The human mind is wonderful and powerful, but it’s far from perfect. There are several common judgment errors that it’s prone to making. In the field of Psychology these are known as cognitive biases, or fallacies in reasoning. They happen to everyone regardless of age, sex, education or intelligence.
Over the past few months I’ve become fascinated by these biases and fallacies, so I’ve read several books about them. Today I want to share ten of them with you. They are the ones I repeatedly notice myself and those closest to me struggling with. My hope is that you will use the information in this article to pinpoint these destructive patterns in your own thinking, and break free from them before they send you spiraling down the wrong path.
- Negative self-fulfilling prophecies. – A self-fulfilling prophecy is a prediction that motivates a person to take actions that cause the prediction to come true. This kind of thinking often tears relationships apart and causes people to fail at their goals. Here are two typical examples: 1.) A man believes that his relationship with his new girlfriend is “never going to last.” So he stops putting effort into the relationship, pulls away emotionally, and a month later the relationship fails. 2.) An intelligent undergraduate in the field of health convinces herself that she “doesn’t have what it takes” to become a doctor, so she therefore never completes the prerequisites for medical school, and thus never becomes a doctor.
- Only taking credit for positive outcomes. – This destructive thinking pattern occurs when we take full credit for our successes, but deny responsibility for our failures. A perfect example of this can be witnessed in school classrooms across the globe. When students receive a good grade, they often attribute it to their intelligence and their excellent study habits. But when they get a bad grade, they attribute some of their failure to a bad teacher, an unfair set of test questions, or a subject matter that “isn’t needed in the real world anyway.” The bottom line is that in order for a person to grow emotionally, they must be willing to take full responsibility for all of their actions and outcomes – successes and failures alike.
- Believing we are immune to temptation. – We have far less control over our impulsive desires than we often believe. Sex, food, and drug addictions are extreme examples of this. Many addicts believe they can quit anytime they want, but in reality they are simply lying to themselves. But you don’t have to be an addict to be vulnerable to temptation. Lots of smart people end up impulsively giving in to temptation simply because it’s the easiest way to get rid of it. It sounds ridiculous, but it’s true. If someone wants to get rid of sexual desire, the easiest way is to have sex. If someone wants to get rid of hunger pain, the easiest way is to eat. Restraining from impulsive behavior in the face of temptation is not easy; it takes a great deal of self-control. So be careful, because when we have an inflated sense of control over our impulses, we tend to overexpose ourselves to temptation, which in turn promotes the impulsive behavior we want to avoid.
- Passing a broad judgment from an isolated incident. – An inaccurate first impression is a decent example of this one. It’s about our natural human tendency to evaluate a person or situation from a bird’s eye view, and then presume to know enough to pass a reasonable judgment. This happens a lot in the corporate working world. A newer employee might show up late to work after experiencing legitimate car trouble, but their boss immediately becomes suspicious that they are not committed and responsible, and treats them as such for several weeks thereafter. The obvious solution here is to look at the big picture before you start pointing fingers or making assumptions.
- Believing we can control the uncontrollable. – This thinking fallacy occurs when people begin to believe that they have some kind of direct influence or power over an external event that is completely random. It is especially evident in the minds of amateur gamblers; especially those who have had a recent string of good luck. For example, if you flipped a coin and asked someone to guess heads or tails, and they got it right ten times in a row, they might begin to believe that their good luck is confirmation that they have control over the outcome of each flip. But the truth is that there is always a 50% probability of their answer being correct, and their last ten guesses were pure luck.
- Ignoring information that does not support a belief. – Psychologists commonly refer to this as the confirmation bias. We as human beings naturally tend to look for information that confirms and supports our beliefs, and we tend to overlook information that does not. We are selective in the evidence we choose to collect so that we don’t have to challenge our way of thinking, because it’s easier not to. This destructive thinking trap is very common, and it can have detrimental effects on our productivity when we make big decisions based on false information.
- Beginner’s optimism. – Beginner’s optimism is the human tendency to underestimate the time required to complete an unfamiliar task. It occurs due to a lack of planning and research on behalf of someone who is excited about doing something they have never done before. In other words, when we get assigned a new task that we are anxious to get started on, instead of delaying the start time to accurately evaluate the level of difficulty and resources required, we simply guess and begin. Thus, our expectation of the workload is based on raw optimism instead past experience and reliable data. And it all backfires on us a little later when we find ourselves knee deep in work we were unprepared for.
- Rebelling simply to prove personal freedom. – Although more common in children, this thinking fallacy can affect people of any age. It’s basically a person’s urge to do something they have been told not to do, for fear that their freedom of choice is being taken away from them. This person may not even want to do whatever they are doing to rebel; however, the simple fact that they are not supposed to do it motivates them to do so anyway. The tactic of reverse psychology is a commonly used method of exploiting this thinking fallacy in others.
- Judging a person’s capabilities based solely on the way they look. – This happens thousands of times a day worldwide when one person assumes something about another person based on their immediate appearance. For example, someone might see a tall, well groomed man in his early fifties, wearing a business suit, and instantly assume he is successful and reliable, even though there is zero concrete evidence to support this assumption. Bottom line: You can’t judge a book by its cover.
- Trying to diminish losses by continuing to pursue a previous failure. – Sometimes called the sunk cost fallacy, this is a thinking fault that motivates us to continue to support a previously unsuccessful endeavor. We justify our decision to continue investing in this failed endeavor based on our cumulative prior investment, despite new evidence suggesting that the cost, starting today, of continuing to pursue it outweighs the expected benefit. The logical thing to do would be for us to cut our losses and change our course of action. However, due to the sunk costs we have already invested, we feel committed to the endeavor, so we invest even more time, money and energy into it, hoping that our additional investment will reverse the outcome. But it never will.
If you can relate to some of these destructive thinking faults, and you’re interested in learning more about them, give these books a read. All three are equally incredible:
Photo by: Pejman Parvandi