The mind is a tricky thing. It can lead us to believe that we can confidently sing “Bohemian Rhapsody” at karaoke even though we haven’t heard the song in years, or that one terrible review on Yelp is reason enough not to go to a 4-star rated restaurant.
These thinking errors are what people in the psychology community call cognitive biases. And that’s the focus of a new book out this month, Thinking 101: How to Reason Better to Live Better, by Yale psychology professor Woo-kyoung Ahn. In the book, Ahn highlights some of the most pernicious cognitive slip-ups we make — and how biases can cloud our judgment and affect the people around us.
Researchers suspect that many of these biases are evolutionary, says Ahn. During times of scarcity, our ancestors had to make quick judgments in order to survive among predators or thrive in a difficult environment. But in a time of abundance, she adds, these quick judgments don’t always do us good.
However, we can do our best to try to correct these thinking traps, says Ahn, which she teaches her students how to do in her popular undergraduate course at Yale. In general, she says, the key is to pause before making assumptions — and be aware of our tendencies for different kinds of bias.
This is known in the field of psychology as an “illusion of fluency,” which describes our tendency to be overconfident in our abilities without sufficient evidence. This can lead us, for example, to bungle career-altering presentations because of inadequate preparation, or dramatically underestimate the time it takes to complete projects.
In her class at Yale, Ahn uses an experiment to illustrate this phenomenon with her students. She shows them a dance clip from the song “Boy with Luv” by the K-pop group BTS. After watching six seconds of the easiest choreography moves over and over again, she invites the students who believe they have the dance down to do it themselves. One after another stumbles.
“People can have overconfidence about what they can accomplish by watching other people do it so fluently,” Ahn says. When the pros dance in a way that looks effortless, they think they can do it effortlessly too.
How to counteract it: You can correct this bias, she says, by doing what the Yale students did: Try it out yourself. It will quickly put any feelings of overconfidence to rest.
You can also fight this tendency by over-preparing and considering potential obstacles beforehand, says Ahn. For example, if you’re working on a home remodeling project for the first time and have no idea how long it will take, don’t try to guess. Talk to friends who went through a recent remodel or consult with a few contractors to understand how long the project might take and what problems may arise. The more information you have, the better and more accurately you can assess a situation.
The bias: We tend to fixate on the negative
The concept of “negativity bias” illustrates our propensity to weigh negative events a lot more heavily than an equal amount of positive events. It explains why a friend’s unenthusiastic review of an Oscar-nominated movie, for example, might spur you to watch something else. Or why you might be less inclined to hire a potential employee after hearing one negative thing about them, despite positive referrals.
Negativity bias can be dangerous because it can lead us to make the wrong choices. It can hold us back from making a decision about something, say a big purchase like a house, or even a political candidate, out of fear there was once a negative event associated with an otherwise good choice.
How to counteract it: When making a choice, play up the positive attributes of your options, says Ahn. Marketers use this tactic all the time. For example, instead of saying that ground beef contains 11% fat, they label it is as 89% lean. These are both true and accurate descriptions of the same product, but flipping the framing of it can make it a more attractive choice for buyers concerned with fat intake.
The bias: We cherry-pick data to fit our worldview
Ahn considers “confirmation bias” — the tendency to seek out or interpret information to support what we already believe — the worst bias of all. That’s because of its potential to lead us to miss an entire range of possibilities for ourselves and others.
Ahn and Matthew Lebowitz, a psychology professor at Columbia University, conducted an experiment in 2017 to illustrate the pitfalls of this bias. They gathered a group of participants and told some of them they had a genetic predisposition to depression – even though they did not. The results of that group’s depression self-assessments showed much higher levels of depression than people in a control group who were told they did not have the predisposition.
Because of confirmation bias, the participants who were told they had a genetic risk of depression retrieved “only the evidence that fit with that hypothesis,” says Ahn. And in doing so, they managed to convince themselves that they were actually depressed. The study shows that if we believe something is a fact, even if it isn’t, our mind can find information to support those views.
Now imagine this bias at work on a societal level. Ahn says it can lead to under- or over-representation in say, leadership in politics, business and other industries, which can feed gender or racial inequality.
She shares an example. Let’s say you’re a male scientist and you’re looking to hire other scientists to join your company. Because you see that the most prominent scientists in your field are currently men, you’ve convinced yourself that the next generation of great scientists will also be men. This colors your decision-making in hiring — and so you fill the positions with men.
That choice will continue to have a ripple effect, says Ahn. For others looking at the new hires, it might perpetuate the idea that “only men can be great scientists — and that’s exactly how prejudice and stereotypes get formed in society.”
How to counteract it: Allow yourself to examine all possible explanations before you make a judgment. For example, if an actor landed a part but her parents were also in the entertainment business, many of us might attribute her employment to nepotism. Since we’ve seen many examples of parents giving their kids a leg up in business or politics, another example of a child benefiting from their parents’ success would fit that theory.
But could it also be true that she gave the best audition? By looking at the issue from many different viewpoints – not just your own – it challenges your confirmation bias. And you might realize that perhaps there is another side to the story.
The audio portion of this episode was produced by Michelle Aslam. The digital story was edited by Malaka Gharib. (Courtesy: NPR)