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Why Our Minds Can’t Be Trusted And What We Can Do With It

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Why Our Minds Can’t Be Trusted And What We Can Do With It

How often do you ride on a car? Even if you don’t have your own car, you must have seen one. I want to start this piece with a small challenge for you. Using only your memory, recall it in your mind a car you often see.

Okay, I see the wheels, the window, and the overall car frame. Does it look anything like this?

    Oh but wait, what about the headlights and tail lights? Where’s the handle for opening the doors? And where’re the mirrors?

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    Why would we miss so many of those things? Don’t we all have a clear idea what a car is like?

    We believe that we know way more than we actually do.

    Yes we do. In a study conducted at Yale[1], graduate students were asked about their understanding in everyday devices like toilets. Most thought that they were familiar with the device, only after they were asked to explain step-by-step how the device works did they find out how ignorant they were. Toilets are more complicated than they look.

    We believe that we know way more than we do because most of the time, we only need to rely on others’ expertise to operate something. Take the bicycle and toilets as examples, we don’t really need to figure out how the whole thing works in order to operate them. As written by the authors of The Knowledge Illusion: Why We Never Think Alone,[2]

    “One implication of the naturalness with which we divide cognitive labor is that there’s “no sharp boundary between one person’s ideas and knowledge, and those of other members of the group”

    Very often, our knowledge and beliefs are actually someone elses’ without us even realizing it. Maybe you’ve already started to be more aware of this fact especially when the social media has such a great impact on our daily lives these days.

    When deep understanding is not always required, biases arise.

    The tendency that people embrace only information that supports their own beliefs is commonly known as “confirmation bias”, and it is dangerous. When we believe what we think is always right, our faulty thinking will harm the truth and disrupt our growth.

    Did everyone really understand the political situations in the US before they voiced out their opinions? And it’s pretty obvious that not everyone in the UK understood the whole Brexit thing before they voted for it, right? These are just some of the many examples of how others’ beliefs and knowledge got easily spread over the internet and people just picked up those thoughts without further understanding the truth.

    Business journalists often suffer from the confirmation bias. In the books The Art of Thinking Clearly[3], there’s an example about a statement “Google is so successful because the company nurtures a culture of creativity”, and how once this idea goes on paper, journalists only need to support the statement by mentioning other same successful companies without seeking disconfirming evidence. No more different perspectives, people will always see just one tip of the iceberg.

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    When winning becomes more important than reasoning, chaos come.

    On the other hand, when presented with someone else’s argument, we tend to be more skeptical; and there comes the term “myside bias”.

    In an experiment performed by a cognitive scientist Hugo Mercier,[4] participants had to answer some questions, and later they were presented their own answers but were made to believe those were others’ answers. They became a lot more critical about the answers than when they were simply asked to modify their answers to be better.

    In some situations, when winning seems to be more beneficial, reasoning clearly becomes unimportant to most of us. And this makes us more blinded than ever to spot out our own weaknesses.

    To think more clearly, “murder your darlings”.

    “Murder your darlings” is the literary critic Arthur Quiller-Couch’s advice[5] for writers who are reluctant to cut their cherished redundant sentences in their works. We can apply this concept to how we think too.

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    To fight against biases, let go of your “cherished thoughts” that you have to be right, and set out to find disconfirming evidence of all your beliefs — whether they be relationships, political views or career objectives. The stronger you believe in something, the more you should seek out alternative views of it.

    The rule of three

    An even more effective way to overcome bias is using the rule of three[6] — identify three potential causes of an outcome. In fact, the more possibilities you can come up with, the less biased you’d be towards any single outcome.

    Say next time, if you see an outcome that isn’t what you expect at work, instead of thinking it must be that irresponsible and careless guy who messed up the stuff, try to think of three potential causes: Maybe there’re instructions missing at the beginning? Maybe the guy already did his job but something went wrong afterwards? Maybe it’s something external that affected the outcome of this?

    Thinking through alternative possibilities help unravel the unnecessary attachments we have to the “cherished” thoughts, so we can have a more complete picture of how things are. When you learn to “murder your darlings” and embrace different views, your horizon will be widened and you’ll see a limitless world.

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    Featured photo credit: Stocksnap via stocksnap.io

    Reference

    [1] Steven Sloman, a professor at Brown & Philip Fernbach, a professor at the University of Colorado, The Knowledge Illusion: Why We Never Think Alone
    [2] Steven Sloman, a professor at Brown & Philip Fernbach, a professor at the University of Colorado, The Knowledge Illusion: Why We Never Think Alone
    [3] Role Dobelli: The Art of Thinking Clearly
    [4] Cognitive scientists Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber: The Enigma of Reason (Harvard)
    [5] Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch: On the Art of Writing
    [6] Benjamin L. Luippold, Ph.D.; Stephen Perreault, CPA, Ph.D.; and James Wainberg, Ph.D.: Overcome Confirmation Bias

    More by this author

    Anna Chui

    Anna is the Chief Editor and Content Strategist of Lifehack. She's also a communication expert who shares tips on motivation and relationships.

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    Last Updated on November 18, 2021

    10 Proven Ways to Judge a Person’s Character

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    10 Proven Ways to Judge a Person’s Character

    We all fall into the trap of judging a person’s character by their appearance. How wrong we are! All too often, the real character of the person only appears when some negative event hits them or you. Then you may see a toxic person emerging from the ruins and it is often a shock.

    A truly frightening example is revealed in the book by O’Toole in Bowman called Dangerous Instincts: How Gut Instincts Betray Us. A perfectly respectable, charming, well dressed neighbor was found to have installed a torture chamber in his garage where he was systematically abusing kidnapped women. This is an extreme example, but it does show how we can be totally deceived by a person’s physical appearance, manners and behavior.

    So, what can you do? You want to be able to assess personal qualities when you come into contact with colleagues, fresh acquaintances and new friends who might even become lifelong partners. You want to know if they are:

    • honest
    • reliable
    • competent
    • kind and compassionate
    • capable of taking the blame
    • able to persevere
    • modest and humble
    • pacific and can control anger.

    The secret is to reserve judgment and take your time. Observe them in certain situations; look at how they react. Listen to them talking, joking, laughing, explaining, complaining, blaming, praising, ranting, and preaching. Only then will you be able to judge their character. This is not foolproof, but if you follow the 10 ways below, you have a pretty good chance of not ending up in an abusive relationship.

    1. Is anger a frequent occurrence?

    All too often, angry reactions which may seem to be excessive are a sign that there are underlying issues. Do not think that every person who just snaps and throws his/her weight around mentally and physically is just reacting normally. Everyone has an occasional angry outburst when driving or when things go pear-shaped.

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    But if this is almost a daily occurrence, then you need to discover why and maybe avoid that person. Too often, anger will escalate to violent and aggressive behavior. You do not want to be near someone who thinks violence can solve personal or global problems.

    2. Can you witness acts of kindness?

    How often do you see this person being kind and considerate? Do they give money to beggars, donate to charity, do voluntary work or in some simple way show that they are willing to share the planet with about 7 billion other people?

    I was shocked when a guest of mine never showed any kindness to the weak and disadvantaged people in our town. She was ostensibly a religious person, but I began to doubt the sincerity of her beliefs.

    “The best index to a person’s character is how he treats people who can’t do him any good, and how he treats people who can’t fight back.”

    Abigail Van Buren

    3. How does this person take the blame?

    Maybe you know that s/he is responsible for a screw-up in the office or even in not turning up on time for a date. Look at their reaction. If they start blaming other colleagues or the traffic, well, this is an indication that they are not willing to take responsibility for their mistakes.

    4. Don’t use Facebook as an indicator.

    You will be relieved to know that graphology (the study of that forgotten skill of handwriting) is no longer considered a reliable test of a person’s character. Neither is Facebook stalking, fortunately. A study showed that Facebook use of foul language, sexual innuendo and gossip were not reliable indicators of a candidate’s character or future performance in the workplace.

    5. Read their emails.

    Now a much better idea is to read the person’s emails. Studies show that the use of the following can indicate certain personality traits:

    • Too many exclamation points may reveal a sunny disposition
    • Frequent errors may indicate apathy
    • Use of smileys is the only way a person can smile at you
    • Use of the third person may reveal a certain formality
    • Too many question marks can show anger
    • Overuse of capital letters is regarded as shouting. They are a definite no-no in netiquette, yet a surprising number of  people still use them.

    6. Watch out for the show offs.

    Listen to people as they talk. How often do they mention their achievements, promotions, awards and successes? If this happens a lot, it is a sure indication that this person has an over-inflated view of his/her achievements. They are unlikely to be modest or show humility. What a pity!  Another person to avoid.

    7. Look for evidence of perseverance.

    A powerful indicator of grit and tenacity is when a person persists and never gives up when they really want to achieve a life goal. Look for evidence of them keeping going in spite of enormous difficulties.

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    Great achievements by scientists and inventors all bear the hallmark of perseverance. We only have to think of Einstein, Edison (who failed thousands of times) and Nelson Mandela to get inspiration. The US Department of Education is in no doubt about how grit, tenacity and perseverance will be key success factors for youth in the 21st century.

    8. Their empathy score is high.

    Listen to how they talk about the less fortunate members of our society such as the poor, immigrants and the disabled. Do you notice that they talk in a compassionate way about these people? The fact that they even mention them is a strong indicator of empathy.

    People with zero empathy will never talk about the disadvantaged. They will rarely ask you a question about a difficult time or relationship. They will usually steer the conversation back to themselves. These people have zero empathy and in extreme cases, they are psychopaths who never show any feelings towards their victims.

    9. Learn how to be socially interactive.

    We are social animals and this is what makes us so uniquely human. If a person is isolated or a loner, this may be a negative indicator of their character. You want to meet a person who knows about trust, honesty and loyalty. The only way to practice these great qualities is to actually interact socially. The great advantage is that you can share problems and celebrate success and joy together.

    “One can acquire everything in solitude, except character.”

    Stendhal

     10. Avoid toxic people.

    These people are trying to control others and often are failing to come to terms with their own failures. Typical behavior and conversations may concern:

    • Envy or jealousy
    • Criticism of partners, colleagues and friends
    • Complaining about their own lack of success
    • Blaming others for their own bad luck or failure
    • Obsession with themselves and their problems

    Listen to these people talk and you will quickly discover that you need to avoid them at all costs because their negativity will drag you down. In addition, as much as you would like to help them, you are not qualified to do so.

    Now, having looked at some of the best ways to judge a person, what about yourself? How do others see you? Why not take Dr. Phil’s quiz and find out. Can you bear it?

    Featured photo credit: Jacek Dylag via unsplash.com

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