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  • Dan Connors

Magical Overthinking and the Tricks Our Brain Uses To Hide Reality.

The Age of Magical Overthinking: Notes on Modern Irrationality

“The most basic activism we can have in our lives is to live consciously in a nation living in fantasies…. You will face reality, you will not delude yourself.” Amanda Montell

Can your private, internal thoughts create an alternate reality? What is reality, anyway? Our tiny brains can't begin to fathom all of its vastness and complexity, so where can we start? And by reconciling our models of reality with actual reality once in a while, do we cause more harm than good?

These and many other questions are posed by Amanda Montell in her new book, The Age of Magical Overthinking. Montell is a young writer, linguist, and podcaster who has written books on cults (Cultish), gender in language, (Wordslut), and now cognitive biases.

Cognitive biases are those little shortcuts that our brains use to get by in a vast world of dangers, opportunities, and complexity. Without them we would be lost and confused by the many things that get thrown at us every day. But with them, we're blinded to much of what's out there, allowing only select things to get through our carefully constructed barricades and blinders.

Montell uses examples from her own life and from culture at large to illustrate the major cognitive biases, and this is one of the best presentations that I've seen on them. Here is the list, with each one having a chapter devoted to it.

  1. The Halo Effect. The assumption that because a person is extraordinary at one thing, they are great at everything and should be worshipped and/or judged harshly. The author uses the example of rabid fans of celebrities, known as "stans", who form a cult around one person to try to transfer that person's perceived strengths into their own feelings of inadequacy.

  2. Proportionality Bias. The craving for big things to have big causes. This is the engine for conspiracy theories that try to construct big, elaborate stories around big problems that befuddle them like climate change, economics, or pandemics. Montell also takes a dig at manifestation gurus and their obsessive focus on personal responsibility, which is sort of a cult itself.

  3. The Sunk Cost Fallacy. The decision that when you've already invested a lot into a failed venture, you have to stick with it even though it's doomed. This causes people to stick with bad relationships, investments, career decisions, and much more because cutting their losses seems impossible. The author uses her own painful experience in a toxic relationship to make her point.

  4. Zero-Sum Basis. The idea that for one person to win, others have to lose. Social comparison with others is instinctive for us humans, but cooperation brings rewards that competition can't. Sometimes competition brings out the best in individuals, but often it brings out the worst when they assume that there can only be one winner.

  5. Survivorship Bias. When you only focus on the positive outcomes and ignore the negative ones. Everybody likes an optimist that focuses on the positive, but failures matter too, especially when we can learn from them. The book talks about inspiration porn from terminally ill bloggers, and how we love when they defeat the odds, but hate people who die because somehow they "gave up".

  6. Recency Illusion. The tendency to assume that something is new and valuable because it's new to you. This is how the internet hooks us with shiny new content, much of which is either made up, exaggerated, or recycled from years ago. We love new, exciting things and give priority to them, but once in a while we need to retreat to common, awe-inspiring truths that transcend this illusion.

  7. Overconfidence Bias. When someone overvalues their expertise in something, and over-credits themselves for positive outcomes. Also known as the Dunning-Kruger effect, this bias is caused by our egos getting overinflated with a little knowledge, totally unaware of the vast areas of knowledge that we're still ignorant of. In short- we aren't very good judges of our own expertise and tend to do stupid things rather than ask for help.

  8. Illusory Truth Effect. The tendency to believe incorrect information if it is repeated enough. Scientists have documented this tendency, and politicians and marketers are exploiting it every day. Once a fake story gets implanted in our consciousness, it is very hard to dislodge. We like things that sound true to explain things that bother us, especially if the truth is uncomfortable or inconvenient. And we especially like our lies if they rhyme.

  9. Confirmation Bias. The tendency to favor information that validates our current views and discard anything that conflicts with them. This is a beautiful bias that keeps us from changing our minds all of the time. Unfortunately, it also keeps us blind from important information that could greatly help us face new challenges. And because we're such social creatures, our social identities keep us from even considering alternative sources of information lest we get ostracized from our current tribes.

  10. Declinism. The assumption that the world is in decline from the "good old days", and everything was so much better back then. Nostalgia takes advantage of a human tendency to lose bad memories and hang on to good ones. Pleas to return to the past ignore the many problems that existed back then, and wipe out much of the progress that has come since. Today's world is more diverse, technological, and complicated, and there's no evidence of decline in the standard of living around the globe, with the possible exception of climate change.

  11. The Ikea Effect. When someone disproportionately assigns high worth to items that they had a part in creating. We humans love to create things, but hate to be critiqued. Finding out that our personal treasures aren't valued nearly as much by others is a cold reality check, but a necessary one. Not that any one person's judgement should trump our own, but at least we know what we're up against.

The quest for truth is one of the main challenges of the 21st century, and this book is yet another great guide for those who get lost behind their very human cognitive biases. We can never be rid of them, and for good reason. But being aware of them and willing to challenge them from time to time is the best recipe for a clearer and clearer picture of reality. Without doses of reality, we are lost in our own fantasyland.

I recommend this book and its attempts to make these biases more relatable.

For more on this book, here is Amanda in her own words

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