Why we lie to ourselves- Cognitive Biases Part 1
Updated: May 30, 2022
“Above all, don't lie to yourself. The man who lies to himself and listens to his own lie comes to a point that he cannot distinguish the truth within him, or around him, and so loses all respect for himself and for others. And having no respect he ceases to love.”
― Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov
Our brains have a remarkable capacity to observe the world, discover its truths, and build enormous mental and physical structures that withstand the test of time. Why, then, do we have so much trouble telling the truth? Our very survival depends on getting the best information that's out there, and yet our brains hide things and distort other things to give us at best a skewed look at reality, sometimes at total odds with the truth.
Every day we all are lied to dozens of times, and no matter how virtuous, most of us tell lies as well. Many of these lies are minor, and most are for self-preservation purposes, but they still make us feel icky for telling them (if we have a conscience, that is.) Lying for personal gain or protection is a given, but that's now what I'm interested in here. Why do we lie to the one person we love and trust the most- ourselves? In some way our minds are deliberately lying to us about the realities of the world out there, and it not only makes us feel icky, but it challenges the tenuous grips that we all have on reality itself.
In this series I will be looking at some common cognitive biases that constitute lies that we tell ourselves. A cognitive bias is a predictable, systematic way in which our minds bend the truth of the inputs that our senses pick up. They keep us from seeing things as they truly are, and reinforce entrenched viewpoints that our brains would prefer to stick with. There are over 100 different recognized cognitive biases in Wikipedia, but there is no one single recognized source that covers them all. These biases are easy to observe in others, but much harder to detect in ourselves.
Uncovering and dealing with cognitive biases is one of the best ways to superior mental fitness, because it shows you the world as it really is, and unpleasant truths can't lurk in the background causing you anxiety or depression if you are already aware of them and dealing with them. While our brains are sneaky at hiding things from us, they aren't perfect, and sooner or later these biases rear their ugly heads in ways we don't anticipate.
For this blog entry, we'll look at ten common cognitive biases, in alphabetical order. Look for future blog posts to catch up on more.
1- Ambiguity effect
The lie: Uncertainty is bad. Always go for the sure thing.
The truth: Certainty is never guaranteed. Sometimes the most ambiguous options are the best ones. Our brains value certainty over uncertainty even when the sure things are illusory.
Example: Investments in fixed income securities are guaranteed by the federal government. They almost never lose value and are the safest way to invest. But stocks are seen as much riskier, even though historically they've performed much better than CD's and bonds.
What to do: Look back into your past and think about things that you took a chance on that turned out well. From the perspective of the future our lives seem to have made more sense than when we were struggling in the present. If you had always stuck with sure things, you never would have learned to walk.
2- Anchoring bias
The lie: The first piece of information that you hear about anything is a good place to start when evaluating it. Our brains hate uncertainty and latch onto the first and loudest statements, even if wrong.
The truth: Information can arrive in random intervals or can be manipulated against you by unscrupulous salespeople and con men. The first thing you hear may or may not be the best.
Example: Also known as priming, a popular example is price tags in department stores. The suggested retail price anchors the customer as to what the price should be, and then a sale price below that anchor price makes the offer seem like a great deal.
What to do: In negotiating anything, don't listen to the first numbers that are thrown out there. You are being anchored. Do your research beforehand and have a good idea what your realistic number would be.
3- Availability bias
The lie: If I can easily remember or look up something, it must be the best choice.
The truth: Sometimes the easiest information to locate has been put there by people who want to manipulate you. The best choice for you often requires some research, thought, and digging.
Example: Your brain is lazy. Advertising does your work for you and comes to you with answers and opportunities. People pay big money to get information in front of you so that you will buy their cars, breakfast cereals, beers, cell phones, and everything else.
What to do: Don't be lazy. Do your homework and don't fall for the closest and most persuasive bits of information. Sometimes the best things for you require a little digging.
4- Backfire effect
The lie: When presented with evidence that contradicts our deeply held beliefs, we double down and become even more sure of our beliefs.
The truth: No belief structure is 100% bulletproof. There is always information that contradicts what we want to believe, and doubling down doesn't change reality.
Example: A study done by the American Academy of Pediatrics showed that interventions with parents who opposed vaccination had the opposite effect of what was intended. When presented information about the benefits of vaccines (including photos of children who had contracted preventable diseases and almost died), and the lack of evidence for the harm vaccines can cause, parents became even more convinced not to vaccinate their children.
What to do: Become aware that your brain does this as a self-protective reflex, and try to keep an open mind when conflicting facts are presented to you.
5- Bandwagon effect
The lie: If other people around me are doing something, it's probably a good thing to do.
The truth: Other people are notoriously unreliable. Following them blindly puts you at the mercy of their values and beliefs which may turn out not to be correct or reflective of your own.
Example: Also known as groupthink, this also arises from our brain's laziness in trying to cut corners. Examples of the bandwagon effect can be seen everywhere people take cues from what's popular- in fashion, music, and on social media. People pick a restaurant based on how crowded the parking lot is. They pick movies based on reviews of other people. They buy clothes and music because it's popular. Fads can grow enormous due to this effect and then die out quickly as people grow bored.
What to do: Be aware that we all do this. Sometimes it's a great mental shortcut that helps you find good new things and avoid bad things. But sometimes the crowd isn't so wise and you might miss out on things right under your nose that are flying under the radar.
6- Blind Spot Bias
The lie: Other people are biased, but not me.
The truth: We are just as biased as everybody else, but don't like to admit it.
Example: Most people don't consider themselves racist, because it's a negative thing. But looking objectively at society today, racism is alive and well. According to a study published in Psychology Today, students who had anonymously admitted to racist behavior judged themselves superior to others who did the exact same thing. The Better than Average Effect is a related bias where 90+% of the people routinely rate themselves above average in looks, intelligence, and other desirable traits, not aware that only 49% can truly call themselves above average. Blind spot bias uncovers our brain's self-centeredness and inability to understand life from other people's perspectives.
What to do: Ask someone else who would be a good judge about your blind spots. You may be surprised at what you hear if they have the courage to tell you things honestly.
7- Choice Supportive Bias
The lie: If I choose something, it's got to be better than the alternatives. I don't need to re-examine my choices or change my mind.
The truth: Our brains distrust choices, because they invite uncertainty. We may not know if we made the right choice until years later. We defend our choices strongly after making them because changing our mind and opening the choice back up is mentally strenuous. Choices are imperfect and emotional exercises between multiple options, and picking the absolute best option all the time is impossible.
Example: Buying a car is a huge choice for many. Once we make the decision, we tend to overestimate the benefits of the brand and model of car we buy, and overlook its flaws or the benefits of competing cars that we didn't choose. For the biggest choices, like spouses, religions, or political affiliations, our brains work extra hard to make us feel good about making them.
What to do: Be aware that your brain does this. Your choices aren't necessarily better just because you made them at one time. Circumstances change. Be ready to re-examine choices when they reasonably start looking like bad ones, and don't be afraid to get feedback from others to overcome your own personal blind spots.
8- Clustering Illusion
The lie: If things happen close together, it's very possible that one thing led to another.
The truth: Sometimes, random things just happen. Occasionally they seem related, but both appear in our lives independently of each other. Causal relationships do exist, but they are rarely 100%, and sometimes they're hard to distinguish.
Example: Also known as the Texas Sharpshooter's Fallacy, clustering comes from creating meaning from random events when there is none to be found. Our brains love meaning and stories and hate randomness. If a brain can find no meaning, sometimes it will make one up. Examples include seeing shapes in the clouds in the sky, believing a slice of bread is shaped like the virgin Mary, being sure that you have a "lucky shirt" that will make your favorite sports team win when you wear it, or becoming superstitious about unrelated things that might change your luck in general.
What to do: Be aware of your mind's need for consistency, meaning, and stories in the midst of chaos. Look for causality when you can prove it, but accept that sometimes things just happen for no reason at all.
9- Confirmation Bias
The lie: We only like to listen to information that confirms things that we already believe. We screen out anything that might contradict our beliefs.
The truth: Our beliefs are flawed, and there will always be information out there that contradicts them. Not paying attention to it doesn't mean it isn't there.
Example: This is one of the most well-known of the cognitive biases and examples are everywhere. Social media algorithms are some of the most flagrant examples of this bias, because companies like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube want you to spend as much time as possible on their platforms. To do that they cater your experience towards things they know about you, feeding you things you are most likely to agree with. Users who consume too much social media or cable television can get a skewed view of the world because they've only taken it a tiny portion of the spectrum of information out there.
What to do: Our brains are lazy and have fragile egos. Accept this fact and make an effort to vary your information intake. Don't rely only on social media or one-sided television pundits, because they will only tell you only what they think you want to hear so you'll keep watching.
10- Conformity bias
The lie: Go along to get along
The truth: Conforming to the behaviors of others robs people of their individuality and chances to make choices. Each of us has a unique gift to present to the world, and hiding it under the blanket of conformity deadens us inside.
Examples: Conformity bias is like the bandwagon effect, but it refers to a lifelong choice, not a single fad that one might join mindlessly. Conformity is a shortcut that makes it easier on the brain, releasing it from having to make stressful choices or remember lots of information. There are two main categories of conformity- compliance, where people dress alike and follow the same rules, (the military, boardrooms, private schools) and internalization, where people align their beliefs and opinions around what everybody else thinks,(cults, gangs, politicians).
What to do: Conformity is a helpful shortcut sometimes, and it comes naturally to us as social animals. But too much conformity can muzzle important new ideas and stifle growth. Nurture something inside of you that doesn't conform to those around you (like a love of polka music, for instance), and try not to judge others for their personal, individual quirks.
Our brains are not possessed by evil spirits. They have our best interests at heart and are lying to us to protect us. There is just too much confusing information out there in the world and our brain protects us with two helpful but flawed processes. First, they filter out the information and try to only let in the stuff that will matter to us and help us survive. And second, since the information can be conflicted and confusing, our brains help us to understand it by adding meaning and making up stories to give us the ability to deal with it as best we can.
Cognitive biases are helpful in a lot of ways at making sense of a world that often doesn't make any sense at all. But they make us blind to many, many things and distort our perception of the world and people around us, ultimately making our tasks harder in many ways. Becoming aware of cognitive biases is the first step in taking charge of your own reality. The next step is to move past those biases and step towards dealing with the world as it truly is.
This is the first 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.