Does the truth matter? Which is better- an ugly truth or a pretty lie?
Sometimes it's better for everybody if the truth is ugly enough that it gets obscured. But it doesn't go away if it's ignored. Often, it gets worse. This is the fourth of as series of four that looks at ways in which we deliberately deceive ourselves through cognitive biases.
The world is full of complicated and conflicting information, and we're forced to come up with models inside our head to account for it. To protect those models, we resort to three deceptive coping techniques- filtering, shortcuts, and storytelling.
1- We only pay attention to those things that fit in with what we already know, believe, and are familiar with, discarding everything else.
2- We look for shortcuts anywhere we can to make things simpler. We create rules that guide how we interpret incoming data, and often these shortcuts leave out important details.
3- Sometimes, we just make stuff up. Stories are the most effective way to make sense of people, events, and information. We thrive on stories. In some instances our brains make things up out of thin air to conform to the stories that make the most sense to us.
With mental illnesses, there is a recognized authority- the DSM-5- that details every recognized mental disorder and its symptoms. With cognitive biases, there is no authority, and there are over 100 of them that have been recognized by psychologists, researchers, and writers. Some are better known than others, but they all tell a story about a way in which our brain is biased against the truth. This field will no doubt continue to grow, and the more research, publicity, and action that is taken to bring these biases to our awareness the better.
Here, then, are the final group of cognitive biases that I will be examining in this series.
31- The Mandela Effect
The lie: "Luke, I am your father" (What we remember Darth Vader as saying)
The truth: "No, I am your father" (The actual line from the movie)
Examples: The Mandela Effect is a better known version of the misinformation effect, named after a popular false memory that Nelson Mandela had died in prison (he didn't). False memories that spread far and wide are examples of this effect, and include people remembering that Curious George had a tail, (he didn't), that the Monopoly man wears a monocle, (he doesn't), or that C3P-0 had all golden body parts, (he had a silver leg).
What to do: This is a relatively harmless version but fairly widespread. Most examples are not critical or damaging. But they are a warning to not always be certain of things that your memory tells you.
32- The Narrative Fallacy
The lie: Things with good stories attached to them are better than ones without good stories.
The truth: Sometimes stories are misleading. Objective facts still trump compelling stories.
Examples: A singer on America's Got Talent may have a compelling back-story that makes you want to vote for them even if they're not as talented as the rest of the contestants. An investment with an interesting CEO and story behind it feels like a better investment than one that doesn't.
What to do: We rely on stories heavily. Given a set of random facts, we often will try to create or find a narrative that links them all together. (Clustering bias). Racial bias comes from a bad narrative assumption about entire groups of people. Being aware of this tendency helps us to beware of stories that are untrue or deceptive. Stories are powerful and irresistible sometimes, but reality is a much worse storyteller than Hollywood.
33- Normalcy Bias
The lie: When disaster appears to be striking, stay put and you'll be fine.
The truth: When disaster appears to be about to strike, get away and protect yourself.
Examples: Normalcy bias is a well-known phenomenon attached to natural and other disasters. When faced with impending danger (volcanoes, hurricanes, pandemics, wars, or tornadoes), people hesitate, preferring to cling to comfortable normalcy rather than face impending doom. The Covid-19 epidemic was a great example of how people discounted the dangers and tried to live their lives normally.
What to do: Also known as the Ostrich effect, normalcy bias can kill you. Have a disaster plan for natural disasters and don't hesitate to act after the first warnings. Don't count on your neighbors to do the right thing because normalcy bias is contagious. Be aware that your brain may try to trick you into inaction because taking drastic action can sometimes seem more risky as doing nothing. Be careful not to overreact, which would be the opposite of this bias.
34- Optimism and Pessimism Bias
The lie: Life will always be good to me (or bad to me)
The truth: Life doesn't care who you are. Your odds of having things happen to you are the same as everybody else's.
Examples: Optimism bias means you are overly optimistic about bad things not happening to you and good things happening. I won't get skin cancer so I don't have to use sunscreen. I'll win the lottery so I should bulk up on my ticket purchases. Pessimism bias is the exact opposite- you discount the possibility of good things happening to you and expect more than your share of the bad ones. I get sick all the time so I might as well get used to it. I have no chance to get into that program so I shouldn't even bother to apply.
What to do: Optimism is healthy when it's backed up by realistic action. Unrealistic optimism is dangerous because you count on luck to save you. Pessimism can sometimes be helpful if it keeps you from doing dangerous things. Our brains can turn to pessimism if they've seen a lot of failure in the past, because holding out hope takes energy, and being disappointed is painful. This is one of the hardest cognitive biases to overcome, because our views about the goodness or badness of the world are rightfully gained from our experiences, and it's hard to imagine a different result than one you've always gotten. I prefer a modified optimism approach to life, where you try to deal with both the good and bad of life with a positive attitude, and try to improve things as they come, rather than assume they will always be one way or the other.
35- The Placebo Effect and Nocebo Effect
The lie: Wow, that medicine made me feel a lot better.
The truth: The medicine was fake. You did all that better stuff inside your head.
Examples: The placebo effect is a nasty mind trick that has confounded researchers and scientists for centuries. Doctors prescribe a treatment plan with the hopes that it will make their patients feel better. Sometimes that medicine or therapy is the cause of the improvements, but research has shown that the mind creates a large placebo effect of wellness on its own, even with treatments that are worthless. The nocebo effect is the exact opposite. Your mind is able to make you feel physically worse if you expect to feel worse, even if the treatment has no side effects.
What to do: The placebo and nocebo effect should make everybody humble when trying to figure out the human body. They are the reason we need double-blind studies with fakes in any research on medicines or procedures. By double-blind, we mean that neither the subject nor the administrator knows if the medicine is real or fake. Any response will be measured above the placebo to see if it is real or not. The implications for mental and physical health of these effects are enormous. Our expectations create our reality, even including what we thought were automatic processes of the human body. I have two takeaways from this:
- Always expect the best results from treatments or interventions. Our bodies are capable of much more self-healing than we imagine. But then use reality checks to help the body with external measures when it truly needs it.
- Beware the nocebo effect. If you think that going to the dentist will be extremely painful and unpleasant, it probably will be.
36- Reactance Bias
The lie: If someone is pressuring me to do something, do the exact opposite.
The truth: Do what works for you in the moment, don't react blindly to external pressures one way or the other.
Examples: Reactance bias most commonly shows up in dealing with authority figures. Parents see this often in their children, especially teenagers, who ignore their opinions and advice and do the exact opposite. You also see it as a reaction to a pushy salesperson or obnoxious advertisement- customers backs away.
What to do: No one likes to be told what to do or how to think. In re-establishing independence, we can go overboard taking the opposite side of whatever we're being told. Life is full of gray areas, and running to the extremes as a reactance to someone we don't like deprives us of a wide spectrum of choices. Feeling in control of our choices is a key to good mental health, but we can choose to agree with others we don't like if they have a good point. Life is rarely black or white, and seeing things from other perspectives is always valuable.
37- Recency Bias
The lie: If I heard something recently, it's the most up-to-date and most reliable information available.
The truth: When you hear something has little to do with how reliable it is. Sometimes the best information is much older.
Examples: Making a list of best movies ever made, people will more than likely choose ones they've seen the most recently. Oscar nominated films that come out later in the year are more likely to win. In any debate, people remember what the last speaker said more than what the first speaker said.
What to do: Our short-term memories don't always store information accurately. When they are bombarded with too much information, they select the last information more often because that's what's available. This is why you need to take notes, because otherwise your brain won't recall many good points that are given near the beginning. Be aware of this bias, and also be aware that people who want to influence you know about it and save some of their best and most emotional stuff for the end to give a strong closing.
38- Sandy Hook Syndrome
The lie: Life is supposed to make sense. If something terrible happens that threatens my worldview, there is most likely a good explanation.
The truth: Life doesn't always make sense. Sometimes terrible, unfair things happen, and often they call upon us to do better.
Examples: On December 14, 2012, Adam Lanza walked into an elementary school and killed 26 people (including 20 small children) with an assault rifle for no reason. Immediately afterwards, stories started appearing on the internet that the entire shooting was a hoax perpetrated by paid actors, and parents of murdered children started getting death threats. In response to an unimaginable tragedy, people came up with an alternate reality that made them feel better about being parents and about owning assault weapons.
What to do: The psychological term for this bias is confabulation, and it is scary. Our brains can literally make stuff up to help us feel better. Most conspiracy theories come from this memory error, where public information is twisted into darker stories that meld with what the person wants to keep believing. None of us wants to live in a world where a crazy person can walk in and kill innocent children, and many are unwilling to consider mental health issues or gun controls in response to tragedies like this. So to adapt, we make stuff up, or eagerly believe others who tells us stories that confirm our closely held beliefs and ask little of us in return.
This is a sobering reality, and it forces us to acknowledge three truths:
- Life is terribly sad and unfair sometimes, and we just have to accept that.
- Sometimes we need to take action in the face of tragedies, rather than making up stories.
- Confabulations and conspiracy theories are a serious danger to our facing the unpleasant realities of life, and we need to be vigilant in dealing with misinformation and fake stories.
39- Self- Serving Bias
The lie: I should get full credit for all my successes, but all of my failures were out of my control.
The truth: Your successes and failures can be attributed to your efforts, the efforts of others, and luck, and it's often hard to tell which factor had the most influence.
Examples: If my team won the championship, it was because of our team effort and abilities. If we lost, it was because the other team cheated or the officials were unfair. If I get a promotion at work, it's because I deserved it, but if I don't, it's because the boss doesn't like me, or the person who did get it got preferential treatment.
What to do: Have some humility, and try to focus on how to improve your efforts and output objectively, regardless of whether you win or lose a contest. We are not the most objective judges of our efforts, and that's to be expected. Seek out feedback and try to work on things you need to work on. Accept that luck is a huge part of life. Don't get a swelled head when you win, and acknowledge those who helped you along the way, returning the favor when you can. Accept failures gracefully and look for the lessons they can teach you.
40- The Sunk Cost Fallacy
The lie: If I've invested time and money in something, I need to follow it through to the end, no matter what happens.
The truth: Sometimes you need to walk away from things that have little prospect for future success. You need to look at the future prospects for an endeavor, not past investments.
Examples: Sticking with a stock that has plummeted in price since you first bought it. Staying with a romantic partner after the relationship has soured. Going to an event for which you bought a ticket, even though you don't really want to go anymore. Eating food that you paid for and cooked, even though it tastes nasty.
What to do: A sunk cost is any investment of time, money, or effort that is entirely in the past and can't be recovered. This costly error makes us stick with things that no longer serve us in the present or future, if only because it's too painful to walk away and admit we made a mistake in the past. At least once a year it's a good idea to take a good look at your finances, love life, projects, or possessions and see if any of them qualify for this fallacy. The question to ask is- "Is this likely to serve me and provide value in the future, or am I hanging on to it because I've already invested too much time and energy in the past?" Admitting mistakes is hard, but releasing them is positive and freeing, especially if you can learn lessons from those mistakes.
41- Survivorship Bias
The lie: Things that I learned about the past are a fair representation of reality back then.
The truth: We are only looking at information that survived a selection process. There are many stories that we will never know about things that failed, died, or just didn't make news.
Examples: In the entertainment industry, we only learn stories of people who made it big. For every Lady Gaga, there are millions of other performers who were just as talented, but failed. The same is true in sports, business, investing, and many other highly competitive fields. We never hear about the losers, or winners who weren't flashy or famous.
What to do: Survivorship bias skews everything to the optimistic side. This is a hard bias to fight against because it requires research into information that is often lost and unavailable. Companies, clinical trials, books, and investments fail more often than they succeed, and the data that would teach us something from those failures is lost forever. First we need to be aware that we are not seeing a representative sample of the past- we are seeing only the biggest winners and most memorable stories that history passed on to us. And then, we need to be willing to dig down deeper and consider past failures and lost data when considering our own future endeavors.
42- Tribalism, aka In-Group Favoritism
The lie: People who are like me are better than other people. I can trust them and I can't trust people who are different.
The truth: People who are like you can still abuse and manipulate you. Tribalism worked back when we were hunter-gatherers, but in a complex economy we need to work with and trust a wide variety of different people.
Examples: Sports fans, who identify with a particular franchise or team. They dress, choose friends, and marry based on loyalties to their chosen team. Political parties are increasingly tribal- people identify as Democrats or Republicans first, before considering any other characteristics or identities, walling themselves off from anybody who doesn't fit into their tribe.
What to do: We live in a complex, interconnected world. Make an effort to expose yourself to people of different races, religions, and political views. Living inside of a bubble of tribalism is dangerously limiting yourself. There is a psychological term called motive attribution asymmetry that comes with tribalism, where you denigrate those who aren't in your tribe as having evil or bad intentions. This is the path to hatred, and is what's tearing apart the world right now.
So what can we take away from this study of cognitive biases? Don't trust first impressions and be aware of the filters, shortcuts, and stories that your brains concoct on your behalf. Some of them are helpful, but some are terribly destructive. There are many more than the 42 biases I've covered out there, but these were some of the most powerful that I came across.
We may claim we're not biased, but the truth is pretty obvious. We show biased behavior all the time against people of different races, religions, genders, and nationalities. We are biased against fat people, the mentally ill, the elderly, and lgbt people. We can't help ourselves, and we make up stories inside our heads to make us feel better. We are biased towards white, male, popular, and rich people, and we give them the benefit of the doubt in most situations.
It seems so unfair. If you take anything from these cognitive biases, realize that the world out there is much more complex, contradictory, and beautiful than you or I are able to understand, and show a little more curiosity and humility in figuring it out.
If you want to dive deeper down the rabbit hole of cognitive biases, here is the cognitive bias codex of 188 cognitive biases, courtesy of John Manoogian.
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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.