This is the next installment of a series of articles about the cognitive biases and other irrational tendencies–or in Layman, why and how you err, make decisions, get emotional, and occasionally feel out of control. I recommend to read the previous article if you haven’t already. If you have, here is part two!
Biases, Illusions, Delusions, Fallacies & Other Cognitive Errs — An Introduction
Association & The Conditioning Effect
We tend to trust something more when it is associated with something we know, like, or are inspired by. Nowhere is this more obvious than in marketing. Take a Coca Cola advert featuring a beautiful woman wearing a Red dress, smiling whilst she drinks a can of coke, or one featuring happy people jumping around like they are on cloud nine. In the former, viewers are drawn (men, sexually; women, usually through envy) to something they want but can’t have, so they try to get closer to that ‘thing’ by buying and drinking some coke–just like the beautiful woman. In the latter, we associate energy and happy feelings with the drink–so we buy it, hoping to have so much buzz that we, too, feel like jumping around on cloud nine. The association effect happen subconsciously, which is why the advertising industry loves it.
You may have heard of a famous experiment involving a crazy Russian psychologist, a dog, and a doorbell. Well, the name of that crazy Russian was Pavlov, and he showed the world that he could train dogs to salivate by the mere sound of a doorbell. Today, this doesn’t seem so impressive, but back in the late 1800’s, it was rather something. But how did Pavlov do it? He took untrained dogs and gave them treats immediately after sounding a doorbell; over time he began to treat them sporadically; and eventually, stopped treating them altogether–but the dogs kept salivating when they heard the bell. He had trained them to associate the bell with food. This effect, known sometimes as the Conditioning Effect, is seen across the whole animal kingdom—and that of course includes us. An example of association/conditioning in humans would be how we associate certain times of day with food, sleep, conversation, exercise, and the like.
Whilst association bias may help us make shopping decisions and develop routines, it can just as easily lead us down dooming alleyways of irrationality and misbelief, and very sneakily so. Awareness is key, but selectively so; trying to become aware of all associative influences on our thinking–like all the biases and other influences–is paralysing, depressing, and impossible. Be selectively aware.
Despite what we like to think, we really don’t like change. Whether it is our personal routine, the way the economy works, the environment in the workplace, generally, we like things to remain the same—and, if they must change, for the change to be Lilliputian. This is not the case for things we may have a passion for, like education reform, climate change, or the ignorant boss at work; but it is the case for most things, which, for good reason, we tend not to notice—things like the taste of our morning coffee, the time we go to bed, the route we take to work, our food and drink preferences, the people we associate with, the topics we study, and so on. If we had to make decisions about these things all of the time, we’d be infinitely less productive than we are today; this bias decreases cognitive load and makes trivial decisions automatic.
But what if they are not trivial? What if the people you associate with are no good for where you want to get to or who you want to be; what if your friends are holding you back? What if your routine is inefficient, unproductive or harmful? What if your habits are destroying your health? What if you took a different route to work? What if what you need most is to your ass to bed earlier? What if the Status-Quo Bias is not serving you? Well, only you can change you; it helps to know, though, why changing you is so hard. It is your biology.
I sometimes nest the Stasis Bias inside Comfort Bias, which is our desire to be as comfortable as we can be; a deeply rooted biological tendency to avoid uncomfortable situations; to find a state of stasis, and to stay in it. Such situations are easy to find in the modern-day: public speaking, exercise, habit-breaking, making new friends, dating—just to name a few. Whilst Comfort Bias may help us settle in to relationships, build habits, and support creative phases, it can, as my examples show, pin us to familiar ground—sometimes forever—when maybe what we need most, is to run away as far and as fast as possible.
Obvious But Not Obvious ‘Internal’ Influences
Use it or Lose it
Missions & Goals
Trends, Denial and Faulty Reasoning
Some people have a tendency to flat-out deny truth when it is staring them right in the face. As Jordan Peterson likes to say, ‘truth burns dead wood; and some people are carrying a lot of dead wood.’ This bias, also known as the Normality Bias, shows itself primarily in times of disaster: faced with exceptional circumstances, it is easier for us to believe that things will turn out ‘just fine’. Conscious denial—that is denying to yourself what is obviously true—is a perilous business that, if wise, you will avoid like the plague.
The success of our species required essential ingredient, without which, we probably wouldn’t have lasted all these years—about 300,000 years, to be imprecisely precise. Namely, the tendency for negative experiences to weigh more heavily on our conscious. On the surface this sounds like a bad thing, and yes, experiencing negative states of mind is not pleasant; but they do allows us to contemplate on our mistakes and sufferings. This means we are able to work out how to avoid them; this means we are able to learn. The greatest and most important lessons we learn have Negativity Bias at their root. Like all biases, however, it doesn’t always fire at the right time, and it can be extremely perturbing if not managed. Every wonder why the news is so interesting, stimulating, riveting, addictive?
We’re drawn to things that inspire our curiosities. Thus, being very curious creatures, it can often get the better of us. But why are we curious? The answer, again, is evolution. Think of those early humans—to whom which we owe our very existence—who ventured into unknown lands and crossed dangerous seas: their sense of adventure, their curiosity, was crucial in humans becoming the world’s dominant species, and, in Homo sapiens becoming the only human species. Our ancestors interest in the mysterious—their curiosity—aided the evolution process, hence, it has stuck around.
Curiosity helps us learn, invent and innovate, adventure, meet new people, find love,2 take on challenges—helps us progress. Conversely, it can also lead us into dangerous territory.
We are excited by the new. Excitement helps us innovate, learn, improve; if we weren’t excited, pretty much nothing would be possible. The problem is that we tend to confuse ’new’ with ‘valuable’. Generally, upon discovering something new, we get excited, and this excitement—because of the way it makes us feel, because of the language it produces, because of the attention it attracts, because it has never been seen before or done before—creates the illusion that a new thing is a good thing—when, in reality, it is most likely just another new thing. Only when the excitement dies down can something new be assessed for its value.
Business and self-help books are the best examples of this. For the first, people will pay attention to a new business—whether it be a new tech company, supermarket or restaurant—purely because it is new and they are curious;but unless their curiosity is matched by value, and therefore, kept alive, people will be very quickly paying less attention, and less attention, and less attention, until eventually the business calls it a day. It happens the other way, too; those in charge of the business can be so swept up in excitement that they become blind to the real-world value they actually provide.
With self-help books, people will experience positive benefits whilst reading them, and for a given number of weeks after; but these benefits are of excitement, not actual merit. This example is slightly different to business, in that, a book may well be incredibly valuable, but the reader may be a poor reader, or they may not be applying the lessons given in the book. There is a saying, ‘the effect entertainment has on us is nout to do with the entertainment itself, but our creative engagement with it’; in other words, entertainment is creativity. Although a self-help book is not necessarily entertainment, the same principle applies; yes, the book must have something useful, but the reader’s interaction with it means much more. Besides, is not all of life, entertainment?
Our brains use cache the same way a web browser does: it stores information for quick, easy access. What this means is that when we encounter a new problem or uncertain situation, the first explanation we summon is constructed from information in our brain that is most easy to access, i.e., recently acquired (or updated) information which our brain deems relevant. The problem is, not only can this information totally miss the mark–it can be difficult to overcome, especially for someone untrained in critical thinking; our explanations and initial thoughts feel correct to us and often we become attached to them, and hence, they are difficult to see through. It is very possible that this is how a ‘gut-reaction’ or ‘intuition’ works.
As unlikely as it is, say you find yourself stranded in some unknown country, and the first thing you must do is quench your unbearable thirst. You reach a shop, go inside, and are confronted by hundreds of unfamiliar, dodgy-looking drinks. Your needs outweigh your uncertainty, so you randomly choose a shiny red can with big, white, cursive writing on it; you pay, whack it open, and chug away… You don’t know WHY you chose that can, but just that you chose it.
Now, if you had entered the shop and knew of no product except a can of Pepsi Max, you can be damn certain you would have bought that can of Pepsi Max—even if you hate Pepsi Max with all your guts. This is the Availability Bias at work. But what went on in the shop?
Five years later you wake up in the middle of your sleep and realise something profound: that can you bought in that weird shop in that weird country all them years ago looked remarkably like a can of Coca Cola! At the time, you thought you chose randomly, but you were indeed very smartly playing it as safe as you possibly could, albeit unconsciously. The lines of code your brain ran when you first laid eyes on that ‘random’ can, without you even knowing, literally contained pixels of a can of Coca Cola. Why Coca Cola? You are from a western country, where not only do millions of people drink it but advertisements are everywhere you go; continuous exposure to Coca Cola has placed it firmly in your cache. The drink you bought was not a can of Coca Cola, but it was the can that most resembled a can of Coca Cola—and it was for no other reason than your previous encounters with Coca Cola products.
Generally speaking, consistency signals safety. If something consistent suddenly becomes inconsistent, we have our biology to thank for our shrewdness at noticing. Consistency decreases the amount of resources we have to expand thinking: this, as it happens, is how habit works. Think about your favourite restaurant: if the food that came out of the kitchen was inconsistent, it very likely wouldn’t be your favourite restaurant; part of the reason you love it is because you consistently get top-notch grub.
Also known as Buyer’s Stockholm Syndrome, Post-Hoc Rationalisation refers to our unique ability to generate rational reasons for our actions after we perform them. Not only do we do this all the time, but we do it without noticing; and not only that, we are also wrong most of the time. Our post-hoc rationalisations are usually in the form of a single reason, but there is rarely a single-reason for anything we do, for our actions are the product of a potion of varying tastes, interests, ideas, wants, needs, et cetera. Further, the reason (or reasons) we conjure up always support the action, that is, they are given to make the action look worthy or good: this is what is means to ‘rationalise’.
Post-Hoc Rationalisation has two different manifestations—one at the subconscious level, and one at the conscious level. The subconscious is where biases start, and where they tend to stay until they are noticed; hence, most of this discussion is reference to the subconscious. It is interesting to observe, however, what happens when one become semi or fully conscious of their biases—in this case, their rationalisation(s).
An example: Bogdon becomes aware that he is about to commit the sin of post-hoc rationalisation, which has put him in an almighty pickle: he has to give a justifiable reason to Bogjohn for his actions, but if he provides the REAL reason (or as far we he is concerned, the truer reason), Bogjohn will not be happy, and will likely want to spin Bogdon’s jaw; so instead, he lies to Bogjohn—he lies about his motives to put his questionable actions in a brighter light. It gets worse; Bogdon may be in denial himself about his real motives, that is, he may know the truer reasons for his actions, but doesn’t want to believe them; and in rationalising to others he is also trying to convince himself. This is something we all do, naturally, but don’t like to talk about.
Rationalisation is a very slippery slope.
We may buy a new iPhone and rationalise the decision by claiming ’the camera is much better’ or ‘the design is sleeker’ or ’the processor is faster’, but the prime reason may in fact because everyone else has got one. You may put salad in the shopping trolley because you ‘fancy a salad’, but really, it is because you feel guilty for binging on two doughnuts this morning, or because you want to look like a ‘healthy eater’ to your fellow shoppers, family, or friends.
Post-hoc rationalisation can’t be avoided, the main reason being because we usually do not know our real motives. But we can make attempts to avoid it, consciously—by resolving not to lie. Whilst this will not automatically bring us to our real motives, it will bring us closer to them. And the closer you get to the truth the better your life will become.
Look out for the next installment, which will be a little deeper than the past two.
- I will use ‘we’ an awful lot throughout this discussion; I address why in more detail in near the end, but quickly, it is because the biases refer to all humans—they are part of human biology. But more important: By ‘we’ I do not mean the conscious, rational, sensible you who you like to think is in control; I mean the irrational, unconscious you, the chimp side of you, the one who is really in control. Hence, it is not rational to take offence by my use of ‘we’.
- When it comes to finding a sexual partner, curiosity is a fundamental—and often, unconscious—substance; it plays a massive role in the formation of chemistry between two potential lovers. Being curious about somebody and being attracted two them are two feelings that stem from the same root.