Our brains guide us and do absolutely amazing things, but they’re also doing things to trick us. Explore this article so you won’t be fooled any longer.
It Makes Us Think We’re Good at Something, When We’re Actually Quite Bad
In an ideal world, we’d know the things we’re skilled in and know the things we actually sort of suck at … so we could avoid doing them. Unfortunately, it’s quite the opposite.
In 1999, two psychologists, David Dunning and his student Justin Kruger, published a paper which showed that people who are really shitty at something tend to think they’re pretty good. Those with the most competence underestimate their abilities, while the rest tend to overestimate. Thus, the worse we are, the more we overestimate them our skills.
The reason behind this is because you need some skill at something to know how good at it you really are. It’s hard to know if you’re awful at something, if you don’t really know what that involves.
Think: American Idol contestants, over zealous karaoke singers, etc.
It Insists We’re Right, Even When We’re Not
Do you know one of those people who have an amazingly difficult time realizing and accepting they’re wrong? Despite evidence and facts they’re shown, they simply accept those as lies.
Well, that’s confirmation bias for you. We tend to discount any evidence if it undermines our current beliefs, leaving us to grasp for anything minor thing that supports our opinion, belief or story.
In this NPR story, psychologist Jonathan Haidt explains how we are really skilled at easily finding justifications for whatever conclusion we wish to reach. “We can spot a supporting justification at 200 meters hiding in a tree.” We will find whatever evidence we need to support our claim, while claiming the other “evidence” is absurd.
Think: Conversations between liberals and conservatives, atheists and religious, hardcore sports fans of opposing teams, etc.
It Makes You Stupid if Jerks Tell You You’re Stupid
Unfortunately there are people who believe the negative stereotypes, such as those about different races and ethnicities, women, blondes, etc. And while it’s best to just ignore these stereotypes, it’s very hard, especially if you fall into one of the stereotyped groups.
Besides the ignorance and rudeness of these claims, the real problem has to do with the phenomenon called “stereotype threat.” If you are reminded of a negative stereotype about your group, you are more likely to conform to it. So instead of taking on the “I’ll show you” attitude and actually succeeding, you are more likely to give them the depiction they already hold and believe to be true.
This article cites several studies showcasing the harmful results of stereotype threat along with ways it can be reduced.
Think: Females performing poorly in math and science due to expectations placed upon them, people of asian descent performing poorly on driving test after reminder of negative stereotype, etc.
It Makes Us Scared of Things That Will (Likely) Never Happen
Millions of people have a serious fear of something, a fear so strong that it actually affects their actions. Such as a serious fear of flying, or rather, having that flight end with a plane crash. Their fear is strong enough to prevent them from flying; however, statistically speaking, you have a chance of being involved in a fatal airline accident once every 19,000 years according to aviation safety statistician Arnold Barnett.
Statistically speaking, you are not going to die in a plane crash, shark attack, terrorist attack, etc. We focus on these vs more likely culprits, such as heart disease, diabetes, and the like. The reason for this is Availability Heuristic, which is a concept that refers to when we are asked how likely it is for something to happen. When answering this question, rather than thinking about statistics, we ask ourselves how easily we can think of an example. It makes sense that dramatic accidents, such as plane crashes, shark attacks and terrorist attacks are going to stick out in your mind, rather than slow, less news worthy events such as dying of diabetes or heart disease.
Think: Those who don’t fly out of fear of crashing, those who avoid the ocean because of sharks, etc.
It Makes Us Find Patterns and Think Things Happen for a Reason vs Chance
We are really good at finding patterns, so good that we can find patterns even if there really isn’t one at all. This is why we see a face in the folds of blankets in the dark, think we hear someone call our name when engulfed in white noise. These types of patterns are also seen in random data; people want to see causes for something rather than accepting it as chance.
This “false positive” (thinking you see something when it isn’t really there) may have been useful for our ancestors; for example, thinking you see a predator in the woods and relocating.
The problem with this is when these “patterns” cause us to make bad decisions, such as gambling and taking great risks. This is due to the belief in the law of small numbers, which is the conviction that we can apply the findings of a small sample size to the wider world.
The book Thinking, Fast and Slow, by Psychologist and winner of the Nobel Prize in Economics Daniel Kahneman is an interesting book that discusses how this concept plays into our decision making and cites several real world examples of this ‘mind trick’ such as decisions made during WWII.
Think: People who live strictly in accordance to their superstition, people who watch sports in ‘lucky’ socks after their team won two games while they were worn, people who see a pattern in lottery numbers and gamble accordingly, etc.
Do any of these stick out to you? The more you’re able to call yourself out on your own bullshit, the better you’ll be overall. Smarter, kinder and more kickass.