You Don’t Think as Well as You Think You Do

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It’s not just the Dunning-Kruger Effect. It’s scores of cognitive biases that keep you from thinking as well as you think you do.

Many of them are downright interesting, but all of them hack away at your ability to engage with various situations and limit the chances you will come away with an accurate analysis or the best possible plan for producing an optimum outcome.

One of my favorite biases is the Illusion of Superiority, which drives nearly everyone to think they are above average at everyday skills like driving – or thinking.

Here are a few of the most likely errors in how you may think about situations you encounter in your work and your life:

Confirmation Bias

You think you’re right about whatever you’re thinking, and the Confirmation Bias helps you stay convinced. It’s the tendency to look harder for, and pay more attention to, information that confirms our ideas. It also drives us to ignore or discount information that tends to contradict them.

One helpful antidote is to act instead like a scientist: look harder for information that might disprove your current idea. In many situations, it’s preferable to give extra weight to ideas you can’t easily disprove.

Declinism

Whenever you’re thinking that things were better back in the day, or the world is going to hell in a handbasket, you’re potentially falling into the trap of Declinism. This bias has driven people to rail against the current state of affairs since Socrates, and possibly before. We do this because we generally do not like change, particularly when it unsettles or confuses us.

You can weaken the hold this bias may have on your thinking by looking for positive improvements in the changes that upset or confuse you. Even if the change brings no obvious upgrades, embracing change in general – particularly changes you can’t undo – keeps your thinking and behavior more limber and realistic.  It also helps improve the chances you’ll easily accept other changes that may bring you desirable improvements.

Optimism vs. Pessimism

We tend to think we’re looking toward the future rationally, but in most cases our emotional state greatly influences whether we’re optimistic or pessimistic about the outcome of a particular situation, activity, or event. When you’re up, things look rosy. When you’re down, they look black.

That’s why it’s important you practice self-awareness, and cultivate the habit of checking in with your emotions on a regular basis. When you’re aware of how you feel, you have a better chance of short-circuiting this bias before it leads you to say or do something you shouldn’t.

Self-Serving Bias

No wonder you have so much self-confidence – some might even call it arrogance. The Self-Serving Bias leads you to eagerly take responsibility for your successes, but attribute your failures to external factors. This same bias may lead you to interpret situations and information in ways that please you.

There’s no easy cure for this bias, except to cultivate humility. It’s helpful to recognize that both successful and unsuccessful outcomes from most situations you encounter depend on a myriad of factors, including many that are outside your control.

Sunk Cost Bias

This error in thinking leads people to make choices based on money, time, and other resources already expended. We tend to “throw good money after bad” or “chase the pot” when a better choice is available.

The remedy here is to ignore what’s irrecoverable. Instead, you should make your decision about how to proceed based primarily on current- and future-oriented considerations. Note that these considerations need not always point to a “cut your losses” strategy.

For example, if you’ve invested $2 million in a business venture and success is still eluding you, in some situations it’s smarter to close up shop and try something else. But in other situations, it’s more sensible to invest another $1 million and push on to foreseeable success.

These and other biases are baked into our thinking. Even when you study them, which you should, you’re not easily going to unthink them. But you can practice the art of “not believing everything you think.”

In other words, you can learn to discount your first, fast, instinctual and emotional responses to situations you encounter. You can take a more thoughtful approach to sifting through the facts, analyzing them logically, and reaching sensible conclusions. The more often you can do this, the more likely you will be to cope well with difficult situations and steadily improve your level of productivity and success.  

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