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The 8 Most Common Thinking Mistakes We Make Subconsciously

If you strive to try and improve yourself with every passing day, then you really need to be aware of these common subconscious ways of thinking which can really affect your ability to make sensible and rational decisions. Taking the time to look out for these thinking mistakes in your own psyche can save you a lot of time, money and stress, and can generally make your life a great deal more pleasant. Here are 8 of the most common thinking mistakes we make:
1. We believe the 'swimmer's body illusion.'
Thinking Mistakes

The 'swimmer's body illusion' is a mistake we make when we mix up selection criteria with results. Rolf Dobelli, the author of 'The Art of Thinking Clearly', explains that "professional swimmers don’t have perfect bodies because they train extensively. Rather, they are good swimmers because of their physiques. How their bodies are designed is a factor for selection and not the result of their activities."

Another great example of this mental trap is a top-rated university. Does this university get the best results because it has the best staff and facilities, or is it because it only accepted the smartest students in the first place? According to Dobelli, "without this illusion, half of advertising campaigns would not work." When you think about it, it starts to make a lot of sense, since we wouldn't realistically buy into ad campaigns that focus on areas where it's close to impossible for certain people to excel.

2. Confirmation bias pervades our lives.
Thinking Mistakes

There isn't a person alive who isn't guilty of confirmation bias, which occurs when we proactively search for knowledge that confirms our own systems of belief. In fact, we are far more likely to befriend someone who thinks like us, and actually actively dismiss concepts or people who we perceive as a challenge to our worldview.

According to an Ohio State study, people will actually spend 36% more time reading a paper if it corresponds with their own personal beliefs, and David McRaney from You Are Not So Smart states that "whenever your opinions or beliefs are so intertwined with your self-image you couldn’t pull them away without damaging your core concepts of self, you avoid situations which may cause harm to those beliefs."

3. We are awful at predicting odds.
Thinking Mistakes

Unless they've spent years studying advanced theories of probability, the average human is pretty terrible at predicting odds due to two specific logical fallacies. This first is the 'gambler's fallacy', which is when we erroneously believe that past events have a significant effect on current odds. For example, when playing heads or tails, one might believe that they have a high chance of getting heads on their next toss if they have already flipped tails ten times in a row. In reality though, the chance of getting a specific result is still only 50/50.

The second fallacy is the 'positive expectation bias', which is when we believe that a string of bad luck needs to be followed by some good luck. This is wrong because odds do not change depending on how many times you've lost prior to placing a particular bet. In fact, you're just as unlikely (and likely) to win a particular lottery draw if it's the first time you've ever played it as somebody who has been on a losing streak for fifty years.

4. We actively worry about things we have lost.
Thinking Mistakes

The sunk cost fallacy refers to a cost that we have already paid in the past (be in with money, time or effort) that has already been paid and cannot be refunded, yet which may affect our future decisions negatively. This is because, according to psychologist Daniel Kahneman, we are hardwired to care about loss more than gain. He says that "organisms that placed more urgency on avoiding threats than they did on maximizing opportunities were more likely to pass on their genes. So, over time, the prospect of losses has become a more powerful motivator on your behavior than the promise of gains."

Kahneman explains the sunk cost fallacy even better through this research study: "Hal Arkes and Catherine Blumer created an experiment in 1985 which demonstrated your tendency to go fuzzy when sunk costs come along. They asked subjects to assume they had spent $100 on a ticket for a ski trip in Michigan, but soon after found a better ski trip in Wisconsin for $50 and bought a ticket for this trip too. They then asked the people in the study to imagine they learned the two trips overlapped and the tickets couldn’t be refunded or resold. Which one do you think they chose, the $100 good vacation, or the $50 great one? Over half of the people in the study went with the more expensive trip. It may not have promised to be as fun, but the loss seemed greater."

5. Stereotypes affect us way more than we imagine.
Thinking Mistakes

According to Vanity Fair's Michael Lewis, "the human mind is so wedded to stereotypes and so distracted by vivid descriptions that it will seize upon them, even when they defy logic, rather than upon truly relevant facts." This is why anybody who says that stereotypes have no effect on them is either being excessively unrealistic or just downright dishonest.

A 1983 study carried out by Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky tested this idea by describing an imaginary person in this way:

"Linda is thirty-one years old, single, outspoken, and very bright. She majored in philosophy. As a student, she was deeply concerned with issues of discrimination and social justice, and also participated in antinuclear demonstrations."

They done asked a number of people the following question about Linda, and gave them a choice of 2 answers:

Which alternative is more probable?

1. Linda is a bank teller.

2. Linda is a bank teller and is active in the feminist movement.

A staggering 85% of people chose option 2, which is actually far less probable than option 1. This is because option 2 is far more specific since twice the amount of criteria need to be fulfilled for it to be true, hence it is far less probable. Yet, most people's ingrained stereotypes (regarding feminism in this case) were far more influential than rational logic, which speaks volumes out the way we think and act as both individuals and a society.

6. We trust facts less than our memories.
Thinking Mistakes

Human memory has been proved time and again to be both plastic and highly fallible. Yet, for some reason, we tend to subconsciously favor our memories over hard facts. A good example of this phenomenon is known as the availability heuristic:

Imagine you are asked whether there are more words on a single page that have 'n' as the second-last letter or if there are more words that end in 'ing'. Logically, it is impossible for there to be more words ending in 'ing' since they all contain 'n' as the second-last letter too. Yet, words that end with 'ing' are a lot easier to recall than those which have 'n' as their second-last letter, which is why people who rely on their memory over logic will get such a question wrong every time.

The message to take away from here is that we should look at the facts whenever possible, in order to avoid making terrible assumptions or mistakes that can affect you or other people around you negatively, in spite of how reliable you feel that your memory is.

7. We rationalize buying things we don't need.
Thinking Mistakes

Known as Buyer’s Stockholm Syndrome or post-purchase rationalization, we are ridiculously good at convincing ourselves just how necessary the terrible buying decisions we make actually are. Social psychologists believe that this phenomenon is derived from the principle of commitment, which is our desire to remain consistent and not fall into a state of cognitive dissonance.

Cognitive dissonance is the uncomfortable feeling that comes with holding onto two conflicting theories or ideas. For example, if you believe that you are an animal lover, but don't stop to help an injured animal you encounter, you may begin to experience cognitive dissonance about yourself. Such dissonance may create so much discomfort that you will begin to change the way you view yourself. In this case, you may begin to accept that you don't love animals as much as you thought since your actions have proved otherwise.

Once you become aware of such fallacies, you can use them to try and predict your future feelings or actions when faced with a decision. You may find that you are no longer interested in buying certain things which you loved to spend money on in the past.

8. Our decisions are made based on the anchoring effect.
Thinking Mistakes

The anchoring effect takes place when we choose one option over another based solely on how much value it offers compared to a similar option, regardless of whether any of the options are actually a good deal in the first place.

Imagine going to a restaurant abroad where a hamburger typically costs $5 and fries cost $2. However, in the particular restaurant you chose, a hamburger by itself costs $10, fries cost $5, and a combo meal of both a hamburger and fries costs $11. Many people wouldn't realize that they are being robbed of $4 by the restaurant, and would actually believe that they are saving $4 instead, due to the comparative value of the combo meal to the individual prices of a hamburger and fries.

If we don't learn to recognize the anchoring effect, we will forever be at the mercy of advertising campaigns and cunning pricing tactics, which will make our lives a lot more expensive and challenging in the long run.


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