannot account for every single activity in such a project.
Second, we tend to judge our performance as “better than others”, or “better than average”.
This effect is more prominent when we try to estimate our ability to complete simple tasks – the kinds of tasks that we think we can accomplish easily.
We tend to think that good things will happen to us, and bad things are more likely to others. “It won’t happen to me”, or “I won’t be so lucky” we might say.
This has led to the creation of new beliefs such as “the law of attraction”, which says that each time we think a thought, the universe conspires and somehow tries makes that thought a reality.
And the harder we think, the more powerful it become.
However, skeptics such as Robert Todd Carroll have pointed out that there has been no scientific basis to explain that the law of attraction actually works.
Instead, psychological effects such as the placebo and nocebo effects, and confirmation biases offer a much more rational explanation.
In short, we tend to find what we’re searching for.
If we’re looking for a problem, we’ll find a problem. And if we’re looking for supernatural things, we might associate perfectly normal events to supernatural phenomenon.
Our brains constantly delete, distort and generalize information that we take from the world.
For example, if you have an impression that a colleague is a nasty human being, you might tend to focus more on the times when he is displaying nasty behaviour. And you might even selectively delete the times when he is displaying positive traits.
If we’re not careful, we’ll tend to notice only information that is consistent with our beliefs.
This is why you can have a deeply religious person looking at their religious text and perceiving it as the absolute truth.
And you can have an atheist look at the same piece of information, and perceive it to be irrational and illogical.
The religious person has a belief that his religion is true, and thus, he will tend to selectively absorb the information that is coherent with his belief.
And the atheist, who doesn’t believe in religion, would tend to selectively absorb information that proves that religion doesn’t exist (such as logical fallacies in the text).
Another form of confirmation bias is how we interpret information.
While two persons can receive the same information, they can interpret it in starkly different ways.
A group of researchers at Stanford University allowed some participants who felt very strongly about capital punishment to read an article about the topic.
They found that when participants whose beliefs were congruent to the beliefs of the writer, they generally describe it in a positive light.
But when the other group of participants (whose beliefs conflicted with the article) read the exact same article, they were quick to find fault with it.
Some even commented that “the research didn’t cover a long enough period of time”, or that “no strong evidence to contradict the researchers were presented”.
Finding Patterns in Random Events
In 1947, the renowned psychologist B. F. Skinner published a study about the behaviour of a group of pigeons and how it relates to superstition.
In the experiment, he placed a pigeon in a box (which he calls it the Skinner box). And he will drop some food into the food bowl at random intervals.
It’s important to note that the food were dropped at completely random intervals (the pigeons could sleep or even fly away, and food will still continue to be dropped).
Skinner wanted to find out how the pigeons would react to it.
Very soon, he observed that the pigeons were displaying some very bizarre behaviour.
Some of them started walking around in circles, some were facing the corner, and some moved their heads in very weird and unnatural ways.
Through this experiment, Skinner actually created superstitious behaviour in the pigeons.
Even though the food were dropped at random intervals, the pigeons were somehow able to associate the food to their own actions.
The same behaviour is also observed in humans.
Our brains constantly make patterns from events that are occurring around us. And most of the time, this is a good thing because it actually makes life more convenient and less dangerous.
Imagine if you needed to walk up to a lion every time to test if it’s going to eat you. And imagine if you had to touch a hot stove to see if it’s going to burn your hand.
But this very same mechanism also causes us to adopt some very superstitious beliefs, such as how your birthdate will somehow have a higher chance to open on tonight’s 4D, or that breaking a mirror means bad luck.
In 1985, former United States Marine Kirk Bloodsworth was convicted of sexual assault, rape, and murder of a nine-year old girl when five eyewitnesses positively identified him as the culprit.
He was sentenced to death row.
But nine years later, DNA testing proved him to be innocent. The real culprit was actually another guy who was in prison because he was caught for another crime.
Kirk Bloodsworth was wrongly convicted and he had to spend 9 years in prison (and almost sent to the death row) for a crime he did not commit.
And this also brings us to another interesting point.
How can five eyewitnesses be so wrong?
When you think about how your memory works, many people have the impression that it’s like a video recorder.
You press the “record” button when you’re experiencing a particular event, and you can press the playback button to relive the memory any time you want after that.
However, our memories isn’t a video recorder, and you cannot actually playback any of your memories like how you would with a DVD.
In fact, every time you remember something, you’re actually forming a new memory of what’s happening. And that new memory, which would be slightly altered, overwrites the old memory.
And in time, that new memory could be markedly different from the actual event that occurred. But you would take that memory to be true, because after all, it’s what you remembered.
How to Protect Yourself Against These Errors and Biases
The best way to defend yourself against these errors and biases is to be aware of its existence.
Most people would like to think that they’re not as susceptible to these psychological “flaws”, but in reality, everybody falls for these biases.
So how do you prevent yourself from falling prey to these biases (or at least minimize its effects)?
The key is to be mindful and very aware about your thoughts.
Each time you find yourself overestimating your abilities or forming a belief based on something based on random events, remember that what you think might not actually be true.