How Our Brains Get Things Wrong

If you’re in the mood for a dose of insight about people, one hot spot is Wikipedia’s entry on List of Cognitive Biases. It describes more than 150 ways in which our thinking systematically deviates from objective observation and rational thinking about people or situations. It’s a humbling list, a reminder that the evolution of our brains has left us with some thought processes that, though useful in certain situations, don’t make it easy to see the world as it is.

Here’s a sampling. Quotations are from Wikipedia.

False Consensus Effect: “The tendency for people to overestimate the degree to which others agree with them.” I’m sure you’d concur that this is true.

Gambler’s Fallacy: “I’ve flipped heads with this coin five times consecutively, so the chance of tails coming out on the sixth flip is much greater than heads.” No, it’s not. The odds are 50-50 for every flip, regardless of the length of any previous sequence that produced one result. Applicable to apparent batting slumps and other streaks of good or bad luck or performance.



Actor-Observer Bias: If you cut me off in traffic, you’re a jerk. I blame you and your rotten personality. But if on the other hand I cut you off in traffic, I had good reasons for doing so and my character is not an issue. In other words, we’re not very perceptive about our own characteristics and motivations—or those of other people. We are, from our evolutionary past, quick to identify whatever might be a threat, but these and other attribution errors create plenty of misunderstandings and conflict.

Illusion of Truth Effect: “A person is more likely to believe a familiar statement than an unfamiliar one.” Perhaps this has been a safety measure in many situations.

IKEA Effect: “The tendency for people to place a disproportionately high value on objects that they partially assembled themselves, such as furniture from IKEA, regardless of the quality of the end result.” And maybe true for what we write as well.

Reminiscence Bump: “The recalling of more personal events from adolescence and early adulthood than personal events from other lifetime periods.” Perhaps the vivid imprinting of our first mistakes and successes has helped us survive. In general, our memories are biased towards thinking highly of ourselves.

Illusion of Transparency: “People overestimate others’ ability to know them, and they also overestimate their ability to know others.” Perhaps such overestimating gives us confidence about forming social bonds; if we were realistic about how difficult it is for one person to know another, we would be less likely to take the risk.

These and many other biases have either served us in the distant past or result from the brain’s limited processing capacity. Since they won’t go away anytime soon, we’ll just have to compensate for them as best we can.




Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s