We tend to see our brains as steel traps, diligently capturing information and storing it away for later use. But often this is not the case, and what's worse, sometimes your brain lies to you! Here are five examples of the little tricks our brains play on us almost every day.
Confirmation bias is defined as the tendency to search for and favour information that confirms a belief that you already hold.
Broadly, this can affect you in two ways.
The first affects you when searching for information on a subject. You will most likely remember the information that agrees with your beliefs and are more likely to dismiss or not remember any evidence to the contrary.
The second is interpreting ambiguous evidence to agree with your beliefs. If you are provided with raw statistics and data, you will draw inferences from it to support your argument and disparage an opposing argument.
Recently, the world has been divided on so many contentious issues, and data and statistics are more readily available than ever before in human history. It is important to understand the biases that affect your information acquisition, retention and interpretation.
One of the key things to remember when gathering data and information on a subject is to recognise that a lot of the information put out there has an ulterior motive. News sites and opinion blogs have a vested interest in telling you what you already know, as the more views they receive, the more advertising revenue they generate. It is also important to not avoid the antithetical. Don’t skim read or skip information that disagrees with you, read additional articles, and try and understand the implications and validity of what “the other side” are saying.
We tend to over evaluate our input in successes and ignore external factors that may have contributed to it.
When we succeed we tend to see ourselves as integral to the success and when we fail, we blame the world and the extenuating factors for the failure. This elevated self esteem serves an important purpose in maintaining confidence and aspirations but can also hurt our ability to grow as a person. By never accepting personal fault, we don’t develop skills in areas that we are potentially weak in and may leave ourselves open to more failure in the future.
By carefully evaluating all the factors that contribute to our successes and failures. Don’t completely reverse this thought process and blame yourself for everything that goes wrong though. Just make sure to consider what external factors contributed to the outcome, how what you did contributed to the outcome and whether there is anything you can improve on, whether it was a success or a failure.
We tend to believe the world is fair and that people who are struggling or going through a hard time did something to deserve it, and that those who are succeeding got there through hard work and clever thinking, when often this is not the case.
This bias is basically so prevalent because it is attractive to believe in. We want to believe we live in a world where good prospers and evil falters, so we believe that’s the way it is. We don’t want to look at homelessness and drug addiction as something that can affect us, because “we wouldn’t make the choices that lead to that happening”. We also want to believe that if we work really hard and put blood sweat and tears into an endeavour it will pay off. But the truth of the matter is that often circumstances are out of our control and things like genetics and economical factors can lead us down paths that we don’t choose to go down, or can benefit us greatly in a way that we didn’t earn.
Highlight the things you can control and try your hardest to succeed in those areas. Also, be empathetic to people going through a rough time. Don’t write them off and ascribe a personal failing to why there are in the situation they are in. Try and work out the factors that lead them to that situation, and understand the struggle they are in.
The less you know about something, the better you assume you are at it. This is similar to the self serving bias, but is more focused towards particular tasks.
Why is it that in the comments section of a Youtube video or Facebook post, arguments very rarely include someone with actual credentials in the thing they are arguing about? Because of the Dunning Kruger effect. When you know very little about a subject or task, you cannot see the complexity and nuances that it entails, and assume that it is relatively simple. Anyone who has started a new sport or skill-based hobby can attest to this. As you grow and develop skills in a particular area, you can see what needs work and where you are weak. A novice lacks this perspective.
By trying to appreciate that things aren’t as simple as they look. Try and look into a subject before commenting or attempting to berate someone else in a debate. Consider the constituent parts that make someone an expert in that task or field and whether you possess those skills and abilities.
We don’t separate who a person is and what they are saying, and it can lead to us ignoring people or trusting people based purely on their past behaviour.
This pops up all the time in politics and matters of criminal allegations. Lawyers and politicians will constantly bring up the defendant or their opponents past in an attempt to convince the public that they are capable of horrible acts or are woefully incompetent.
Placing a label on someone is dangerous, as it means people can discredit all of their work or opinions. However, just because of who someone is, you cannot infer anything about their truthfulness or knowledge.
You shouldn’t completely ignore a persons past or characteristics and just trust everyone. What you should do is consider the evidence they are putting forth rather than their personal attributes. Try and listen to what people are saying regardless of the labels that have been placed on them, and evaluate the evidence that they produce to weigh up whether their argument has validity.
Hopefully by recognising these biases in your day to day life (I fall victim to these all of the time, as does everyone) you will be able to combat them better, and become more impartial and logical when it comes to contentious issues. This blog post was inspired by the book You Are Not So Smart by David McRaney which I highly recommend, it delves into these subjects and multiple more biases we fall victim to.