You probably think you are in complete control of your decisions and thoughts but how often are they guided by something else? Something that you don’t even notice happening deep inside your mind.
Here are 21 mind traps, misconceptions, biases, and other phenomena that exist in your brain. Strange things that are hardwired into all human brains.
You can’t turn them off or remove them from your brain but are one of the few who can notice when they arise in your mind and know the situations they are likely to act on. Making your decision is one of the first steps in becoming a more thoughtful and rational thinker.
This blog is primarily inspired by the works of Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman and his wonderful book “Thinking Fast and Slow“.
Most Common Mind Traps
1. Cognitive Dissonance
A fox entered on a vine. He gazed at the juicy, purple, overripe grapes. He tried to pick the grapes, but they were too high. Frustrated, he tried again. He launched himself upwards but did not come close to the fruit. He jumped a third time, this time with a loud bang. Still no grapes. The fox turned up his nose: “I don’t care. Only grapes that aren’t even ripe. Why do I want sour grapes?” He went back to the forest.
This is one of Aesop’s fables and from where we get the term “sour grapes”.
The fox had 3 options to take away the grapes:
- Admit he wasn’t smart or
- Skilled enough to get the grapnel and reinterpret the situation retrospectively or
- Simply put, create a new belief that contradicts the first belief.
When we choose option three, and we have two beliefs that contradict each other, this is an example of cognitive dissonance.
If you give a job interview, but someone else gets the job. Instead of reasoning that the other person was better, you tell yourself that the job wasn’t that good or that the interviewer was unfair. When people don’t get what they want. They often tell themselves that it is not what they wanted anyway. You think all rich people are greedy and evil but you want to be rich too.
Dissonance leads to restlessness, mental tension, and anxiety. If the dissonance becomes more intense it can lead to depression. If you see an inconsistency, you need to choose one. Because when it comes to cognitive dissonance, as Rolf Dobelli says, “You can play clever fox all you want—but you’ll never get grapes.”
2. The Spotlight Effect
You reach the office 5 minutes late and you feel like everyone is judging you. It’s your first day at the gym and you feel like everyone is looking at you. You spill a small amount of sauce on your shirt and you feel extremely embarrassed because you think the whole party is going to notice.
The spotlight effect is the phenomenon in which people believe that people are watching them more than they are. People are rarely as interested in you and your actions as you think, so do yourself a favor, stop underestimating how much people are watching you, and reduce the anxiety that may just be the spotlight effect.
3. The Anchoring Effect
Whenever we have to estimate something, like the population of India, we use anchors. Starting with something we know for sure to be true, well then it must be greater than 1, must be less than 7 billion, and must be less than the population of China. We take these anchors and then explore unfamiliar territory.
Unfortunately, we tend to use anchors when we don’t need them. Stop for a moment and look at these questions. Is the tallest redwood tree less than or more than 1,200 feet tall? What is your best guess as to the height of the tallest redwood?
If we ask Group A these two questions, and Group B these 2 questions we will consistently get very different answers. Because of the anchoring effect. But the anchoring effect does not apply only to numbers that appear informative such as in the tree example, according to Kahneman “anchors that are random can be just as effective as potentially informative anchors”.
An experiment was conducted on German judges with an average of 15 years of experience. A description of a woman who was shoplifting was read to each of the judges. Then asked to roll a pair of dice, which were only loaded to add up to 3 or 9. As soon as the dice stopped, they were asked to answer how long they would punish this woman. The judges who rolled a 9 gave him a sentence of 8 months, on average. The judges who rolled a 3 gave him a sentence of 5 months, on average.
The researchers found that the anchoring effect was influencing their decisions. Several other studies using arbitrary numbers, such as the last digits of phone numbers or social security numbers, also confirmed our anchoring bias. In sales and negotiation, anchors are being used all the time, and there will be people willing and able to set this mind trap and exploit the anchoring effect against you.
4. The Halo Effect
What do you think of Alan and Ben? Alan is intelligent-hardworking-impulsive-critical-stubborn-jealous. Ben is jealous-stubborn-critical-impulsive-hardworking-intelligent. If you are like most people you see Alan in a better light than you do Ben. Even though the described symptoms are similar.
When it comes to the halo effect, sequence matters. More importance is given to the first part of the information we receive. The first piece of information helps us quickly build up a story of the person or situation in our mind. Sure Alan is stubborn and jealous, but that’s because he’s intelligent and wants to win in business. Yes, Ben is Intelligent but he uses that intelligence in jealous ways.
The halo effect occurs when a single, primal aspect of a person or object determines and affects or “outshines” how we see the whole picture. When you first start dating someone, both parties in the relationship are on their best behavior. You start to develop an aura of positive thoughts around this person. Small qualities you dislike may begin to emerge, but often go unnoticed because the “halo”, positive feelings, and the initial information you’ve gathered about this person tend to blind any negatives.
The halo effect can also be found in schools. If a student answers 2 essay questions and the teacher gives the first essay a higher grade, he or she will tend to subconsciously give more weight to that and give a higher grade to the second essay, and vice versa for a lower grade. In a work environment, the standard practice for most meetings is to have an open discussion about a topic.
Modern research suggests that the adage “first impression is the last impression” holds. After meeting someone for the first time, our opinion of that person can affect us long into the future.
5. Gambler’s Illusion
Three times, a coin is tossed and lands on heads each time. Suppose someone forces you to bet thousands of dollars of your money on the next toss. Would you bet on heads or tails? If you think like most people, you will almost always choose tails, although heads are equally likely. But why?
We believe in some sort of balancing force in the universe. If we ask people to choose which sequence is more likely, most will choose the top sequence. But both sequences are equally likely. We usually underestimate the likelihood of streaks occurring by chance. We are led to believe that something needs to change because of the gambler’s fallacy. Although there is no such balancing force, the coin cannot remember that heads were flipped 3 times in a row, and the ball cannot remember that it just landed on black.
Casinos love gamblers’ illusions because it creates the illusion in the gambler’s mind that they can predict where the “balance” of the dice or roulette wheel will go next. This fallacy can apply anywhere there is a sequence of decisions.
6. Contrast Effect
If you look at some of the $3000 leather seats, they may seem a bit pricey. If you’re buying an $80,000 car, on the other hand, a $3000 leather seat upgrade seems like almost nothing. Research shows that people will walk an extra 10 minutes if it means saving $10 on food. However, it won’t take ten minutes to save $10 on almost all $1,000 suits.
It’s easy to think something is attractive, big, or expensive when it sits next to something ugly, small, or cheap. Making an absolute decision can be difficult. Next time you go shopping, try to catch yourself if your buying decisions are being influenced by the contrast effect.
7. Confirmation Bias
You have an existing belief about something and you go looking for evidence that supports that belief, which further reinforces the belief. And you continue this cycle and continue to strengthen the belief.
If you encounter evidence that doesn’t support your belief, you filter out the corroborating evidence and your brain actively “forgets” it after a short period. This is confirmation bias.
The tendency to interpret new information so that it fits with our existing theories and beliefs. Our brains are hard-wired to maintain beliefs and do not readily accept new ones. Because accepting new beliefs is psychologically draining. Unlike the scientific method, where you form a hypothesis or ask a question, gather evidence, and then test the hypothesis. It’s a tough job! And there may be some unpleasant truths involved. For those reasons, most people prefer the easy route that makes them feel good.
The more you conform facts to fit your beliefs, the more narrow your perspective becomes, until that narrow reality is all you can see. Confirmation bias is the origin of the “I’m always right” ego, especially in political discourse.
According to Daniel Kahneman, “A reliable way to get people to believe a lie is to repeat it over and over again because familiarity cannot be easily distinguished from truth.” When people hear the same thing repeated over and over again, even facts can go out the window. Echo chambers are wheels for the repetition and dissemination of ideas. Similar ideas are shared, liked, and repeated and any new beliefs are quickly taken off. All different thoughts and opinions seem to disappear.
There is no way to eliminate confirmation bias, only ways to reduce its effect on you.
8. The Baader Meinhof Phenomenon
You buy a certain brand of car, and suddenly, you start seeing that car everywhere, whereas you didn’t see it in the past. When you learn a new word or a new concept, suddenly you see it everywhere in your life. You start thinking, why do I keep seeing those new shoes everywhere.”, they must be becoming so popular.
The Baader Meinhof phenomenon is an illusion characterized by the tendency to notice something repeatedly after noticing it for the first time. This occurs when increased awareness of something leads to the illusion that it is appearing more often.
9. The Recency Effect
The recency effect, which magnifies the importance of recent stimuli and confirmation bias, makes your mind confirm these weird coincidences you think you’re making and then keep up your search to confirm it. That these coincidences must have some kind of meaning.
Our brains are master pattern recognition machines that are always searching for meaning in data. What is amazing is all the patterns and stimuli that flood you every day that your mind simply ignores because it is not in your awareness. We see only those things that we are looking for. You may have seen that word or car many times, but your mind was not interested in noticing it.
10. The Zeigarnik Effect
We can almost always remember unfinished tasks, but we easily forget completed tasks. Simply put, unfinished tasks will stay in our memory longer than completed tasks. It was originally believed that the only way to stop the Zeigarnik effect from gnawing at our thoughts was to complete unfinished tasks, however further research into the Zeigarnik effect found that simply making or writing a plan to complete a task was enough to stop the effect.
So if you find yourself waking up at night stressed because of these unfinished tasks, grab a pen and pad and write down a quick plan for getting things done. Taking tasks out of your mind and onto paper will reduce this effect and give you more peace of mind.
11. The Paradox of Choice
Two experiments were conducted in a supermarket. In the first experiment, 24 different types of jam were freely available to test and buy at a discounted price. In the second experiment, only 6 different types of jam were freely available to test and buy at a discounted price. The first experiment attracted 60% of buyers and 3% bought jam.
The second experiment attracted 40% of the buyers and 30% bought the jam. Even though more shoppers were initially attracted to the greater variety with fewer options, the supermarket was able to sell 10 times the amount of jam. It is a paradox of choice.
For most people, a large selection of a given product is seen as a net positive. But once the number of options exceeds a threshold, our subjective state becomes negative and leads to internal paralysis and decision fatigue. The paradox of choice can also be found in modern dating. In the past, you would marry people you met locally.
We have so many choices these days, and you might think that all that variety would make it easy to find the right partner, but more optimal decisions can be made when given a smaller amount of options to choose from. When faced with a small number of choices, people can easily weigh the pros and cons of each and be quite satisfied with whatever option they choose. When faced with a large number of choices, it becomes more and more difficult to know which option is the best; the more choices there are, the more likely it is to have regrets.
12. Survivorship Bias
Survivorship bias is a logical error where the data we present represents only a group of the population that survived in some way in their work. More simply, we focus on the things that survived a process and ignore the things that failed.
Here’s an example. You move to a new city. You look at the many successful restaurants in the area and conclude that if all these restaurants are successful, you can do the same. What is invisible to you are all the restaurants that failed years ago.
Everywhere you look there are successful actors and actresses. Your chances of succeeding are a fraction above zero. But nobody’s interested in all the failures, so the graveyard of all the failures is largely invisible to you. Society and the media only focus on the winners.
For every rock star, there are thousands of people in the “graveyard of failure” who never succeeded. For every startup business, there are thousands of failed startups. Everyone should chase their dreams, but let survivorship bias make you think that Don’t let the challenge be easier than it seems. Beware of your overly optimistic beliefs that lead to invisible setbacks. Are you only focusing on the person or thing that survives a process?
13. Self-Serving Bias
You got good marks in an examination because of your hard work. But you failed the second exam. The credit for good marks in the first exam goes to you and the blame for failure is on the teacher. For the CEO, all the great things that happened to the company that year was a direct result of his brilliant decisions. If the company had a bad year. The economy, interest rates, and government policies are responsible for this.
According to the self-serving bias, our failures are due to external forces, but our successes are the result of our internal actions. The natural reaction for most people to a negative result is to find an excuse for it and blame others.
To combat it, the first step is just to be aware of the bias. Try to practice humility and always ask for accountability and feedback on your strengths and weaknesses from others.
Self-serving bias is also closely related to the fundamental attribution error. We judge the behavior of others on their personality or fundamental character, but we attribute our behavior to situational factors. If Sundar is late for work, it is because he is a lazy person and does not take his job seriously. If you’re late to work, it’s the traffic and the weather’s fault. Try to catch yourself in situations where you are passing judgment on someone else’s personality in a way that you would blame external factors in the same scenario.
14. The Hindsight Bias
You’ve probably encountered people who are constantly saying, “I knew this was going to happen…” “I knew the stock was going to fall…” “I knew she was going to lose the election.” Yes! …” “I knew Peter and Jyotsna were going to break up…”
They are always the experts after the incident has happened. This is hindsight bias, otherwise known as the “I told you so” phenomenon.
When we look back at past events, everything seems obvious and inevitable. Imagine you are a computer that has a virus (backwardness bias) that causes you to overwrite previous information. As a result of this virus, you are unable to reconstruct previous states of knowledge. We think our memories are clear, but in reality, we are weak in remembering the past properly.
Hindsight bias is a memory distortion. Memories of what you said or believed before the event are distorted to try to make it fit your previous thoughts or beliefs going forward.
Here’s an example. This is what you believed before the election… The results you see get updated in your mind. The virus starts working and now when you go back to that memory it is corrupted. And memory distortion is always skewed in your favor. It causes people to misremember what they said, their previous opinions, and gives people overconfidence in explaining all the reasons why something happened.
Hindsight bias is especially harmful to decision-makers, doctors, coaches, CEOs, and financial advisors because onlookers judge the person not on the soundness of their decision-making, but on whether the outcome was good or bad. We blame making good decisions that lead to bad consequences. But we admire making bad decisions that get good results.
15. Availability Bias
“London is safe, I know one person who lives there and has never had a problem with crime” and “Smoking isn’t so bad, my uncle smoked for 50 years and is still alive” Men are notoriously bad at thinking statistically, even when they are educated.
We use statements like this in an attempt to prove something, but they don’t prove anything. When we talk like this, we fall prey to availability bias. It’s easy to miss plane crashes on the news, and hard to miss safe flights. It’s easy to miss the shark attack story on the news last week. Remembering to swim safely in the ocean is difficult.
Availability bias can cause you to have an irrational fear of being attacked by a shark. We estimate the likelihood of something happening from the information most readily available in our memory.
16. Availability Cascade
A local news story about razor blades found in candy leads to concerned mothers in the local community, which leads to a news story about worried mothers, which leads to a national story, which leads to mothers- The fathers panic and inspect their children’s candy, which ultimately results in no homemade candy and cake being served to trick-or-treaters across the country. It is an availability cascade.
More simply put, an availability waterfall is a huge response to a small problem. Whenever we encounter small risks, we either completely ignore them or completely exaggerate them, nothing in between.
A parent may know this feeling of waiting at night for their teenage child to come home. They know that there is a 99 percent chance that everything is as good as ever. But even a small thought that something might be wrong in your head starts a self-sustaining chain of thoughts that grow into more thoughts about something catastrophic happening, which can eventually lead to panic and a need to make contact immediately. need and make sure their child is well.
When you’re watching the news, is it an objective piece of journalism or just a fountain of availability? “It’s just an availability cascade, a phenomenon that is being amplified by the media until it fills our screens and there is a public outcry.”
17. Sunk Cost Fallacy
You go to the cinema with your friend and after 25 minutes you both realize that the movie is terrible. You turn to your friend and say, “That’s terrible, let’s get out of here.” He replies, “Yeah, it is, but we spent so much on these tickets, we can’t go now.” This is the sunk cost fallacy.
If you stay or go you have spent money. Another example, is maybe you have a girlfriend who is constantly unfaithful, but you continue to forgive and accept her back. You can tell yourself things like “I’ve put so much time, energy, and love into this woman, I can’t leave her now.”
If you catch yourself saying “I’ve come this far…” or “I’ve spent so much on this stock, I can’t sell it now…”. when the price is falling. You are probably encountering the sunk cost fallacy.
The sunk cost fallacy can affect investors’ decision-making, especially in the stock market. To be more rational, look at the current status and forecast of a stock or relationship, and don’t put too much weight on past investments of money, time, energy, or love.
18. The Framing Effect
Which meat would you like to buy? 99 percent fat-free or 1 percent fat? Most people go for option A when asked, even though they are similar.
how about now? 98 percent fat-free or 1 percent fat? Most people still go for option A. This is the framing effect. We often draw different conclusions from the same information depending on how it is presented. Pay attention to how different news outlets structure their headlines and stories and how companies structure their offers.
Here we have a small size popcorn for $3, and a large one for $7. Which would you choose? In this case, a high percentage prefers to go for the cheaper option. Now, let me offer a third option. Medium for $6.5 Studies show that when given these three options, a much higher percentage will choose the Large because they see it as the most valuable option. The small and large prices are the same, but the decoy changes your perception and influences your decision-making toward the more expensive option.
When The Economist magazine offered readers these two options, they were quite disappointed with the results. Most chose the cheaper option. When they introduced a third decoy option and their sales skyrocketed 43%, the offer was the same, but the print and web offers now appeared more valuable.
19. The Clustering Illusion
Have you ever seen faces in the clouds? The faces of the founders of different religions are carved on toast or on the rocks of Mars. The human brain looks for patterns and rules. For the most part, the clustering illusion is harmless, but it has real-world implications. Investors who rely on technical analysis of charts have an uncanny ability to spot all kinds of patterns and predictions from the data. They often spot patterns and make risky investments where none ever existed.
Take a moment to look at this string of X’s and O’s. Is the sequence random or planned? Even if they are completely random, when asked people will often come up with all kinds of laws or rules to interpret the letter patterns. To overcome your susceptibility to pattern recognition, try reclaiming your skepticism. If you find a pattern, ask yourself whether it is more likely to be pure chance or whether I am falling for the clustering illusion.
20. Exponential Growth
If you fold a piece of paper in half and then in half again and keep doing this 50 times. How thick will it be after 50 folds? If you estimate to be a few inches thick, you’ll be a little off, since the paper will be that thick. It could reach almost the Sun from the Earth. Linear growth is intuitive to us.
However, exponential growth is incomprehensible to us. But why is it so?
“The power of the combination is the most powerful force in the universe.”– Albert Einstein
To illustrate the power of exponential growth, if we place one grain of rice on the first square of a chessboard, two grains on the second square, four grains on the third square, and so on, doubling the number of grains on each subsequent square. How many grains of rice do we need to complete this work?
Exponential growth is not impressive in the short term, but growth at a faster and faster rate over the long term is truly unique and can quickly become astronomical and incomprehensible. You’d need 18 quintillion grains of rice to accomplish the task, which is a number we can’t even begin to wrap our heads around and let show.
How fast a small amount of something can increase when subjected to the force of exponential growth. If you want to estimate the time any process will take to double, or you just need a more intuitive way of describing something, use the Rule of 70.
10% return on investment = Your money will double in about 7 years. 8% percent inflation = your money is worth half of what it is today in about 8.7 years. The population growth of a country is 5% = the country has to double the population in about 14 years. Of course, these growth rates would need to be constant, and the world is full of uncertainties and complexities, however, these are much more intuitive than simply saying “The current inflation rate is X percent”. Beware of exponential growth.
Never trust your intuition about exponential growth, because we don’t have any. Where possible try to convert the growth rate to something linear with a time frame.
21. The Barnum Effect
You have a great need for other people to like and admire you. Sometimes you have serious doubts about whether you have taken the right decision. You pride yourself on being an independent thinker. At times you are extroverted, friendly, and outgoing, at other times you are introverted, careful, and reserved. Was I close to giving an accurate description of your personality?
In 1948, Bertram Forer conducted an experiment in which people were given the same text of generalized statements found in astrology magazines. He then told each participant that he had personally written the statement just for them. 86% found the text was an accurate description of their personality.
This is the Barnum Effect, when we easily attribute our personality to vague and generalized statements, even though they may apply to a wide range of people. The next time you comment “Omg that’s so me” while reading your horoscope or taking an online quiz on what type of spirit animal you are, just remember that the Barnum effect causes people to read horoscopes, palmistry Easily fooled by reading and psychology.
These were the 21 mind traps or you can say most common thinking errors. You should find out which mind trap is trapping you and you should work on that.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)
- What is Cognitive Dissonance?
- Cognitive dissonance is a psychological phenomenon where individuals hold conflicting beliefs or attitudes, leading to mental tension. The blog gives an example of a fox and sour grapes to explain this concept.
- What is the Spotlight Effect?
- The spotlight effect is the tendency to believe that others are paying more attention to us than they actually are. The blog provides examples of feeling judged for being late or spilling sauce on your shirt.
- Explain the Anchoring Effect.
- The anchoring effect refers to the tendency to rely too heavily on the first piece of information encountered (the “anchor”) when making decisions. The blog uses examples like estimating the height of a redwood tree to illustrate this effect.
- What is the Halo Effect?
- The halo effect occurs when our impression of someone is influenced by a single characteristic. The blog explains how the sequence of information matters in forming perceptions, using the example of Alan and Ben.
- Define Gambler’s Illusion.
- Gambler’s illusion is the belief in a balancing force in random events, like thinking a coin is more likely to land on tails after multiple heads. The blog warns against underestimating the likelihood of streaks occurring by chance.
- What is the Contrast Effect?
- The contrast effect is the tendency to perceive something as more attractive, big, or expensive when compared to something less favorable. The blog uses examples like comparing prices of leather seats for different cars.
- Explain Confirmation Bias.
- Confirmation bias is the tendency to seek, interpret, and remember information that confirms our existing beliefs. The blog describes how people actively filter out evidence that contradicts their beliefs.
- Define the Baader Meinhof Phenomenon.
- The Baader Meinhof phenomenon is the illusion of seeing something repeatedly after noticing it for the first time. The blog gives examples like buying a certain car brand and suddenly seeing it everywhere.
- What is the Recency Effect?
- The recency effect magnifies the importance of recent stimuli, leading to patterns and coincidences that may not have meaning. The blog explains how our brains are wired for pattern recognition.
- Explain the Zeigarnik Effect.
- The Zeigarnik effect is the tendency to remember unfinished tasks better than completed ones. The blog suggests that simply making a plan to complete a task can alleviate the effect.
He is the Founder and CEO of the Training and Counselling Company ‘Brain Soul & You’. He is an NLP Wellness Coach, Life Coach, Brain analyst, and Trainer for Education, Corporate, and Entrepreneurship. For more than 7 years, he delivered presentations on entrepreneurship, mind programming, and motivation. He did his B.tech in IT and later choose to be a successful psychologist. He is helping people in various ways through his counseling and training sessions.