You Are Not Rational
The human mind is without any doubt impressive — the brain has been said to surpass the power of any man-made supercomputer. But the human mind, no matter of its brilliance, is most certainly subject to deceit and limitations that each of us experience without realization.
From Descartes to modern thinkers such as the Nobel-prize winning Daniel Kahneman, human irrationality is no news. Kahneman argues that our brain has two separate systems by which it operates — fast and slow. The slow system is logical and conscious. The other system, which will be the subject of this article, is subconscious, emotional and automatic.
The collective name of the limitations of our brain is cognitive bias. Cognitive biases are human tendencies to think in ways that can lead to systematic divergence from rationality and good judgement. They can relate to social communication, self-perception, memory, or estimating probability.
So, what is the point of studying cognitive biases? Why did they gain such a prominent place in contemporary psychology? Is it just because researchers enjoy showing you just how much of an idiot you really are? Although that may be somewhat satisfactory, cognitive biases provide us with a fascinating view of the mechanisms of the human mind. They serve as a window to issues ranging from everyday social interactions, economical behavior, to people’s preferences for a political candidate.
The human mind is subject to weird limitations
The Five Most Interesting Cognitive Biases
- Just-world hypothesis
I am sure you have heard proverbs such as “What goes around comes around” or “You reap what you sow”. These sayings are so common because they reflect a very common belief — that the world is fair and just, and people get what they deserve.
People are inclined to unconsciously assume that when bad things happen to a person, it is because the person must have deserved it due to their previous actions. This cognitive bias may serve as a form of self-protection, as it implies that things that happen to us can be predicted and even prevented if we just “behave right”. Therefore, we may use the belief in a just world to protect ourselves from the angst of the realization that life is, in fact, not fair.
Although this cognitive bias may have a calming effect on people, it nevertheless has dangerous implications, such as the act of victim blaming. One of the first psychologists to notice this phenomenon, Melvin Lerner, was shocked that even his educated and kind colleagues at a mental hospital blamed their patients for their own suffering1. Similarly, we can see this phenomenon in acts of rape (“She always teases men, she had it coming to her!”) or judging the homeless (“They must have been lazy or did drugs, why should I help them? They deserve it!”).
Bad things happen to people because they deserved it
- Confirmation bias
When people form a certain opinion, they are inclined to search for, prefer, and recall information that supports their belief more. Furthermore, people also tend to reject and pay less attention to any information which may discredit their opinion, no matter how convincing this information may be. In essence, people are motivated by wishful thinking — they believe what they want to believe.
The phenomenon is especially strong for issues to which we are emotionally attached. The confirmation bias might be the reason rational argumentation and evidence are of little use during debates about issues with a strong sentimental connotation, such as politics or religion.
Furthermore, the level of an individual tendency to adhere to confirmation bias has been shown to be not connected to intelligence, but to self-esteem. People with high self-esteem have been shown to be more willing to search for information which may discredit their opinion2.
We look for information that confirms our ideas
As the name of this cognitive phenomenon suggests, declinism is the belief that the society, or the general state of affairs is heading towards a decline. For example, two-thirds of Americans believe that the rate of poverty has doubled in the past 20 years. However, in reality, extreme poverty has halved in the past 20 years, with approximately one billion people escaping poverty3.
This negative view of the future occurs due to the cognitive bias referred to as rosy retrospection. People idealize the past and remember it better than it actually was. Generally, people, unless they are suffering from depression, have a tendency to remember positive events from their past more, while forgetting moderately negative events. This mechanism may be in place to protect one’s well being and self-esteem.
Although the phenomenon of rosy retrospection may be healthy for us, declinism has some detrimental consequences. Researchers have in fact found that declinism and rosy retrospection are directly connected to voting for populist parties or individuals. People who believe that our society is taking a downturn often blame the political elite4. Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again!” may sound like a simple slogan, but it is in fact extremely powerful, as it plays on people’s longing for the “good old days”. Capitalizing on people’s irrational fears is often times more effective than presenting them with sound arguments.
We remember the past as better than it actually was
Anchoring refers to the fact that people tend to rely too heavily on the first piece of information which is offered – the “anchor” – when making decisions. Once people establish the anchor, their subsequent decisions will be based upon this value.
Anchoring comes into play in numerous instances, such as in forming stereotypes and marketing decisions. For example, when people meet a person from a certain country, they tend to use his or her behavior as an “anchor” for other people of that nationality. Unfortunately, for most people, this anchor does not shift sufficiently with new instances. Anchoring also plays a role in important decisions, such as in criminal sentencing. It has been observed that when a judge demands a sentence of some length, for example, fifteen months, the witnesses use this as an anchor and do not go far away from the proposed sentence, even if another length would be more reasonable5.
We stick to our anchor – the first impressions we get
- Dunning-Kruger effect
The Dunning-Kruger effect refers to the phenomenon that lower ability individuals often feel superior to the general population and rate their abilities much higher than they actually are, while more competent individuals tend to predict their performance as being lower than it actually is. This effect creates a cycle: the individuals with social and intellectual deficits tend to perform worse because of these deficits, but also find it hard to realize and correct their mistakes due to those exact same deficits.
The fact that capable individuals tend to underestimate their performance is, according to Dunning and Kruger, due to the fact that they assume that if a task is easy for them, it must also be very easy for others. When they are asked how well they think they did compared to others, they place themselves lower, as they presume others are as competent as them, if not more5.
Lower-ability individuals often feel superior to the general population
Before you click away and blame your brain for equipping you with such flawed judgement, one important point should be made. Cognitive biases are in fact a divergence from rational reason, but they do not necessarily produce a faulty decision. There is a substantial evolutionary cause of why they have been ingrained into our brains. They provide our brains with valuable shortcuts, allowing us to make quick decisions. However, when applied to some more complex issues, they may be detrimental.
We probably can never escape these pitfalls fully, but the simple act of realization of our own irrationality can be enlightening and improve our decision-making skills.
Lerner (1980). The Belief in a Just World: A Fundamental Delusion. Plenum: New York. 5
Englich, B.; Mussweiler, Thomas; Strack, Fritz (2006). “Playing Dice With Criminal Sentences: The Influence of Irrelevant Anchors on Experts’ Judicial Decision Making”. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. 32 (2): 188–200.
Stanovich, K. E.; West, R. F.; Toplak, M. E. (2013). “Myside Bias, Rational Thinking, and Intelligence”. Current Directions in Psychological Science. 22 (4): 259–264.
Steven R. Quartz, The State Of The World Isn’t Nearly As Bad As You Think, Edge Foundation inc., retrieved 2016-02-17.
Dunning, D. (2011). The Dunning–Kruger Effect: On Being Ignorant of One’s Own Ignorance. Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 44, 247-296.