Why are we lying to ourselves? Cognitive biases part 3
Updated: Feb 7, 2021
"Self-deception is a defining part of our human nature. By recognizing its various forms in ourselves and reflecting upon them, we may be able to disarm them and even, in some cases, to employ and enjoy them. This self-knowledge opens up a whole new world before us, rich in beauty and subtlety, and frees us not only to take the best out of it, but also to give it back the best of ourselves, and, in so doing, to fulfil our potential as human beings. I don't really think it's a choice."
Neel Burton, in "Hide and Seek: The Psychology of Self-Deception
This is the third of a four-part look into some of the cognitive biases that distort our view of reality. Most of them are automatic responses by our brain to make temporary sense of the jumble of information that hits it every day. Cognitive biases allow us to find shortcuts and rules of thumb to simplify information, while also making stuff up to fill in the gaps that the information doesn't explain. Conquering our biases is a huge step towards dealing with reality, and improving our mental fitness and that of those around us.
If lying is so damaging, why does our brain do it? Isn't there some easier way to deal with things besides censorship or outright making stuff up?
Imagine if your best friend had access to twice as much information as you, and was responsible for relaying it to you. Your best friend may like you and have your best interests at heart, but they will undoubtedly be selective in what they tell you. Will they tell you negative information that they know would upset you? Not always. Most likely they will ignore the upsetting information, or sugarcoat it to make it easier to digest. Will your friend dump large quantities of complicated information on you all at once? No. They will try to summarize it with the important parts and try to make a story or narrative out of it so you can get the big picture.
In short, your friend, spouse, boss, or parent will never tell you the absolute truth. (Though if you do find a friend who will tell you unpleasant truths that help you improve, hold onto them for dear life.) They hold some stuff back, and tell you lies from time to time to make you happier, or make their own lives easier. This isn't an evil, devious scheme, it's just the way life works. Getting to the truth is hard work- that's why there's so much bad information out there. The same principles apply to you and your brain. You've trained it what to show you and what to ignore. Overcoming this training is the difficult pathway to truth and away from cognitive lies and biases.
So here we go, ten more cognitive biases. See how these self-deceptions affect your life right now.
21- The Halo Effect
The lie: If someone is appealing or expert in one area, they most likely are good in all areas.
The truth: Experts are only useful within their field of expertise. Outside of it they're as lost as the rest of us.
Examples: We tend to look at attractive, rich, or powerful people as better than us in all areas of life- money, relationships, beliefs, health, or spirituality. For instance, a Hollywood starlet who endorses a health product line, (like Gwyneth Paltrow), a baseball superstar who endorses a breakfast cereal, or a tv star that opens up a restaurant.
What to do: Our brains love shortcuts, and an obvious one is to follow someone who looks and sounds like a competent leader. It's very tempting to want to follow the lead of smart, beautiful, or charismatic people. Don't do it. Not unless they are recognized experts in the specific area that applies to you. They could be well-meaning, ill-informed, or trying to capitalize on their success in unrelated areas. Trust experts before loud or beautiful people, even if the experts don't look the part.
22- Hindsight Bias
The lie: I knew that was going to happen.
The truth: No, you didn't know about something before it happened. None of us did. You convinced yourself after the fact that you predicted it would occur. Nothing is 100% predestined and there's always some uncertainty in how things will turn out.
Examples: We are terrible forecasters. Not being able to know the future is very scary. To combat this fear we convince ourselves that events are logical and predictable, and that we in some way knew they would happen and were prepared for it. This happens with investing, sporting events, gambling, politics, and anywhere that the outcome of an event is uncertain. Looking back at the recession of 2008, many people think that they saw it coming, when in reality almost no one did.
What to do: We hate to admit we were wrong or missed something important, so we make up stories sometimes that contradict reality. Don't kid yourself about what you think you predicted in the past. Maybe you got lucky, but none of us has a crystal ball. Successful predictions make us feel good and in control, but we need to be prepared to accept a certain amount of uncertainty in life, and to use that doubt when planning for our own futures. Think in terms of probabilities, not in absolutes, and you won't be as vulnerable to admitting you were wrong.
23- Hyperbolic discounting
The lie: A bird in the hand is worth two birds in a week.
The truth: By grabbing immediate rewards we shortchange ourselves out of bigger rewards in the future, and possibly set ourselves up for future suffering.
Examples: The most famous example of this is the marshmallow experiment, where young children are left alone with a tasty marshmallow and told if they don't eat it they'll get two marshmallows when the researcher returns. Many children fail this test. Our brains have a severe bias for present rewards over future ones. We also ignore future pain to indulge in present pleasure, and examples of that include cheating on diets, running national budget deficits, and degrading the environment of tomorrow for profits today.
What to do: Our emotional brain has a strong bias towards immediate rewards. Maybe that marshmallow won't be there next week. Maybe the researcher is lying. Our logical brain has to fight that impulse all the time to accomplish long-term, meaningful goals. Repeatedly focusing on your longer term goals is the best way to combat this childish impulse. Getting realistic feedback about how present behaviors are impacting future goals can put our thinking brain back in charge.
24- The Ikea effect
The lie: If I put it together, it's worth more than if I bought it already assembled.
The truth: Objectively, an assembled piece of furniture is worth about the same whether done at home or in the factory.
Examples: In a famous study that identified this effect, people who assembled IKEA furniture, LEGO creations, or origami frogs were asked to evaluate their creations. They valued things that they put together themselves much higher, and were willing to pay more for them than premade items. In another famous example, cake mix producers had to reformulate their products because they were too easy to make. Milk and eggs were removed from the mix because the cooks didn't value the cakes they baked if all they had to do was add water and put in the oven.
What to do: This effect makes total sense when you consider how much our brains want to value our output into the world. We want to feel in control, and putting together a piece of IKEA furniture gives us that feeling much more than buying it at the store. Be aware that you are doing this and be careful not to overvalue things that you personally create, especially if you intend it for public use. Seeking out feedback from a variety of independent people is a better way to see the reality as others see it.
25- Illusory Truth Effect
The lie: If I hear something repeatedly, it's more likely to be true than not.
The truth: Frequency of exposure to statements has nothing to do with whether they are true or not. People try to manipulate others all the time by repeating lies and half-truths and hoping they stick.
Examples: Propaganda and advertising are the two big areas where this effect can be seen. Researchers have found that our minds like familiar things, and will latch onto something they've heard before, even if it's completely wrong. Advertisers repeat messages continually, including catchy jingles, and it works to make us more aware of, and open to buying, their products. Politicians use this effect to spread rumors about opponents, and often they stick in people's minds even when untrue.
What to do: Our brains love familiar things. New information is suspect and takes longer to process, while old information gets right through. We all need to develop a stronger bullshit detector for when we're being lied to, which is most of the time. We all live in an age of fake news, information pollution, and conspiracy theories. Don't be gullible to repeated claims that have little basis in fact, and be willing to re-examine things you've heard before and taken for granted.
26- The Jerk Effect
The lie: The world is a nasty place. It's best to follow people who are aggressive, lying, abusive, or self-centered. They know how to get what they want, and will take care of you if you join their team. Nice guys finish last. Flashy people are always better than boring ones.
The truth: Jerks are unreliable as providers. They will throw you under the bus at any opportunity, and are looking out for only themselves. Plus we are all better off if jerks aren't rewarded for their bad behavior.
Examples: This can be seen in the dating world as well as in politics or business. We are often drawn to attractive scoundrels of the opposite sex who excite us, brushing aside their negative qualities in the process. We buy from companies that exploit their workers and vote for politicians that lie, cheat, and steal because we think they will give us what we want and leave us alone if we ignore their flaws.
What to do: Don't be a jerk, and don't support them either. For most of history, self-centered jerks would have been cast out of their tribes and left to starve. Now we hand them the keys to everything. Acting like a jerk only works in the short term until people catch on. The world can sometimes be a nasty place, but the answer isn't to be even nastier. Humanity's biggest strength has been its ability to communicate effectively, coordinate with others, and create great new things. Nice, kind, and thoughtful people can accomplish great things and inspire many more people than jerks, but they need to be careful not to let their niceness be taken advantage of by others.
27- Just World Hypothesis
The lie: People generally get what they deserve. If you're poor, you deserve to be poor. Actions are rewarded fairly, and bad things only happen to people that behave badly in some way.
The truth: The world is often unjust and unfair. Bad conduct often goes unpunished, good conduct goes unnoticed, and luck plays a larger role in our lives than we'd like to admit.
Examples: Blaming the victim is one of the worst examples of this. If a woman is raped, she invited it in some way. Crime victims just weren't careful enough. If you get sick you didn't take good enough care of your body. This is a double-edged bias because it lets bad people off the hook for bad behavior and punishes vulnerable people who suffer through no fault of their own.
What to do: Our brains desperately want to live in a just and fair world. Without that baseline, nothing makes sense. But we all know of cases where the world is unjust and unfair, and that causes cognitive dissonance and depression. Sometimes to maintain a false picture our brains make up stories that seem to put the world back together again. This is a tough bias to overcome, but we must be aware of this bias, and reconcile that while some things in life are fair, many aren't. Don't look away from unfairness in life and don't let it discourage you. Instead, take positive action when you can to make the world a little better than you found it.
28- Loss Aversion
The lie: Losing something is a much more noticed experience than gaining something. We pay much more attention to not losing something than we do to gaining something new.
The truth: If you lose something, you can usually replace it with something similar or better. Focusing only on preventing losses keeps you from taking reasonable risks to make your life better.
Examples: Free trial periods on goods or services are a sneaky way marketers use loss aversion. They get us to use their products for free, and then offer to take them back, which provokes a strong reaction. The threat of losing $100 on an investment outweighs the joy of gaining $100. The insurance industry uses this bias heavily in warning us about all the things that could bring losses, sometimes overstating the probabilities to scare us into buying bigger policies.
What to do: Our ego hates to lose. Losses are painful and threatening, and we don't even like to admit when we've lost. But some losses are inevitable, especially if you want to learn and grow, and focusing too heavily on preventing loss keeps you from thinking about how to produce gains. Be aware of this weakness in your ego and more willing to absorb calculated losses if they produce bigger gains.
29- The Misinformation Effect
The lie: My memories of past events are clear and unchangeable. They can't be altered by suggestions or manipulation from other people.
The truth: Memories are unreliable. We can be prodded to change our memories by smart and tricky questioners who can plant ideas and images that alter our memories. And as time goes by we forget key ingredients and memories get polluted by similar things that happen.
Examples: This bias shows up in legal and police cases where witness testimony is critical. Eyewitnesses rarely have perfect recall of an event, and can be persuaded to add or remove items by expert questioners. In the worst cases, entire false memories of things like childhood abuse can be implanted and victims can be convinced they experienced things that never happened.
What to do: We rely on our memories for our very survival, and the thought that they might be faulty is scary and hard to believe. For the most accurate recall, video evidence is the most reliable for anything important. When relying strictly on memory, be careful not to let confounding information seep in. Get opinions from others who were at the event in question if possible. Write down your memories shortly after a key event so that you have something to refer back to.
30- Negativity Bias
The lie: We process all information about the same.
The truth: We pay way more attention to negative information than to positive information.
Examples: Speakers who get 95% great reviews from their audience sometimes worry about the negative things the other 5% said. The nightly news devotes much more time to crime and sad stories than it does to positive, feel-good stories. Online, people are much more likely to click on a negative link than one that is positive. Political commercials that tell bad things about the opponent are remembered more than ones that say good things about the candidate.
What to do: Negativity bias is human nature. It goes back to prehistoric days when negative things in our environment (predators, storms, threatening humans) could be a matter of life and death. Back then, we gave negative input much more attention in our brain. Today's world is more complex and threats are more distant and hard to defeat alone. We need to be aware of the negative things out there, but for our own sanity and mental health we need to take in positive and neutral information so that we can build a better world.
So what can this group of ten cognitive biases tell us? Hindsight bias and the Misinformation Effect show us that our memories of the past aren't always reliable. The Jerk, Halo, Illusory Truth, Just World, and Negativity biases show how we alter information in the present to make things appear more like we expect them to be. Hyperbolic Discounting, Loss Aversion and the Ikea Effect show how fragile our egos can be when we value things that we make or own more than others would. The two that bother me the most are the Jerk Effect and the Just World Bias- both of which excuse bad behavior and unfairness at the expense of a fake ideal of an orderly life that makes sense to us. We need to do better, and fighting bias is a great way to begin.
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