Get ready to have your mind blown.
Here are some of these mistakes in thinking that we subconsciously make all the time. Obviously, none of them are huge, life-threatening mistakes, but they are really surprising and avoiding them could help us to make more rational, sensible decisions.
Especially as we strive for continued self-improvement if we look at our values, being aware of the mistakes we naturally have in our thinking can make a big difference in avoiding them. Unfortunately, most of these occur subconsciously, so it will also take time and effort to avoid them—if you even want to.
Regardless, I think it’s fascinating to learn more about how we think and make decisions every day, so let’s take a look at some of these thinking habits we didn’t know we had.
1. We surround ourselves with information that matches our beliefs
We tend to like people who think like us. If we agree with someone’s beliefs, we’re more likely to be friends with them. While this makes sense, it means that we subconsciously begin to ignore or dismiss anything that threatens our world views, since we surround ourselves with people and information that confirm what we already think.
This is called confirmation bias. If you’ve ever heard of the frequency illusion, this is very similar. The frequency illusion occurs when you buy a new car, and suddenly you see the same car everywhere. Or when a pregnant woman suddenly notices other pregnant women all over the place. It’s a passive experience, where our brains seek out information that’s related to us, but we believe there’s been an actual increase in the frequency of those occurrences.
It’s similar to how improving our body language can actually also change who we are as people.
Confirmation bias is a more active form of the same experience. It happens when we proactively seek out information that confirms our existing beliefs.
Not only do we do this with the information we take in, but we approach our memories this way, as well. In an experiment in 1979 at the University of Minnesota, participants read a story about a women called Jane who acted extroverted in some situations and introverted in others. When the participants returned a few days later, they were divided into two groups. One group was asked if Jane would be suited to a job as a librarian, the other group were asked about her having a job as a real-estate agent. The librarian group remembered Jane as being introverted and later said that she would not be suited to a real-estate job. The real-estate group did the exact opposite: they remembered Jane as extroverted, said she would be suited to a real-estate job and when they were later asked if she would make a good librarian, they said no.
In 2009, a study at Ohio State showed that we will spend 36 percent more time reading an essay if it aligns with our opinions.
Whenever your opinions or beliefs are so intertwined with your self-image you couldn’t pull them away without damaging your core concepts of self, you avoid situations which may cause harm to those beliefs. – David McRaney
This trailer for David McRaney’s book, You are Now Less Dumb, explains this concept really well with a story about how people used to think geese grew on trees (seriously), and how challenging our beliefs on a regular basis is the only way to avoid getting caught up in the confirmation bias:
2. We believe in the “swimmer’s body” illusion
This has to be one of my favorite thinking mistakes I came across. In Rolf Dobelli’s book, The Art of Thinking Clearly, he explains how our ideas about talent and extensive training are well off-track:
Professional swimmers don’t have perfect bodies because they train extensively. Rather, they are good swimmers because of their physiques. How their bodies are designed is a factor for selection and not the result of their activities.
The “swimmer’s body illusion” occurs when we confuse selection factors with results. Another good example is top performing universities: are they actually the best schools, or do they choose the best students, who do well regardless of the school’s influence? Our mind often plays tricks on us and that is one of the key ones to be aware of.
What really jumped out at me when researching this section was this particular line from Dobelli’s book:
Without this illusion, half of advertising campaigns would not work.
It makes perfect sense, when you think about it. If we believed that we were predisposed to be good at certain things (or not), we wouldn’t buy into ad campaigns that promised to improve our skills in areas where it’s unlikely we’ll ever excel.
This is similar to the skill of learning to say no, or how our creativity actually works: Both diverge strongly to what we think is true, versus what actions will actually help us get the result we want.
3. We worry about things we’ve already lost
No matter how much I pay attention to the sunk cost fallacy, I still naturally gravitate towards it.
The term sunk cost refers to any cost (not just monetary, but also time and effort) that has been paid already and cannot be recovered. So, a payment of time or money that’s gone forever, basically.
The reason we can’t ignore the cost, even though it’s already been paid, is that we wired to feel loss far more strongly than gain. Psychologist Daniel Kahneman explains this in his book, Thinking Fast and Slow:
Organisms that placed more urgency on avoiding threats than they did on maximizing opportunities were more likely to pass on their genes. So, over time, the prospect of losses has become a more powerful motivator on your behavior than the promise of gains.
The sunk cost fallacy plays on this tendency of ours to emphasize loss over gain. This research study is a great example of how it works:
Hal Arkes and Catehrine Blumer created an experiment in 1985 which demonstrated your tendency to go fuzzy when sunk costs come along. They asked subjects to assume they had spent $100 on a ticket for a ski trip in Michigan, but soon after found a better ski trip in Wisconsin for $50 and bought a ticket for this trip too. They then asked the people in the study to imagine they learned the two trips overlapped and the tickets couldn’t be refunded or resold. Which one do you think they chose, the $100 good vacation, or the $50 great one?
Over half of the people in the study went with the more expensive trip. It may not have promised to be as fun, but the loss seemed greater.
So, just like the other mistakes I’ve explained in this post, the sunk cost fallacy leads us to miss or ignore the logical facts presented to us, and instead make irrational decisions based on our emotions—without even realizing we’re doing so:
The fallacy prevents you from realizing the best choice is to do whatever promises the better experience in the future, not which negates the feeling of loss in the past.
Being such a subconscious reaction, it’s hard to avoid this one. Our best bet is to try to separate the current facts we have from anything that happened in the past. For instance, if you buy a movie ticket only to realize the movie is terrible, you could either:
a) stay and watch the movie, to “get your money’s worth” since you’ve already paid for the ticket (sunk cost fallacy)
b) leave the cinema and use that time to do something you’ll actually enjoy.
The thing to remember is this: you can’t get that investment back. It’s gone. Don’t let it cloud your judgement in whatever decision you’re making in this moment—let it remain in the past.
4. We incorrectly predict odds
Imagine you’re playing Heads or Tails with a friend. You flip a coin, over and over, each time guessing whether it will turn up heads or tails. You have a 50/50 chance of being right each time.
Now suppose you’ve flipped the coin five times already and it’s turned up heads every time. Surely, surely, the next one will be tails, right? The chances of it being tails must be higher now, right?
Well, no. The chances of tails turning up are 50/50. Every time. Even if you turned up heads the last twenty times. The odds don’t change.
The gambler’s fallacy is a glitch in our thinking—once again, we’re proven to be illogical creatures. The problem occurs when we place too much weight on past events and confuse our memory with how the world actually works, believing that they will have an effect on future outcomes (or, in the case of Heads or Tails, any weight, since past events make absolutely no difference to the odds).
Unfortunately, gambling addictions in particular are also affected by a similar mistake in thinking—the positive expectation bias. This is when we mistakenly think that eventually, our luck has to change for the better. Somehow, we find it impossible to accept bad results and give up—we often insist on keeping at it until we get positive results, regardless of what the odds of that happening actually are.