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How Our Brains Trick Us into Believing the Wrong Things

How Our Brains Trick Us into Believing the Wrong Things

Watching the past presidential elections, we can easily find protests and demonstrations where huge crowds of supporters argued with their opposing sides, blaming each other for the perceived mess they brought to the country.

Supporters of one side see only the good policies while turning a blind eye to others, and that’s how the confrontation begins.

Have you ever wondered why such a large discrepancy can be caused between the two? Instead of mere difference in political views, it was actually confirmation bias that came into play.

Reason for discrepancy: Confirmation Bias

Confirmation bias is a psychological phenomenon where people tend to seek information to reinforce their own beliefs. It is also known as myside bias, which literally means the strong belief in the ideas of one’s own group when we are in a large collaborative group.

How is confirmation bias lethal to us? It blinds us from being objective to facts. Facts that oppose our beliefs. Facts that can prove us wrong. Consequently, we become irrational and render ourselves incapable of proper reasoning without realizing it.

Confirmation bias comes in three dimensions: Biased search for information, biased interpretation and biased memory. They all contribute to our misjudgment in different ways.

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1. Biased Search for Information – Only Test in a One-sided Way

It refers to the tendency for people to test their hypotheses in a one-sided way. In simpler and more direct words, we only look for evidence consistent with our own hypotheses. This phenomenon has been confirmed by numerous experiments.

For example, in a study, participants were asked to rate another person on the introversion-extroversion scale from the performance of an interview they conducted with him/her. They were also provided with a list of interview questions to choose from. [1]

Interestingly, when the interviewee was introduced as an introvert/extrovert, the interviewer would pick questions that presumed the personality. When introduced as an introvert, questions like “What do you find unpleasant about noisy parties?” were likely to be asked, which gave the interviewee little room to justify himself/herself.

The selection of questions served to reinforce the belief of the interviewee as an introvert/extrovert. And all these were done subconsciously.

2. Biased Interpretation – Interpret in a Way that Supports our Beliefs

We are also found lopsided to interpret a piece of information in a way that favors our beliefs. Even when we are given the same piece of evidence, people having opposing stances can view the evidence entirely differently. [2]

During the presidential election in 2004, a study was conducted to people with strong feelings towards the two parties. They were given contradictory statements written by a Republican, a Democratic and a politically neutral figure. They were also convinced that the contradiction was reasonable. In the end, the result showed that participants were much more likely to rate the political figure of the opposing party contradictory, even with the same evidence.

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3. Biased Memory – Remember Memory Selectively to Support Beliefs

Also known as “selective recall”, where people remember a piece of information selectively to reinforce their beliefs. There are two sayings in this bias, one suggesting memory consistent with prior expectations is stored more easily, while another one suggesting surprising information is more memorable. Both views are confirmed in studies. One thing to be sure is that we all have selective memory.

In one study, participants were asked to recall the traits of a person in a job application scenario. When told the applicant was looking for a librarian job, participants recalled more traits related to introversion. On the other hand, participants recalled more extroverted traits when they were told it was a real estate salesperson application. [3]

Confirmation Bias Makes us Believe our Faulty Beliefs Even More

Up to this point, we are aware of the fact that our minds are biased. But what does it do to us?

    On the scientific grounds we often look for a cause-and-effect relationship. If confirmation bias is in play, we are likely to fall into traps that affirm faulty hypotheses.

    Researchers are sometimes guilty of confirmation bias by setting up experiments or framing their data in ways that will tend to confirm their hypotheses. It is common to see that one incident follows another, but does that mean there is a causal relationship?  Not necessarily, but when researchers seek to identify the relationship, they are likely to falsely recognize it as such.

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    When it comes to business decision making, it is also very dangerous to not be objective. People usually overlook the importance of information that may have substantially influenced the decision to be made when the piece of information is against their expected results.

    For example, when an executive team is devising a new strategy, they are likely to magnify even the tiniest clue of success. The downside and contrary results are put aside and disregarded, or they are dismissed as exceptional or special cases which require little attention. Such flaws and selective blindness in decision-making can severely harm a business.

    Or even back to simple daily life examples, like when we’re aiming to lose some weight.  You pick a diet and follow it, and your weight changes. If it reduced as expected, you might conclude that it is completely due to the diet’s effectiveness.  However, if later your weight rebounds, confirmation bias may wrongly lead you to ignore it as a random fluctuation and believe that the diet is still working perfectly.  In this case, confirmation bias might cause you to overlook some important hints about your own body.

    To Defeat Confirmation Bias, Try These Practices

    Now that we know that everyone has confirmation bias, how can we fight against it?

    Prove Ourselves Wrong Instead

    No theory or model is every absolutely perfect, and we can only make it better by finding out where it is wrong.  So when you write down your hypotheses, instead of seeking evidence only in favor of our view, try to actively look for the opposite.  Have the courage to find as much opposing evidence as you can, and it can give you big hints about where the flaws in our current ideas are.

    Nurture Constructive but Independent Thinking in a Group

    In group decision-making, create opportunities for each member to formulate their own ideas independently, and a safe environment to express them constructively.  Strive to clear away group-think assumptions that encourage everyone to jump on the same bandwagon.  Welcome people who have opposing ideas!  Instead of dismissing or confronting them, why not leverage each person’s unique point of view to illuminate our blind spots?  Having more perspectives can help the entire group create a clearer picture when making decisions.

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    This is actually what Abraham Lincoln did by inviting rival politicians and welcoming debate and discussion in spite of their completely contradicting opinions.  The same method is also used in police investigations.  Witnesses are generally not allowed to discuss with one another to prevent unintended (or intended) influence to maintain an unbiased testimony.

    Expect the Unexpected Results

    If we encounter unexpected situations or surprising results, never treat them as just a “special” or “exceptional” case and disregard them.  They are not!

    Try to explain the occurrence of the incidents by providing 3 possible reasons.  Research has suggested 3 is the ideal number, as having more does not significantly help to analyze the problem. [4]

    Featured photo credit: Flaticon via flaticon.com

    Reference

    More by this author

    Jeffrey Lau

    Editor. Sport Lover. Animal Lover.

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    Last Updated on September 20, 2018

    How to Be Happy at Work and Find Fulfillment in Your Career

    How to Be Happy at Work and Find Fulfillment in Your Career

    If you’re going to spend 1/3 of our life at work, you should enjoy it, right?

    Trust me, I know that’s easier said than done. Difficult coworkers, less-than-desirable tasks, or even just being in the wrong position can all lead to a lack of enjoyment and fulfillment in your work.

    But what if I told you it doesn’t have to be this way? Or better yet, if you struggle with all of the above (and then some), what if I told you that enjoying your work and finding fulfillment regardless of those obstacles is possible?

    Don’t believe me? I don’t blame you because I was there too. Before implementing the tips below, I struggled to get through each day, much less find real fulfillment, in the office. Now, even after the toughest days on the job, I still come away with feelings of pride, accomplishment, and fulfillment. The best news is, so can you.

    If you’re ready to make those hours count and find happiness and fulfillment in the office, then read on to find out how to be happy at work and find fulfillment in your career:

    1. Discover the root(s) of the problem

    For this first step, we’ll need to think back to 8th-grade physics (humor me). We all know Newton’s 3rd law, “for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.” When you think about it, the same can be said outside of physics, and we see this law play out in our daily lives, day after day.

    Simply put, all the issues we deal with in the office (and life in general) affect us in a noticeable way.

    If you’re appreciated at work, like the work you do and receive frequent praise, promotions, or raises, then this will probably have an altogether positive effect on your life in the office.

    But what if we reverse this? What if you feel under appreciated, get passed up for promotions, or get denied raises? This is sure to affect the way you feel at work on a negative level.

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    So, before you can implement the steps of feeling happy and fulfilled at work, we first have to discover the reasons why you don’t feel that way already.

    Think about it, write a list, or make a mental note. Run through all the reasons you’re dissatisfied in the office, and don’t hold back. Knowing the exact obstacles you’re facing will make overcoming them that much easier.

    In fact, as a side-challenge to this article, I recommend picking the top three reasons contributing to your dissatisfaction at work and using the following tips to tackle them.

    2. Practice gratitude for an instant uplift

    Did you know the simple act of feeling grateful can increase your happiness and make you more fulfilled at work?[1]

    Well, it’s true, and it’s scientifically proven.

    Dr. Lisa Firestone notes that practicing gratitude “reminds us of what we lacked in the past.” Meaning, it serves as both a boost to happiness and a bit of a wake-up call that things have been or could be, much worse.

    Trying to conjure up feelings of gratitude can seem almost impossible when your work situation seems bleak, but hear me out: There are incredibly easy ways to get started and it doesn’t involve trying to “force” yourself to feel grateful about things that stress you out.

    For an instant pick-me-up, try this:

    Find a loose piece of paper, a blank sticky note, or anything you can write on, be it physical or digital. List just three things that you are absolutely without-a-doubt thankful for in your life.

    Now here’s the trick: Don’t just list what you’re grateful for, you have to list why you’re grateful for them, too.

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    For example, simply saying “I’m grateful for my kids” will probably make you feel good, sure, but what if we could amplify the warm, fuzzy feeling into real, lasting motivation?

    Instead, write the reason you’re so thankful for your children. Is it because they make you laugh and forget about other stressors? Or maybe they help to remind you of why you go to work every day in the first place?

    Whatever your reasons may be, jot them down and keep your list somewhere you can see it while you work. A quick glance at your gratitude list throughout the day can provide powerful, positive motivation to keep going.

    Bonus:

    If you can find just three things to be thankful for that specifically relate to your job, and list why those things make you grateful, your list can also help you find fulfillment in your work itself which can give you an even bigger boost of positivity throughout the day.

    3. Take meaningful time for yourself

    We all know creating a strong work-life balance can be crucial to feeling satisfied in our jobs, but rarely do we ever address how we’re spending our time outside of work.

    Many of us survive a 9-hour work day and commute home only to find ourselves busy with our personal to-do lists, running a household, and taking care of a child (or 2 or 3, and so on).

    If you spend all your time working, whether in the office or within your household, you’re going to feel drained at some point. This is why setting meaningful time for yourself every day is highly important.

    Look, I get it: I don’t know anyone in the working world who can shun all responsibility for a 3-movie marathon or happy hour with friends whenever they feel like it. But finding time for yourself, be it just 30 minutes to an hour, can really make a difference in how you feel at work.

    This works because you’ll have time to actually relax and let the day’s stress melt away while you enjoy something just for you. The to-do lists and stressors will still be there after you’re refreshed and ready to tackle them.

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    No time for me-time? Try this:

    If you have a busy household, you’ll need to capitalize on a block of time you know will be completely uninterrupted. The easiest way to do this: try waking up 30 minutes to an hour earlier than usual (or push bedtime back an hour if you’re a night owl, like me) and take time to do something you enjoy.

    This could be reading with a cup of tea, catching up on Facebook, spending time on a passion project—anything! As long as it’s meaningful to you, it works!

    Bonus:

    Starting your day with meaningful time for yourself can set you up to have a positive mood that lasts well into office hours, and having your me-time in the evening can give you something positive to look forward to during the day.

    4. Get productive and feel accomplished

    Don’t you just love the feeling of checking the last item off of a hefty to-do list? That’s because self-motivation can be a huge driver of positivity and success.

    When we accomplish something, no matter how small, it makes us feel good, plain and simple. Applying this tactic to your daily work can be the motivator you need to find fulfillment during the daily office grind.

    While there are tons of steps to get more done at work, I’ll share my personal favorite: Prioritizing.

    Now, many people handle prioritizing differently. Some like to tackle the little tasks first so they can spend focused time on the big to-dos. Others like to knock out the big items first and get to the smaller ones when they can.

    No matter which camp you’re in, you may be missing one crucial step: Time management.

    So how’s this work? When you factor in the amount of time your priorities will take, it can transform your productivity ten-fold.

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    Say you have three top priorities for the day. You might jump into the smaller ones or the bigger ones depending on your preferred method, and then find yourself out of time and bringing work home with you at the end of the day.

    This is prevented when you factor in time. Knowing how long each item will take, or deliberately setting specific blocks of time for your priorities can help you accomplish more in the same 8-9 (or 12) hours that you typically spend at work.

    Try this:

    Take a look at your priorities and consider how long they should take. Pop into your Google calendar (or Filofax, whatever works for you) and schedule time to work on your priority items around any important meetings or events of the day.

    The most important thing to remember is to stick to your dedicated time.

    Often, when we know exactly how long we have to work on something (and honor this time limit), we’re motivated to get more done on time to avoid taking work home at the end of the day.

    The bottom line

    There’s no need to waste 1/3 of our lives feeling unsatisfied at work. Luckily, you now have the tools to get started, take back your time, and become happy and fulfilled at work again.

    The only question is — which tip will you try first?

    Featured photo credit: Ellyot via unsplash.com

    Reference

    [1]Psychology Today: The Healing Power of Gratitude

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