I've recently been learning about common ways our minds deceive us. To explain more I'd you like to play a game with me. Before you read the rest of this post please watch the video below, which asks you to count the number of basketball passes made by players in white T-shirts for 1 minute. Click on the triangle in the middle of the image below to play the video.
How did you get on? How many passes did you count? Did you notice anything unusual? We all believe that we are capable of seeing what’s accurately in front of us, of accurately remembering important events from our past, of understanding the limits of our knowledge, of properly determining cause and effect. But these intuitive beliefs are often mistaken ones that critically mask important limitations in our cognitive beliefs. Here's a brief overview of six limiting beliefs we all fall prey to:
illusion of attention
When you watched the video, did you see the gorilla? Yes, a man size gorilla walked into the game. If you missed it, you experienced something called inattentional blindness. Which is to say that when people are focussed on a particular area or aspect of their visual world, they tend not to notice unexpected objects, even when these unexpected objects are salient, potentially important, and appear right where they are looking. If you didn't watch the video you're probably thinking "I would have seen that." Perhaps you would have, maybe you wouldn't. It doesn't matter either way. It's not an intelligence or aptitude test. What's most interesting about this experiment is that most people are surprised that they, or others, would miss the gorilla. Things seem obvious in hindsight. Unfortunately, people often confuse what is easily noticed, when it is expected, with what should be noticed when it is unexpected.
illusion of memory
Just as we intuitively believe in the illusion of attention, there is also disconnect between how we think our memory works and how it actually works. Many of of us believe that memory works like a video camera and some believe that, once a memory is formed, the memory doesn’t change. In fact your mind will often reconstruct details based on your specific memory and how the things you are remembering are generally related. When we perceive something we extract the meaning rather than encoding every detail. Memory doesn’t store everything we perceive, but instead takes what we have seen and heard and associates it with what we already know. As with the gorilla, people see what they expect to see, with memory they remember what they expect to remember. People remember events based on what is salient to them based on their experiences. Vividness and emotionality are not necessarily strong indicators of accuracy, even though we often believe them, and the confidence with which they are expressed, to be so.
illusion of confidence
People judge the accuracy of another persons memory based on how much confidence that person expresses in the memory. Think of a doctor who uses a book or computer in front of you to diagnose you. How would you feel about their abilities? As you can imagine, such doctors tend to be under appreciated by their patients. The irony is that those that are the least skilled are the most likely to think better of themselves than they should. As Charles Darwin said, "Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than it does knowledge.” When we become more skilled at something our confidence levels align themselves more closely to our actual abilities. A doctor who knows her limits might actually be the one who is more valuable to you as a patient than the overconfident quack.
Group leadership can also be determined by confidence. People with dominant personalities tend to exhibit greater self-confidence. If you offer your opinion early and often, people will take your confidence as an indicator of ability, even if you are no better than your peers. It's worth bearing this in mind when you hire staff or promote within your team. Be sure that confidence levels and abilities are closely aligned and not illusory.
illusion of knowledge
Whenever people think they know more than they do, they are under the illusion of knowledge. Over familiarity often contributes to the illusion of knowledge. Think of the internet. We all know how to use it daily, but few of us understand how it actually works. Think also of how often descriptions of things by someone who believed themselves to be knowledgable were amiss from the actual things they were describing. The illusion of knowledge is compounded by techno babble. We seem to prefer the expert who does not know the limits to their self knowledge than the one who does. People who know the limits of their knowledge say things like “there is a 75% chance of rain” while those who don’t know those limits express undue certainty. Even the best in their fields of expertise can fall prey to this illusion.
illusion of cause
There are three separate, but interrelated biases that contribute to the illusion of cause. Firstly, your visual system is exquisitely sensitive to patterns most important to you and can easily identify these patterns in randomness. When pattern recognition works well a mum can find the face of a lost child in a crowd. When it works too well we can spot the face of Jesus in pastries and other relationships that aren’t really there or don’t mean what we think they do. Secondly, we have a bias towards single narratives or causes. We look at events that happen together as having a causal relationship. Correlative results of scientific studies do not corroborate causal inference. Which is to say that results that appear to relate to a cause, may not actually do so. Finally, we tend to interpret events that happened earlier as causes of events that happened or appeared to happen later. We can often jump to conclusions and point to a single cause when in fact the truth may be more complex than that.
illusion of potential
We are prone to thinking that vast reservoirs of untapped mental ability exist in our brains. It’s not true that we only use 10% of our brain capacity. There is no known way of measuring a person’s brain capacity and brain tissue that produces no activity whatsoever for an extended time is clinically dead. We also do not have a sixth sense and cannot sense someone looking at us from behind. This idea has been thoroughly debunked in 1898 by psychologist Edward Titchener. Similarly, subliminal advertising or persuasion is not scientifically proven. The single frame saying “drink Coca-Cola” inserted into a movie does not boost sales of coke at cinemas. Ad exec James Vicary, the man behind the study, has since admitted that it was a fraud. Lastly, many of us believe that brain training and listening to Mozart boost general mental abilities when the truth is that physical exercise is the only proven activity to be show preservation of our grey matter. This is not to say that improvement can't been made in our mental abilities. Just don't fall prey to the illusion that is is quick easy and doesn't require effort. The brains potential is vast, and you can indeed tap into it, but it takes time and effort.
These mirages of the mind can make us think that our mental capacities are greater than they are. In a metaphorical sense they there are gorillas in our midst, i.e. the important things in front of you that you may be missing. So what can we do to address them? Well, be wary of thinking you know more about a subject than you actually do. Test your understanding before mistaking familiarity for knowledge. Just because your mind does something easily, doesn’t mean it has done it well. So double check. Trust your memory less. Avoid get-smart-quick gimmicks. Understand that this is how all our minds work and try avoid jumping to conclusions.
This article was inspired by the book The Invisible Gorilla by Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons.
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