Your brain is a pretty damn amazing, but it’s hardly perfect. It is riddled with innate biases, oversights and weak spots that can lead you astray. Even worse, unlike other tools, you can’t put it aside and use something else for a while. The result is that often you’re blind to the unconscious mental mistakes you’re making.
In fact, most people are convinced that other people make mental mistakes but they themselves don’t. This mistake is called the ‘bias blind spot’. It’s not a bad name though I prefer the ‘I know you are, but what am I?’ bias. Whatever you call it, it might be the worst ones out there as it means you take no action to correct your other errors.
It’s like that rude friend who keeps offending people but insists it’s everybody else’s fault.
To help you let go of the idea that you have no mental mistakes consider this: The human brain did not evolve to solve abstract problems. It was not made for chess, mathematics, programming or even to give you an objective view of the world. Instead, it evolved to help you survive the Savannah and tribal society. (For example, studies suggest that we lie to ourselves to help us deceive others).
Sure, we now can solve abstract problems, do mathematics, play chess, write computer programs and think objectively. But that’s all the effect of cultural bootstrapping and ratcheting. We’ve built ‘programs’, ‘apps’ or ‘memes’ on top of previous generations of such tools and in the process pushed our brains in new and exciting directions. The hardware has hardly changed along with it, though. There hasn’t been the time. It’s like we’re simulating a macs environment on our PCs.
No, that’s not a good analogy. It completely underestimates the problem. It’s more like we’re running a chess program on the chips on your coffee maker. Sure, it works. That doesn’t change that it was designed for something completely different, though. And that sometimes when you want a chess move you’ll get a cup of coffee instead.
The result? There are plenty of mental artifacts left over from those days. Today we’re going to explore several.
Yes. Big word. But it’s not that complicated. According to dictionary.com it means:
- To ascribe human form or attributes to (an animal, plant, material object, etc.)
The root is the Greek words ánthrōpos or ‘human’ and morphē or ‘form’, or to transform into human form. It’s something we do it all the time. It explains why we thought lightning came from the gods. It’s why when our computer crashes, we take it personally. It’s why we yell at and plead with our cars when they won’t start. It is also why our gods wear human form.
More importantly, it’s why we see agency – or minds – everywhere. For example, in this video below almost everybody sees motivation and personality in the shapes. It is hard not to!
To be clear, there is a lot of agency in the world. We have agency. So do animals and insects. But not everything does – certainly not as many things as we seem to believe. Tarot cards do not have agency. Neither do the stars or tea leaves.
The reason we see more agency than is there is explained by error management theory. The idea is that some errors are more costly than others. For example, not seeing a lion when it is there is worse than seeing a lion when it is not there. After all, running away a few times might tire you out, but you won’t end up dead.
And so we’ve evolved to be oversensitive to anything face like in our environment. This is why you so often think you see a face from the corner of your eye in the movement of a curtain or the bole of a tree. No, it’s not ghosts. It’s an overactive face-finding subroutine in the brain (yes, we have one of those).
It is also why we see agency in places where it’s not. It is better to see too much agency and spend time on – for example – religious rituals than to not see enough and get done by your neighbor.
Seeing agency and motive is inborn. Babies between six to ten months old already understand prosocial and antisocial behavior, for example. Of course, it does create problems. For example, it explains why we attribute so many occurrences to God and his evil sidekick. For even if there is one, we’re attributing things to him(!) that are better explained by our anthropomorphic tendencies and our innate drive to search for agency.
The feeling of agency also fuels such beliefs as karma and our belief that the world is just. For those beliefs can only be true if the world isn’t random and if there is some sort of agency out there keeping score and making sure ‘what goes around comes around’.
Just World Theory
In fact, let’s take a bit of a closer look at our beliefs in a just world. Many of us believe the world is fair and are horrified by the idea that some things are down to dumb luck. They want the world to function so that when people work hard they get ahead while if they’re lazy, cruel or inconsiderate they get what they deserve.
This is one reason why many Americans continue to believe in the American dream despite plenty of evidence to the contrary.
It isn’t only there that our belief in a just world falls apart, either. Bad people are lucky, while good people are not. Consider in what country you were born, for example. Despite what nationalists might say, it is a roll of the dice. And yet it decides everything, including your opportunities, your education, even how likely you are to starve or get murdered.
So how do maintain our belief that the world is just? Well, most of the bad stuff we ignore. What we can’t ignore we’ll justify. How do we do that? If we hold two conflicting beliefs we experience something called ‘cognitive dissonance’. This is best described as psychological discomfort. To reduce that discomfort, one of the beliefs has to give. And as many people’s belief in a just world is part and parcel of their self-identity, it’s the other belief that has to give. What do I mean with that? Simply put, if something bad happens to a person we believe it’s their fault.
This is known as ‘victim blaming’.
For example, in one study two groups of people were presented with a story of a woman who went out with a man. The only thing that differed between the groups was that in one story she was raped by him at the end, while in the other he dropped her off at home. In every other way, her behavior was the same. And yet, in the rape scenario people said her behavior was less appropriate and more provocative and that she led him on more. Other studies have backed that up. They’ve shown people like victims less, think they’re worse people and in other ways justify what happened.
Yes, that is a big mental mistake. It gets even worse when you realize this effect everywhere. We blame homeless people for their situation (probably a junky). We think people who go out of business are worse businessmen before we even know what actually happened. We even believe that lottery winners are more intelligent and attractive.
An interesting final point, belief in a just world correlates with political affiliation. The more religious, conservative or right-wing you are, the more strongly you believe that the world is just. And obviously, that means you need to engage in more victim blaming to deal with the resulting cognitive dissonance.
This means it might not be because they’re heartless that they don’t help, but because they have to work harder to maintain their world view. This also explains why many poor conservative people vote for policies that hurt them. It’s because maintaining their belief is more important than maintaining the bottom line.
Many versions of the self
We all think that there is only one person in our head. Even those of us who understand that there are a lot of sub-systems whirring away in the background still see those as somehow separate from who we are.
Of course, that can’t be right. There is no homunculus sitting in your head surrounded by a whole bunch of machinery. Those sub-systems are as much who you are as the conscious awareness that’s currently reading these words. In fact, many of those subconscious sub-systems were involved in actually reading these words!
It gets even worse. As the psychologist Daniel Kahneman explained, not even two versions of conscious mind agree with each other. They’re called the remembering and experiencing self and they often even want wholly different things!
A good example of this is the peak and end rule, which states that what we remember is not the whole experience. We’re very bad at factoring in time when working out if we enjoy something or not (called ‘duration neglect’). Instead, the ‘strongest’ moment in an experience and how it ends are added to form our judgment.
For example, in one study experimenters made a group of students put their hands in unpleasantly cold water and asked them to keep it there. They had to do two trials, with the order randomized. On one trial they had to keep their hand in the extra cold water for 60 seconds. (They didn’t watches. The experimenter told them what to do). In the other, they had to keep it in there for the same 60 seconds. Then warm water was added which increased the temperature a little, after which they had to keep it in there for another 30 seconds. When both were done, they were asked which of the two trials they would prefer to repeat.
Now objectively, the second trial is worse than the second one. It’s not only longer, but it has the same 60-second unpleasant stage. And if the experiencing self got to make the call, they’d choose the shorter trail. The thing is, these kinds of comparisons can only ever be made by the remembering self. And based on the peak and end rule you’d expect them to make the other call.
That’s exactly what happened. Eighty percent of participants chose to repeat the longer (and less pleasant) trial.
The fallibility of our remembering self doesn’t end there, either. Our memory is fickle and full of falsehoods and mental mistakes. For example, you can implant memories in another person’s mind. Check out this video below for an example.
Other people don’t even need to do it. The brain can create false narratives all on its own. One great example of this comes from split brain research. Sometimes doctors cut the connecting bridge between the two brain halves to prevent seizures. Of course, when you do this the two halves can no longer directly communicate.
Generally, this isn’t a problem. But if you can communicate with one brain half and not the other, then things get weird. Some clever scientists figured out how to do this by only showing one image to one eye. There were a lot of examples. The most interesting one, though, was when they flashed the word ‘walk’ to his left eye and thus his right brain. Immediately, he got up and started to walk.
They then asked him why he got up. This engaged his left brain, as that’s where the speech center is located. Of course, that side of the brain hadn’t had any access to the word flashed on the card. So the man should say he doesn’t know. That’s not what happened. Without missing a beat he said that he wanted to get a coke and that’s why he got up. In other words, he created a narrative to explain his actions, even though it had no basis in reality.
“Okay,” some of you are thinking, “That’s interesting if I had a split brain, but I don’t. So what’s your point?” My point is that – in fact – you do. Sure, no doctor ever went in with a scalpel. That doesn’t change, though, that parts of your brain are inaccessible to your conscious mind. You have no idea how they work.
For example, if I ask you to remember a sunny day, you can. But if I ask you to tell me how you came up with that memory of a sunny day, you can’t tell me. That’s a black box. Nor can you tell me how you’re able to ‘see’ that sunny day. It feels like there is a screen in your head, but there can’t be. Nor are there eyes to see that screen if it was there. Another black box.
Sure, if you’ve read a bit you might have some concept of how we do it, but that’s all it is – a concept. The split-brain patient’s brain halves had concepts of what the other half was doing as well. But they didn’t know. And yet he still had a narrative.
So do you. You’ve got narratives about a huge amount of things you do. Some of them are true. Others, however, are mental mistakes.
The illusion of self
Have you ever looked at optical illusions? They’re fascinating as they reveal some of the shortcuts the brain takes to create a visual picture. Many psychological experiments aim to do the same thing. They show shortcuts that we take to form a coherent mental framework of the world around us.
To a lot of people, these mental mistakes seem forced and thus irrelevant. The thing is, the further the world we live in drifts from the world we evolved in, the more likely small flaws in our mental wiring will lead to huge problems.
That’s why we have an obesity epidemic. Our brains didn’t evolve in a world of plenty. And so we didn’t evolve any natural mechanisms to stop ourselves from consuming too many calories and sugars.
Now, we can develop those mechanisms ourselves. A lot of people manage to train themselves and avoid foods that are bad for them. The thing is, they were only able to do so when they realized there was a problem. So it’s important to know the mental mistakes you’re making. Here I’ve expanded on three so that you can take some steps to tackle them.
There are, however, many, many mental mistakes more that are distorting your world view. So stay alert and keep learning. And whatever you do, don’t think ‘I know you are, but what am I’ as that’s the biggest mental mistake of them all.
Want more of my psychology insight? Then check out my articles about Need to Belong and the Digital Nomad Personality. Want more stuff like this? Then leave a comment and if there is enough interest I’ll write another one.