A big part of Living SMART 365 is staying conscious, awake and aware. In fact, most of us like to believe that’s what we do most of the time. But after reading the book, “Thinking Fast & Slow” by Daniel Kahneman, I’ve discovered that I am seldom as awake and aware as I think I am. In fact, far too often I frame most of my decisions like a lot of you—in the easiest and most comfortable ways possible. Fortunately, now that I have a better understanding of how human thinking and decision-making works, I can be more awake and conscious about some of the most routine illusions that befall us all.
Okay, so what are some of the biggest mental illusions that all of us fall victim to, and how do they affect our individual realities? The biggest by far is that our minds strive to achieve coherence and understanding no matter what we face. In other words, we can (and do) rationalize and justify just about anything we want if it suits the story of meaning we have accepted. Plus, because our minds labor towards “sense-making” at every waking second, we frequently see the world as more tidy, simple, predictable and coherent than it often is. More times than not, we believe just about anything to avoid uncertainty or confusion. We constantly make judgments quickly, stereotype, and jump to conclusions without even being aware we are doing the jumping. Even worse, we don’t like to be wrong, and we’ll avoid winning in order not to lose. While some of these mental processes are certainly valuable and save a lot of time, we error if we use with them without awareness. And guess what? Like it or not, we think in these ways much of the time.
Here are 7 mental illusions to watch out for on a daily basis:
1) The halo effect. When you think someone is attractive—or like and agree with what they say, you will automatically give them more credibility than otherwise. You will believe most of what they say and overlook things (like the truth!) or ignore anyone that disagrees with them. While there is no question that we all do this, we usually just do it without awareness. The opposite is also true. If you don’t like the way someone looks or you don’t like them for any reason whatsoever—you’ll distrust what they say and be suspicious–regardless of whether they are telling the truth or not. Remember, we ALL do this ALL the time.
2) WYSIATI—What you see is all there is! Because we want to make sense of our experiences, we don’t even see what doesn’t fit our picture of reality. This is pretty scary when you realize that people who don’t want to believe something—politically, religiously, and educationally—can’t hear or see an opposing view. If you have a hard time grasping a different point of view—that’s probably because you don’t want to! Again, the reach of this illusion is huge and yes, we all do it all the time.
3) The Availability Bias. Because our minds seek coherence and compatibility, we naturally gravitate to ideas, suggestions and meanings that we have heard or believed before. This bias is also strong with whatever attracts your attention including the latest dramatic events on the nightly news, or the most notorious Hollywood scandal. Because these events are so vivid, they stand out and appear bigger and more relevant than do other experiences in your life—and we frequently make choices accordingly.
Studies show that unless we are conscious, we will make choices believing something looks more correct when it is in bold type, when we read it more than once somewhere, or even if we heard it in a commercial. Understand? We just about always are blinded by our natural tendencies toward what we have seen or heard before. Don’t believe me? Do you ever purchase popular name brands even if a better and cheaper one is available?
4) Framing Affects Our Stories. As story-making beings, we tend to put a frame around everything we believe. That frame helps us keep things in context—but it can work against us. For example, advertisers know that if they present certain information one way vs. another they can often motivate us without our knowing about it. The most amazing example of this is the fact that in some countries the rate of organ donation is almost 100%! In other countries, like the U.S., the rate of organ donation is very low. This low rate is attributed to the fact that people must “opt-in” and consciously decide to become organ donors when getting their driver’s licenses. In other countries where participation is nearly 100%, they are required instead to consciously “opt-out” or they are automatically enrolled. Because people nearly always take the easy route, and retailers and others know that about us, they frame the process in a way that gives them what they want—and most of us comply.
5) The Illusion of Understanding. We are drawn to stories that are simple to understand, and concrete rather than abstract. And because we like to make sense of everything—our view of the past is frequently just a story we have created to understand what happened within our worldview. This “hindsight bias” goes so far that it actually makes it very difficult for us to even recall what we used to believe before we changed our mind. Plus, as Kahaneman explained, “the illusion that we understand the past fosters overconfidence in our ability to predict the future.”
6) The illusion of validity and skill. Because so many of these mental biases work together to create our understanding and beliefs, it is difficult to unravel why we actually believe what we do. In fact, in our desire to maintain coherence we tend to overestimate skill (and ignore concrete evidence) if it fits within the stories we have created. For example, we so want to believe that professionals know what they are doing, and are working for our benefit, that we often ignore choices that should never ever be turned over to others—like our health, finances and relationships.
7) The Optimistic Bias. This is a bias I never thought I would want to watch out for—but it is rampant in our culture and important to know. This bias says that we tend to overestimate our chances at success and underestimate our chances at failure. A large part of our estimations come from our desire to believe that when we are in charge we know enough to be in control. Why do people go into a business with no chance to succeed? Why do most teenagers believe they are going to grow up to be the next superstar? Why do criminals think they will never get caught? This bias along with the illusion of skill tends to make us ignore anything that stands in the way of our desires. Of course, I’m not giving up this bias altogether—but I do want to be aware of it before making any important decision.
Believe it or not, these aren’t all the illusions and biases described in this book, just the ones I think are the most important to remember. As a person who believes that our lives and experiences are created as a result of our consciousness, this information is vital. That’s because if we do “get to make it up”, then knowing what we are using to create our worldview can definitely impact the outcome. More than anything, this book reminds me that it is challenging to stay conscious, awake and aware, and that real thinking requires effort. While not everyone is ready to take on that challenge, the quality of our life depends on it.
“Illusions commend themselves to us because they save us pain and allow us to enjoy pleasure instead. We must therefore accept it without complaint when they sometimes collide with a bit of reality against which they are dashed to pieces.” ~Sigmund Freud
“The first man to see an illusion by which men have flourished for centuries surely stands in a lonely place” ~Gary Zukav
Very insightful Kathy. I may want to read that book myself.
Gary Lange says
A perfect article for my Social Psychology class. Very succinct and embarassingly accurate!
Deb Gordon says
Thanks Kathy! This is an awesome article with excellent information! Thanks for putting it together!
Kathy Gottberg says
Thank you Deb! Glad you liked it…