3 Ways The Brain Betrays Us

Over at Edge, they're asking a bunch of big thinkers a big question: "What scientific concept would improve everybody's cognitive toolkit?"

They've collected more than 150 responses, and it's fun and interesting to read (or at least skim) through all of them.

Lots of the responses point out systematic cognitive errors that are deeply embedded in all of us. In other words, our brains are wired to prevent us from seeing the world as it is.

Here are three examples that stood out to me.

1. Memory is rigged

...human beings tend almost invariably to be better at remembering evidence that is consistent with their beliefs than evidence that might disconfirm them. When two people disagree, it is often because their prior beliefs lead them to remember (or focus on) different bits of evidence. To consider something well, of course, is to evaluate both sides of an argument, but unless we also go the extra mile of deliberately forcing ourselves to consider alternatives—not something that comes naturally—we are more prone to recalling evidence consistent with a proposition than inconsistent with it.

From "Cognitive Humility," by Gary Marcus

2. We see patterns where there is only randomness

...when our pattern-detection systems misfire they tend to err in the direction of perceiving patterns where none actually exist.

The German neurologist Klaus Conrad coined the term "Apophenia" to describe this tendency in patients suffering from certain forms of mental illness. But it is increasingly clear from a variety of findings in the behavioral sciences that this tendency is not limited to ill or uneducated minds; healthy, intelligent people make similar errors on a regular basis: a superstitious athlete sees a connection between victory and a pair of socks, a parent refuses to vaccinate her child because of a perceived causal connection between inoculation and disease, a scientist sees hypothesis-confirming results in random noise, and thousands of people believe the random "shuffle" function on their music software is broken because they mistake spurious coincidence for meaningful connection.

In short, the pattern-detection that is responsible for so much of our species' success can just as easily betray us.

From "Everyday Apophenia," by David Pizarro

3. We overestimate the importance of whatever we think about

Nothing In Life Is As Important As You Think It Is, While You Are Thinking About It. ...

On average, individuals with high income are in a better mood than people with lower income, but the difference is about 1/3 as large as most people expect. When you think of rich and poor people, your thoughts are inevitably focused on circumstances in which their income is important. But happiness depends on other factors more than it depends on income.

From "Focusing Illusion," by Daniel Kahneman

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