You know, truth is a funny thing. It’s funny because we humans have made it funny.
Before we delve into the unpredictable nature of human behavior, please understand that this is not an attack piece on our species. Again, this is not an attack piece on us homo sapiens. Instead, the purpose behind this writing is to encourage all of us – including the writer (who’s certainly been known to make boneheaded choices, on occasion) – to gain a better understanding of the inherent flaws of human rationality. What flaws, you ask?
Merely this: Far too many people – perhaps the majority – believe what they want to believe. Many of us who feign interest in the truth will go only so far as our preconceived notions permit. To quote Jack Nicholson’s character Colonel Jessop in A Few Good Men, “You can’t handle the truth!” Replace Jessop’s “You” with “We” – as in the collective “We” – and we edge a bit closer to the actual truth.
And then there’s ignorance – the “lack of knowledge or information.” This is to say that too many of us don’t bother properly educating ourselves on a topic – and we’ll reach a conclusion nonetheless. Facts and evidence be damned. As you’ll see, this mental shortcut can have disastrous consequences.
But what about when someone shows us contradictory evidence? Evidence that should flip our opinion? Well, we humans have a way of discounting that too – something called confirmation bias, or “favoring information that confirms your previously existing beliefs or biases.” We’ll talk a bit more about cognitive biases below.
In this article, we are going to discuss the biological underpinning of decision-making, more specifically irrational decision-making. We’ll also explain five facts that people still believe but should not. Finally, we’ll wrap it up by giving you some tips for thinking more clearly and rationally! Let’s do this!
“Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn’t.” – Mark Twain
Cognitive biases (a.k.a. “mental shortcuts”)
“A cognitive bias is a systematic pattern of deviation from the norm or rationality in judgment. Individuals create their own ‘subjective social reality’ for their perception of the input.” – Wikipedia
Most human errors in judgment – from the trivial to the tragic – can be attributed to cognitive bias. The scary thing is that we all have them whether we realize it; unless you’re willing to (a) accept, (b) understand, and (c) act on this cognitive malfunction, you’re going to continue to fall prey to biases.
There are literally dozens of cognitive biases. Here are 10 of the more renowned:
Overreliance on initial information in making decisions. For example, “The President of the company said it’ll be profitable, so it will be!”
Overestimating of the importance or relevance of something based upon the prevalence of information. An example: “I saw this place on T.V! It’s got to be good!”
The increased likelihood of believing something that others have adopted as true. For instance: “This whole department knows that we can’t take on any more customers!”
Overestimating the importance of small trends in a large data set, such as: “Look at that! For the past week, we’ve had temperature in the 40s. Where is this so-called global warming?!”
Focusing exclusively on information that confirms one’s own preconceived notions. For example: “Political Party ‘A’ always does a better job than Political Party ‘B’. Just look at the unemployment numbers!”
Sharing a disingenuous opinion on the basis that said opinion is more socially acceptable, such as, “Yeah, I’ve changed my mind about her. I should’ve listened to you all.”
Thinking that the odds of something occurring are higher based on past events when they are unchanged. For example: “Two winning hands in a row? This has to be lucky number three!”
Illusion of validity:
Overestimating the ability to make accurate predictions despite contrary data. “This phone worked fine in China, so it should be fine here!” (Nope, don’t do it!)
Status quo bias:
Preferring things to remain the same rather than change. We all know that saying, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!”
Downplaying the validity of an otherwise acceptable idea on the basis that it originates from an adversary. For example: “None of his ideas are any good. I don’t care about his ‘track record’!”
Believing that someone possesses certain personality traits based on characterizations of that group. It’s like assuming, “I’m stuck behind an old, slow driver again. Is there any other kind?”
5 Facts People Shouldn’t Believe
Now that we’ve discussed the flaws in the human decision-making process, let’s talk about some of the more well-known “facts” that people should double-check:
#1 “I think, therefore I am.”
This quote comes from the French philosopher, Descartes, who believed that found the most fundamental truth when he made this famous statement. In fact, Descartes – and most of us reading these words – err when we equate thinking with being.
The truth is that we can exist without thinking. It isn’t an exaggeration to say that we may, in fact, be better off. Primordial awareness, that is, consciousness, is not dependent upon thought. Thought is dependent upon consciousness.
Are there neural correlates for every human action and thought? Perhaps. But awareness is why Descartes was and why we are. Not thoughts.
#2 “I can influence random events.”
There’s a well-known phenomenon in psychology circles called the illusion of control. The illusion of control is the somewhat silly yet widespread notion that we humans can influence random events. Perhaps the most obvious example of this oddity is the lottery. Millions upon millions of lottery ticket holders believe that by picking their own numbers, they have a better chance at winning the coveted jackpot.
Such a belief is, of course, ridiculous. (Sorry, Mom! Love you!) Why? Well, to begin with, lottery numbers are drawn at random. By definition, “random” means no order; no logic, no predictability. While it’s sweet that you pick your kids birthdays for your “lucky numbers,” doing so will not give you a better chance than anyone else!
#3 “Evolution isn’t real.”
It’s sad that in this age of knowledge that people deny a fundamental truth of science – evolution by natural selection. According to the Pew Research Center, just 60 percent of adults acknowledge some truths of evolutionary theory. Only 24 percent of adults believe that evolution occurs over time. The percentage of scientists who believe in evolution? Something like 99 percent.
The writer and many others attribute these numbers to a byproduct of religious fanaticism. But despite what extremists claim, evolution doesn’t “rule out” the existence of a Creator. Even if it did, the object of science is to discover verifiable, replicable truths. In other words, where there is science, let there be science and where there is religion, let there be religion.
#4 “Multitasking is productive.”
Something would have to exist to be productive, and multitasking fails this requirement. Neuroscientists (individuals who study the brain) have repeatedly disproven the notion that multitasking is possible, much less productive. The only potential caveat? Simple tasks, like chewing gum and walking or listening to the radio and driving. Even with these simple tasks, it is unclear as to if we walk or drive as effectively as we could with no distractions.
What actually happens when you believe yourself to be multitasking is that your brain is switching rapidly between two points of focus. Only, this is occurring so quickly that one can’t readily tell the difference.
#5 “Rich people are born that way.”
Look, there may be good reasons to look upon wealth with a skeptical eye, especially when people are going to bed hungry every night. But for some reason, many Americans have a disdainful view of the rich in our country. Not to mention the rich are perhaps the most misunderstood segment of the population.
Here are the facts regarding the rich that few people know:
- 80 percent of America’s millionaires are first-generation rich.
- The vast majority of those with a net worth over $1 million are “earners and savers.”
- 1.4 percent of the wealthiest Americans are responsible for 86 percent of all charitable contributions.
Final Thoughts: Thinking more rationally
As stated, cognitive biases – or “mental shortcuts” – are things that we all succumb to. Awareness of these biases makes it possible to become aware of these biases and challenge them. If you’ve accepted the fact that cognitive biases are inherent in human thinking, then you’ve already taken the first, and perhaps most important, step to thinking more rationally.
Here are a few tips that may help you think more clearly:
- Maintain a healthy lifestyle by eating right and exercising regularly.
- Use more than one source (newspaper, journal article, etc.) when forming your opinion on a topic.
- Always give your full attention to the topic at hand.
- “Trust, but verify.”
- Extract the main points of any narrative and examine them for consistency.