10 Mental Biases & How To Fight Them
Irrationality rules the world. Quite literally, these days.
Global leaders behaving like little boys, threatening each other with their oversized toys. Fake news spreading like wildfire. Needless technology receiving millions in funding.
It’s a great time to be alive, but sometimes I wish Plato were still around to remind us of one of his big ideas: Think more.
Frustrated by the tendency of his fellow Greeks to act mostly on impulse, he always prompted them to examine their own lives. The goal was to think for yourself and be less trapped by doxa — the Greek word for common sense or popular opinion.
This is why we love Elon Musk so much. We see someone, who can objectively look at the world, build their reasoning from the ground up and then make decisions grounded in reality — and we think they’re a genius.
Actually, he’s just doing what we were supposed to all along: think for ourselves. It’s that we do so little of it. As Tim Urban notes on Wait But Why:
“We spent this whole time trying to figure out the mysterious workings of the mind of a madman genius only to realize that Musk’s secret sauce is that he’s the only one being normal. And in isolation, Musk would be a pretty boring subject — it’s the backdrop of us that makes him interesting.”
So how do we get back to rational? How can we think more and more clearly?
It is here that Musk and Plato agree, though one learned from physics, the other from philosophy: we must start with a clean slate. Plato’s old friend and mentor puts it in a nutshell.
“The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.” — Socrates
It’s a process of getting back to square one so you can start fresh, this time from your own perspective. The way we begin this process is by ridding ourselves of our modern-day version of doxa: mental biases.
They fall into different categories and are shortcuts our brain uses to deal with too much information, figure out what to remember, fill in gaps in meaning and act fast when we need to. At the same time, these cognitive design flaws silently ruin our lives, one decision at a time.
There are many of them and some are worse than others. Here are the ten we must try to fight the hardest — and one way to do the fighting.
Belief: The Backfire Effect
You’ve probably heard of confirmation bias, which is our tendency to seek information that confirms our opinions, rather than form those opinions from the best information available. While troublesome, I’m much more worried about its bigger brother: the backfire effect.
For example, if you’ve agreed with me in the intro that Elon Musk is awesome, you’ll likely have felt a tad of cognitive dissonance at Tim’s statement that in isolation, Musk would be a boring subject.
This is why corrections in the news world don’t work. They never get as many views and only enhance the previous idea. The facts are gone, the feeling remains.
As you go through the following biases and catch yourself thinking: “that’s definitely not me,” you know what’s going on.
Great poker players are less affected by mental biases because they’re probability machines. Not only can they estimate the likelihood of events with more accuracy, but the habit of constantly trying to estimate alone comes with a lot of benefits.
Out of all the biases around probability, the following two continue to drive a huge wedge between us and our personal success.
The ambiguity effect is our impulse to avoid options for which we don’t have enough information to make a good probability guess. It stops us from chasing our big goals, because we’re not considering what’s realistically possible.
We’d rather spend $100 on lottery tickets than on stocks or cryptocurrencies, because the information required to gauge the probability of making a profit is easier to obtain.
If we did our homework, we’d often see our probabilities are better than we think and we control them more than we know.
When we don’t know our chances, we default to following those we can see. Tim has a successful blog. Tim writes this way. I want a successful blog, so I’ll write like Tim.
This logical fallacy is called survivorship bias — the trend to focus on the elements and people that remain at the end, thus neglecting probability.
There may have been hundreds, thousands or millions of people who started blogs and wrote like Tim, but didn’t make it. Therefore, using Tim as a proxy is in no way playing it safe. It’s just playing copycat.
Risk is often lumped together with probability. However, while the chance of a bad event occurring is important to consider, risk has another component, which is just as easy to misjudge: its magnitude.
But don’t worry, we suck at estimating both.
This bias indicates we prefer to eliminate whatever little risk is left completely, rather than opting for an overall greater reduction with some remaining. It’s the reason we get a heart attack when the phone rings and the caller ID says it’s our boss’s boss. Our brain blows the magnitude of the worst-case scenario way out of proportion.
All anxiety is is experiencing failure in advance. — Seth Godin
The zero-risk bias explains why insurance companies can charge a premium for full coverage and why we’d rather give up cereal completely than eat more vegetables — the latter might reduce our risk for diabetes more, but the former feels safer.
Neglect of Probability
In our aspirations we might fail at probability estimation, but when it comes to risk, we often abandon the effort altogether. Neglect of probability leads us to respond only to the magnitude of an event, not its likelihood.
Since we’re so bad at estimating that magnitude, however, we end up ignoring small risks, like falling down the stairs, altogether, while assuming certainty for great ones — if any plane were to crash, it must be ours.
The combination of these two biases explains most of our misplaced fear.
“We’re more afraid of public speaking than texting on the highway, more afraid of approaching an attractive stranger in a bar than marrying the wrong person, more afraid of not being able to afford the same lifestyle as our friends than spending 50 years in meaningless career — all because embarrassment, rejection, and not fitting in really sucked for hunters and gatherers.” — Tim Urban, Wait But Why
When we look at the people we consider bold risk-takers, the great entrepreneurs, investors and artists of our time, most of them just turn out to have an accurate understanding of risk and probability.
It’s what allows Warren Buffett to buy when everyone’s panicking and sell when others fall for the hype.
“We simply attempt to be fearful when others are greedy and to be greedy only when others are fearful.” — Warren Buffett
Social: The Bandwagon Effect
In the Iraq War, a U.S. army major managed to prevent riots by keeping food vendors away from large squares and social gatherings. This way, there was no fuel for peoples’ undirected anger and they turned home, rather than into a mob.
The forces at play here are herd behavior and group think, where a large group takes action without explicitly agreeing on a direction and everyone joining in to not conflict with the group. The bandwagon effect is a specific, everyday life version of it. It’s why we believe and do things, solely for the reason that many others also do.
A classic example is when you have to choose between two restaurants and go with the one that’s more crowded, because hey, it must be good, right? But if everyone before you went by the same logic, inevitably the first guests chose at random between two empty restaurants.
“Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect.” — Mark Twain
Memory: The Spotlight Effect
The spotlight effect is a social bias that manifests itself in our memory. It’s the belief we hold that everyone is watching our every move, all the time.
The reason is simple: we are the center of our universe. We live in our own heads, 24/7. Therefore, it’s natural we overestimate our role in everyone else’s life too. But you’re not the only one who can’t imagine the world without you — everyone else is just as focused on themselves, which means they don’t really have the time to, well, watch you.
This imagined spotlight that puts us center stage is turned on in high school, when all we care about is who did what with whom at what time. Inevitably, it spills over into adulthood and leaves us too cautious to publish that honest blog post, say what we think or try something unusual.
We’ve learned about seven mental biases so far. Imagine not just one, but all of them are influencing your thinking right now — because that’s exactly what’s happening. That’s the environment we’re supposed to make decisions in.
So what do most of us default to? Right. More of the same.
Decision-Making: Irrational Escalation
Success often hinges on doing things differently — you know, in our own way. It doesn’t guarantee we’ll land a hit, but it improves the odds. Sadly, that’s exactly what our mental biases hold us back from.
They lead to what behavioral scientists call escalation of commitment. We continue down the same path, even if it’s an irrational one. To stay safe, we do more of the same. What’s always been done.
This irrational escalation happens in several ways and it destroys our growth.
When nobel prize winner Daniel Kahneman handed people mugs and told them they were worth $5, he found out in spite of knowing the value, nobody was willing to sell the good at the same price. This is known as the endowment effect. We value goods more, simply because we own them.
This leads to loss aversion. As soon as we have something, we have something to lose — and losing hurts up to twice more than winning makes us happy.
So we spend most of our days preserving what we have instead of going for what else we want.
Sunk Cost Fallacy
Funny enough, while we’re trying hard to avoid losses, when we’re losing, the sunk cost fallacy makes sure we lose big. When a path of action becomes irrational, we continue on it solely to be consistent with our previous actions.
How many times have you left the theatre when the movie was bad? Do you go to events you paid for, even if you don’t feel like going the day of? When you’ve invested time or money into something that doesn’t work out, it’s hard to face that failure, man up and move on.
But wasting more time and money, just to avoid that realization, is much costlier in the long run. If we thought of buying ourselves options, not obligations, we would remain free to make the best decision — no matter the sunk cost.
Parkinson’s Law of Triviality
You might be familiar with Parkinson’s Law: “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” Coined by the same Parkinson is the Law of Triviality, sometimes also referred to as bike-shedding: In an effort to avoid the cognitive discomfort that stems from dealing with all the above and solving complex problems, we spend disproportionate amounts of time on trivial issues.
When you start a blog, designing the logo, choosing the colors, optimizing your menu and link structure all seem really important. It’s easy to get lost in those details for weeks when really, all you had to do was write.
There’s Something on Your Windshield
It’d be nice if we had to deal with just one mental bias at a time. We’d open our mental bias playbook, flip to page 19 and take the specific steps needed to handle the culprit. But that’s not how it works.
There are dozens of cognitive glitches, working against us every second of every day. Me, while I’m writing this. You, while you’re reading this. Almost 200 of them are listed on Wikipedia. And those are just the ones we’ve identified so far.
While they’re so omnipresent they’re just a part of life, you can think of them like raindrops on your windshield. A few speckles here and there won’t completely cloud your vision, but if they fill every inch, you might as well drive in the dark.
Since there are way too many to fight each one explicitly, we need one tool to deal with at least a decent bunch of them. A bias against biases, if you will. To our best knowledge, that bias is awareness.
It’s not the perfect wiper, but at least you’ll see if you drive on the right road.
The Solution: Your Stress Response
Most of our mental biases date back to a time when quick decisions determined our survival. The tool we can use to fight them is just as old.
Even today our initial reaction to most stressors is to treat them like potential death threats. You know, just to be safe. The reaction that plays out is called fight-or-flight response. Our body releases a cocktail of adrenaline and cortisol, which increases our heart rate, dilates our pupils and triggers tunnel vision. But hidden in this physical power stance lies our golden arrow.
In his book, What Every Body Is Saying, ex-FBI agent and body language expert Joe Navarro observes a third component of our stress response: the freeze reaction. Neither fight nor flight are viable options in school or at the office, so we default to first freezing in place, like our ancestors did when a T-Rex walked by.
“One purpose of the freeze response is to avoid detection by dangerous predators or in dangerous situations. A second purpose is to give the threatened individual the opportunity to assess the situation and determine the best course of action to take.”
This second purpose is our holy grail. Our chance to ask: “What’s really going on? Is my brain tricking me here?”
Thanks to our ancestors, the basics of the freeze response still remain intact, but it takes a more conscious effort make it our go-to reaction. Due to all our biases, an internal conflict arises with each external threat. Our goal must be to use the break we catch with the freeze response to shift our attention to what’s going on inside.
In her book, The Willpower Instinct, Stanford psychologist Kelly McGonigal has dubbed this better version of our stress reaction the pause-and-plan response.
“The pause-and-plan response puts your body into a calmer state, but not too sedate. The goal is not to paralyze you in the face of internal conflict, but to give you freedom. By keeping you from immediately following your impulses, the pause-and-plan response gives you the time for more flexible, thoughtful action.”
The moment you acknowledge a mental bias it loses its power. Thankfully, McGonigal also shares what that moment looks like.
“The pause-and-plan response drives you in the opposite direction of the fight-or-flight response. Instead of speeding up, your heart slows down, and your blood pressure stays normal. Instead of hyperventilating like a madman, you take a deep breath. Instead of tensing muscles to prime them for action, your body relaxes a little.”
Breathing. You’re doing it right now. But taking a deep breath? Please, do it right now. It’s amazing how shallow our most important survival mechanism becomes without us even noticing. Breaking that pattern is our escape from the grasp of doxa. Our fresh start with a clean slate.
Every decision is better after a single, deep breath.
More breathing, more thinking. Deeper breathing, deeper thinking.
“The heaviest penalty for declining to rule is to be ruled by someone inferior to yourself.” — Plato
Plato was referring to politics with this quote, but it extends to all of life, really. The first place we must rule then, is our own mind. The goal isn’t to think perfectly. It’s to not let others do the thinking for you.
Among the long list of mental biases, there even is one describing our tendency to think of ourselves as less biased than we actually are. It’s called our bias blind spot.
If nothing else, I hope it’s now a smaller raindrop on your windshield.