People’s natural tendency to misinterpret situations

Dr. Bruno Roque Cignacco (PHD)

The most relevant decisions made by people are based on information stemming from their environment, and insights into their own experiences. The analysis and interpretation of relevant data is necessary for different people’s activities such as planning, budgeting, deciding which products and services to buy, among others.

In my penultimate book , I mentioned that people have the natural tendency to misapprehend most situations affecting them. This misinterpretation of information affects all people, with no exception. All information that people are aware of is tainted by their subjective interpretation; people never capture raw information from their environment in a literal manner.

People’s misinterpretations of reality are affected by numerous cognitive distortions, also called cognitive errors, mental biases or mind fallacies. These distortions consist of ingrained patterns of thought that lead business people to an incorrect reasoning and interpretation of their own experiences and environment. These biases twist people’ interpretation of situations they go through in certain ways. These distortions prompt people to selectively highlight specific pieces of data and discard others.

These distortive patterns of thought prevent them from interpreting information in a useful and effective manner. Some scientific studies state that these biases are a product of unreflective swift judgments of the environment. All these distortive patterns of thinking are subconscious.

Most people do not even notice these distortions in themselves or others or disbelieve their existence. These routine ways of thinking are very common and work on a very subtle level. Cognitive distortions make a person’s perspective on circumstances unique and different from others’. Below there is an indicative list of the most representative biases.

- Focusing only on information confirming your own beliefs and leaving aside all data that does not validate them.

- Categorizing and labelling situations, people and things in a subjective manner; this includes stereotyping, which means assigning similar characteristics to all representatives of specific groups.

- Making everything personal or addressed to you, even things which are completely unrelated to you.

- Neglecting the positive aspects of any situation, focusing exclusively on its negative traits.

- Dismissing significant changes in your environment especially when you don’t pay close attention to them, which is scientifically called inattentional blindness.

- “Reading” other minds, being completely sure what other people are thinking.

- Giving credibility to a fact just because it is believed or preferred by a majority.

- Believing that you control all things in your life, despite countless evidence of uncontrollable factors affecting you.

- Jumping into conclusions based on incomplete information.

- Using presumptions; this means interpreting facts in a certain manner without any valid evidence supporting it.

- Correlating factors without having solid evidence of the relationship between them.

- Minimizing or exaggerating the traits of current or future situations.

- Discarding relevant information necessary for the analysis of a situation.

- Remembering your past experiences in a distorted manner.

- Deciding based on your feelings rather than on your rationale; assessing potential risks and benefits of situations primarily based on your emotions.

- Acting based on your own or others’ expectations.

- Being easily influenced by experts or people with authority, without challenging the validity of their opinions.

- “Predicting” the future; tendency to overestimate or underestimate future outcomes: this can include black or white thinking which implies narrowing down possible consequences to two opposite ones.

- Believing that every circumstance is brought about by one or a few causes, dismissing the multi-causality of all situations.

- Believing that the future is equal to the past and acting accordingly.

- Overvaluing scant resources, believing that scarce resources are actually abundant.

- Keeping the status quo of things, even when more positive choices exist.

- Believing that other people interpret situations in the same way as you do.

- Being affected by first impressions and becoming unable to substantially modify them over time.

- Magnifying your strengths and dismissing your weaknesses, tending to overestimate your own knowledge about a topic.

- Generalizing one-off situations, taking them into account to draw general conclusions.

- Assigning meaningful relevance to random events (this includes superstitious behavior, etc.).

- Accepting odd explanations for things or events you don’t clearly understand.

- Believing that your recollection is made up of literal reflections of past circumstances, dismissing the fact that your memories are transformed and distorted over time.

- Analyzing facts based on the most available information in your memory, without considering its suitability.

- Being affected by contrast in your decisions (for example, as a buyer, you are more likely to accept a discount of £10 on a product costing £20, than a discount of £10 on a good costing £1000, even though the discount is the same in both cases).

- Not knowing if your actions are actually guided by divine inspiration or driven by your past subconscious memories.

All people are affected by these cognitive distortions in specific ways. The upside of these subconscious shortcuts is that they help people interpret the intrinsically complex aspects of their environment in an easier and hastier way. Mental biases provide them with a quick sense of certainty before ambiguous situations.

However, the downside of this set of biases is that they distort people’s interpretation facts and circumstances. These biases don’t allow people to have an unpolluted perspective of reality. On many occasions, these biases don’t allow people to evaluate situations thoroughly because, by their essence, these mental distortions narrow people’s discernment skills. These fallacies might lead people to draw incorrect or baseless conclusions. People should be aware of these mental biases and regularly ask themselves questions like:

  • How would other people interpret this situation?
  • What would be the most objective interpretation of this situation?
  • Which are my biases affecting my reasoning in this situation?

My last book book “The Art of Compassionate Business: Main Principles for the Human-Oriented Enterprise” (2019, Routledge — Productivity Press) is coming out in March 2019 and it can be pre-ordered here

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