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  • Dan Connors

Cognitive biases Part 2- pulling back the curtain on why our brains lie to us.

Updated: May 31, 2022

“Of all the liars in the world, sometimes the worst are our own fears.”

― Rudyard Kipling, The Collected Works

Our brains lie to us all the time. They also help us find out the truth about our world better than ever today with the help of science and education. With all the high stakes involved in living a lie versus finding the truth, why are we willing to put up with lies?

There are three schools of thought on this mystery.

- The Freudian school believes that we lie to ourselves as a defense mechanism. Self-deception is the ego protecting itself against anxiety, unpleasant thoughts, painful memories, and inconvenient truths. Our egos are fragile and must be protected as a defense mechanism to preserve our self-esteem.

- A New School of thought sees self-deception as a mixed-motive game in which we're trying to gain advantage over other people. In this view life is a giant poker game, and we are always bluffing. We pretend we don't know or see things so that others won't know that we know. Then we get so good at bluffing that we forget what the truth was and end up bluffing ourselves.

- My own opinion, which I've written about on this blog before, is what I call the bandwidth problem. Bandwidth is a term for a limit on the amount of information that can come in. If your internet has a low bandwidth, things will download very slowly and you will miss out on much of what's available online. This applies to almost everything- if you're fighting cancer you don't pay as much attention to the stock market, if you have a newborn baby at home you don't function well at all with other information. If your bandwidth is taken up by too many things, or even one huge, important thing, then other information can't get through and we come up with all sorts of shortcuts and rationalizations for why that's not a problem.

Cognitive biases are ways in which we lie to ourselves and distort information from the outside world. They are shortcuts and feel-good stories we tell ourselves to deal with the onslaught of information coming at us 24/7. In some ways these biases are very helpful, but in others they blind us to important aspects of our world and the people around us.

Here, then, are ten more cognitive biases, continuing the list from part 1.

11- The Curse of Knowledge

The lie: People should understand me when I explain things to them. If they don't that's their problem.

The truth: People see things differently and don't know the same things you know, and thus don't always understand when you try to teach, influence or explain things that are new and different to them.

Examples: Albert Einstein or Stephen Hawking would have a hard time teaching a high school science class or even a college-level physics class. When you devote much of your time learning a complicated subject, you leave behind many of the basic questions that a novice would ask. Lawyers, accountants, scientists and politicians have their own language and live inside professional bubbles that make it more difficult to address people with lower levels of understanding.

What to do? Ask for feedback. Verify that the people you are trying to talk to are following where you want to take them. Don't talk down to people. Earnestly seek out questions and answer them clearly until there is understanding.

12- Declinism

The lie: When I was younger the world was much better. Today's generations are messing things up.

The truth: The past wasn't nearly as rosy as we remember it. People tend to remember the past as better than it was, and compare it favorably to the present. In reality, every time period has its benefits and challenges, with progress making many things in the present better than they ever were in the past.

Examples: If you've ever heard a senior citizen begin a sentence with "back in my day....", you've experienced declinism. Politicians and marketers exploit declinism by presenting memories of a good old days that never quite existed, urging people to follow their lead to somehow return things to the way they used to be.

What to do? Don't fall prey to this appeal. History is a complicated progression of good and bad changes, most of which we have little control over. Staying mired in the past is never good. Recalling strong principals that served you in youth and applying them to the present is admirable, but the present is an entirely different animal than the past ever was. Adaptation with a positive attitude is a better way to move forward.

13- Dunning-Kruger Effect

The lie: If you're smart enough, you can master any topic or skill pretty easily.

The truth: Overconfidence can blind us once we learn just a little bit about something. The reality is that we don't know how ignorant we are about so many things. The world is much more mysterious and complex than it appears at first glance.

Examples: Political partisans often express opinions about parts of the world that they know little about. They become overconfident in their beliefs because they match a popular narrative, even if they are totally wrong. Businesspeople, scientists, employees, and students can become temporarily confident they have mastered something, but there is always a black box of unknown items that they cannot see.

What to do? Be humble. Learning new things is exciting, but mastery takes years and even the greatest masters are aware of their weaknesses and what they don't know for sure. Acting quickly on only partial information is necessary sometimes when time is of the essence, but many of our biggest decisions have the benefit of time. Seek feedback and wide varieties of information to find things you may have missed.

14- Endowment effect

The lie: If I possess something, it's more valuable than the alternatives.

The truth: We overvalue things that are in our possession, and hold onto them too long, thinking they are worth more than the rest of the world would agree.

Examples: Hoarders and collectors tend to amass possessions thinking that they will go up in value. They are generally heartbroken when the cold calculus of the resale market shows them that most of the things they thought were valuable are priced much lower than they expected. Home sellers are also more likely to overvalue their houses because of the personal attachments they have to them.

What to do? Seek independent feedback, preferably from price guides, potential buyers, or unrelated appraisers. We tend to form emotional connections to our stuff, causing us to overvalue it and its usefulness. Sometimes we need someone to offer tough love and force us to see the reality

15- End of history illusion

The lie: Ten years from now, I will be about the same

The truth: We are terrible judges of who we will be in the future, and it hurts us in our planning.

Examples: In a famous study, large groups of older people were asked to recall how much they'd changed their attitudes, beliefs, and lifestyles in the past 10 years. Another group was asked to estimate how much they would change 10 years into the future. The future-looking group saw significantly less change coming than the older group recalled actually occurring. We tend to see ourselves as a finished product and that history is done with us.

What to do? Look back at your own life story. How have you changed in the past 10 years? Change is inevitable in the next 10 years, and it's best to be realistic about it and at least attempt to plan for it.

16- False consensus effect

The lie: My beliefs are pretty much in line with what other people think.

The truth: You may be living inside of a bubble. Your beliefs and opinions may appear extreme to many other people.

Examples: We compare our beliefs and opinions to our available social environment. Today that includes what we read on the internet. If we tend to limit the type of people that we listen to, we are missing out on a wide spectrum of opinions on certain topics.

What to do? Broaden your horizons and listen to what people who are not like you believe. You don't have to change your beliefs, but you may need to get some perspective on where your views sit compared to many others.

17- Forer effect (aka Barnum effect)

The lie: I can tell when something applies to me uniquely.

The truth: You can be manipulated by generic statements that could apply to practically anybody.

Examples: Horoscopes are the most famous example. They provide general statements like "you will meet someone important this year" that could apply to anybody, and fool us into thinking that the alignment of the stars controls our lives. Also known as the Barnum effect after PT Barnum, this bias is used by advertisers and markers to make us feel like we're getting more personalized attention than we really are.

What to do? Don't be a sucker. Be on the lookout for people trying to influence you by claiming to know your life story and judge their words as critically as you would judge anyone else's.

18- Framing Effect

The lie: Choices are logical and don't depend on how they're presented

The truth: We choose differently when something is framed as a positive choice than if it's a negative or neutral one.

Examples: We choose foods that are 99% fat-free over ones that have 1% fat. We buy an items that's $100 off over the same item that's 10% off of $1,000 (higher numbers drive sales, even with the same result). S surgery with a 90% chance of survival seems preferable to one with a 10% chance of death.

What to do? Our brains like positive framing, even when it's a bad or neutral choice. It's an easy shortcut that sometimes works. But we can be manipulated by others who know this and present choices in the most flattering light possible. Be wary of visual and auditory cues that are framing something to look better than it is. Be extra cautious when you think you're being framed- seek out more information about what they're not telling you.

19- Fundamental Attribution Error

The lie: People, because of their choices, are 100% responsible for what happens to them.

The truth: We look at people's situations and blame the victim, not taking into account what has happened to them before in the context of their entire lives. In reality, most people would end up in the same predicament given similar life histories.

Examples: We judge others all the time. People who get sick do so because they didn't take good care of their bodies. Mentally ill people need to get a grip and pull it together. Poor people make many bad choices and that's why they end up poor. Character is destiny in this way of seeing things, and circumstances shouldn't matter.

What to do? Individual responsibility is a tricky thing to judge, so don't be quick to do it. You don't know what is driving the behavior of someone else unless you've walked in their shoes. This bias isn't absolute- but we tend to make excuses for our own situation while being more harsh when looking at other people.

20- Gambler's Fallacy

The lie: If I go on a hot streak while gambling, my odds of winning or losing change for each extra game I play.

The truth: Independent events always have the same odds, no matter how often you try them.

Examples: The famous example is if you somehow flip a coin 50 times and it ends up tails each time, then the odds are very high that heads will be the 51st flip. In reality each flip is independent of the other and the odds are still 50/50. The parents who have five baby girls in a row and are sure that the next one will be a boy is another example where the odds haven't changed- they're still 50/50.

What to do? The key word here is independent- meaning that one thing happening once or a thousand times doesn't effect the next time. This isn't always the case. Be aware that probability is still based on how many possible outcomes there are. Also be aware when things aren't independent, like on a casino slot machine, where over the long run the house always wins.

So what do we take away from these ten cognitive biases? Our minds play tricks on us- not because they are evil, but because they are pursuing shortcuts or being influenced by others who are a tiny bit evil. The Dunning-Kruger effect is one of the most famous of these biases, and is much debated. How does one know what they don't know? That's the million dollar question, and should give us all a dose of humility before we make blanket statements about things.

The Forer and Framing effects show how dangerous it can be to trust others to present information in ways that fool your brain. The Fundamental Attribution Error, Curse of Knowledge, and False Consensus effect are purely our brains making assumptions about reality to make the world look simpler. Declinism and the End of History Effect are where our brains have trouble with time itself, and should give us pause when trying to assemble a life story. (Which is something the brain is always trying to do that creates meaning).

This is the second in a series of looks at cognitive biases. To see the rest, follow this blog and subscribe if you like.

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The above information is provided courtesy of the author who has done his best to be factual. You are still responsible for interpreting and checking those facts elsewhere, and I make no representations that I am a mental health expert beyond what I presented. Thank you.

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