You have a beautiful mind, and it wants to fool you

John Nash had a beautiful mind.  He made great contributions to economics and mathematics.  According to Wikipedia, "John Nash is the only person to be awarded both the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences and the Abel Prize."  You've probably heard of him, especially considering that his life was the basis of the 2001 movie A Beautiful Mind.  His life was also plagued with mental illness which he characterized as "dream-like delusional hypotheses."  You may be relieved that you are not in his shoes.  But don't be too quick.

As we've discussed before, science has confirmed that there really is an unconscious part of our minds, like the iceberg below the surface.  This unconscious mind plays an active role in our life and in our thoughts.  It subtly influences our actions without our conscious awareness.  For example, we not only do things to win the approval of others, consciously or not, but we often change our beliefs in order to do so, without even realizing it.  These topics, known as priming and social desirabilty, are covered in the article Who Influences Your Outlook? Can You Even Know?  Sometimes our ego, influenced by unconscious desires, makes it more difficult for others to like us, which is ironically the opposite of social desirability. What a two-timer our unconscious mind can be!  On top of that, sometimes it even takes over right in front of our eyes when we are in a weak state. This is known as ego depletion.

Know your enemy, and the enemy is yourself

It's time to take back control from our two-timing shadow self.I admit that the "shadow self" is a shadowy concept.  The term ego is much more well-defined.  It's my understanding that "shadow" can refer either to the unconscious mind, or it could be aspects of personality the individual isn't conscious of. I don't think science has clarified this enough for a rigorous definition, but regardless of technicalities of speech, each of us definitely has parts of ourselves (mind and personality) that we aren't fully aware of.  But first, we need to understand our enemy.  Thankfully, we are armed with a vast array of knowledge.  The battle will not be easy, but it can be won.  Today I am introducing a new topic to this blog: Patterns of thinking known as cognitive biases. Our brains may be sneaky, but they are not completely unpredictable.  Think of your brain like a spirited horse.  It might throw you off if you're not careful, but it can take you places you could never go otherwise.

Wikipedia's cognitive biases page has been steadily growing over the years.  It was already long in 2015 when a blogger named Buster Benson decided to look for order in the chaos.  He started carefully sorting and categorizing all of the biases, looking for patterns, and he was delighted to discover they could all be categorized under four main types.I was delighted, too.  I was thinking of undertaking the project myself but it seemed monumental.  I'm glad I went looking around first.  He saved me a lot of trouble. He announced that these erroneous thinking patterns arise for four main reasons:

  1. A mind can only process so much information, so sometimes it just skips over some of it.
  2. Sometimes there's not enough context for the input to make sense. So the mind adds information, filling in the gaps.
  3. There's too much information to fit in memory, so it looks for ways to simplify and generalize.
  4. There's just not enough time to process it all.  It has to make assumptions.

Buster wrote a blog post which has now gotten more than a million views.Sadly, now behind a paywall. This trend seems to be accelerating as paid print media is quickly being replaced by paid electronic media.  Shortly afterward a graphic artist caught wind of his work and generated this beautiful infographic, which rightfully won a 2019 Kantar Information is Beautiful Award.

(Click the image for an interactive vector graphic with links to Wikipedia articles about individual cognitive biases.  Hit your browser back button to continue reading)

File information Structured data Captions English Radial diagram of Wikipedia’s cognitive bias list, by jm3. Summary Description	 English: Wikipedia’s list of 188 cognitive biases, grouped into categories and rendered by John Manoogian III (jm3) as a radial dendrogram

Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.  Design: John Manoogian III

With John's and Buster's help, we have what we need to start taming the wild side of our tricky brains.  Today I'll start helping you put this mammoth task into perspective, but we don't have much time so we have to act fast.It's supposed to be a joke.  I was getting close to deadline when I wrote this.  You didn't really want a longer article, did you?

When your brain gets in a hurry

I direct your attention to the lower left quadrant of the image.  To save time, the brain:

  1. Favors options that appear simpler and more complete.  This prevents cognitive strain.
  2. Tries as much as possible to keep things the same, to keep its options open.
  3. Tries to stay with what it knows rather than risk moving on to something new.
  4. Stays focused by favoring something that's here and now rather than something less certain.
  5. Assumes it's right.  It's too much trouble to be wrong.

Since we're in a hurry right now, let's just focus on number four.  From the graphic we can see three manifestations of this bias:

Identifiable victim effect

Fifty million children are starving in Africa.  Johnny down the street has cancer.  Whom are you most likely to help?  Your brain already has the answer.  It doesn't know anything about those children in Africa, but it really wants to help Johnny.  Johnny is close by, you know him, and you'll probably be rewarded for helping him, in some way that your brain can recognize.  What will happen if you donate to those poor starving African kids?  You might get a postcard saying thank you.  Can you feel your brain fighting you right now just thinking about it?

Appeal to novelty

Our brains love novelty, because novelty always means a lovely hit of dopamine.  In fact, if there wasn't something new to you in this article, you wouldn't even be reading this.  Your brain would have convinced you to move on well before now.  In case I need to give you examples of this bias, just think about all the times you've heard that a product is new and improved.  Think of all the new music that gets played because someone thinks it's better than the old classics.  And would there even be a fashion industry if our brains didn't love novelty?

Time preference

Hyperbolic discounting is one form of time preference.I'm not getting more specific right now, because I'll likely revisit this topic again.  My brain may discount the possibility, but I'm holding the reins. Offer someone $10 today or $15 in a month and what's likely to happen?  His brain will convince him you probably won't be around to give him the $15 next month.  More importantly, it will think of lots of reasons he needs the $10 right now.  That's time preference in a nutshell.  This topic is so important we'll cover it more in the future, but your brain doesn't care about that right now.Here it is. I'm proud of myself for following through on my past self's intentions.  I didn't even use a commitment device to make myself do it.  (Hint: the article explains what I'm talking about.)(

How does this make you feel?

How do you feel right now?  Are you feeling overwhelmed?  Did you have any idea there are so many ways your brain can fool you?  Don't lose heart.  Your brain has been fooling you all along, but now you are starting to understand its tricks, and you'll soon be armed with ways to fight back.  Besides, for every error and bias, for every negative effect these shortcuts have on you, there are at least an equal number of positive effects.  Because this is the way we make sense of the world.  If our brains weren't being lazy and taking shortcuts like the ones we're exploring, we'd be lost in an overwhelming torrent of information with no way to make sense of anything. 

So don't be afraid of the horse. Just remember, that horse will be much easier to ride when you understand how to make it gallop and how to keep it from throwing you off.  Future blog posts will help you turn that bucking bronco into a Kentucky derby winner.