WHEN I WAS a graduate student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, doing research in cognitive psychology, our lab group went out every now and then for nachos and beers. It was a great opportunity for us to ask our adviser about things that wouldn’t likely come up in our more formal meetings. At one of those gatherings, I summoned up the courage to ask him a question that had been on my mind for some time: “Do you think cognitive psychology can make the world a better place?” I had asked a simple yes-or-no question, so he chose a simple answer: “Yes.”
Over the course of the next 30 years, I’ve tried to answer that question myself by working on problems that I hope have real-world applications. In my research at Yale University, where I’ve been a professor of psychology since 2003, I’ve examined some of the biases that can lead us astray–and developed strategies to correct them in ways that are directly applicable to situations people encounter in their daily lives.
I also saw how “thinking problems” cause troubles that go far beyond our individual concerns. These errors and biases contribute to a wide range of societal issues, including political polarization, complicity in climate change, and ethnic profiling. They can also come into play for people who run businesses–how they hire staff, interact with their colleagues, set strategies.
I introduced a course called “Thinking” to show students how psychology can help them recognize and tackle some of these real-world problems and make better decisions. Now I’ve written a book, Thinking 101, to make these lessons more widely available. And here I’m presenting a sample of the kind of material you’ll find in it.
My book is not about what is wrong with people. Thinking problems happen because we are wired in very particular ways. Reasoning errors are mostly byproducts of our highly evolved cognition, which has allowed us to survive and thrive as a species. As a result, de-biasing is notoriously challenging.
To avoid these errors in running a business, merely learning what they are and making a mental note not to commit them isn’t enough. Fortunately, there are actionable strategies you can adopt to change your thinking and help your team work better. These strategies can also help us figure out which things we can’t control, and show us how solutions that might seem promising can ultimately backfire.
1. Don’t Be Throttled by Things That Have Always Worked
From antiquity into the late 19th century, Western healers believed that if you drew out a patient’s “bad” blood when they were ill, their ailments would get better. George Washington presumably died from this treatment when his doctor drew 1.7 liters of blood to treat a throat infection. By the time Washington was born, we had already figured out that the earth is round, and Sir Isaac Newton had formulated the three physical laws of motion, but our intelligent ancestors still thought draining blood was the bomb.
Still, if we were in their situation, we might not have been much different. Picture yourself in the year 1850, with excruciating back pain. You’ve heard that in 1820, King George IV was bled 150 ounces and went on to live for another 10 years. You’ve heard that your neighbor’s insomnia was cured by bloodletting. And you’ve heard that about three quarters of people who got sick and had blood drawn got better (I am making up these numbers). So, you try bloodletting and you actually do feel better.
But here’s the catch. Suppose there are 100 people who got sick but did not have their blood drawn, and 75 of these people also got better. Now you can see that three-quarters of sick people get better whether their blood is drawn or not. But people neglected to check what happens to those who don’t follow this practice. They focused only on the confirming evidence.
Confirmation bias can easily lead us to an exaggerated and invalid view of ourselves. Once we start believing that we are depressed, we may act like a depressed person, making deeply pessimistic predictions about the future and avoiding any fun–which would make anybody feel depressed. And once you start doubting your competency, you may avoid risks that could have led to greater career opportunities, and then, no surprise, your career will end up looking like you lack competency.
These vicious cycles can work at the societal level. Traditionally, almost all scientists were men. Most people who were allowed to continue in the field did a good job. Thus, we developed the notion that men are good at science. Women were hardly given a chance to prove that they could be good scientists, too. So we had little evidence that could disconfirm the belief that only men are good at science. And society continues to operate based on that assumption.
It’s not difficult to see that any stereotype based on race, age, sexual orientation, or socioeconomic background can work the same way. According to a 2020 report from Citibank, had our society invested equally in the education, housing, wages, and businesses of both White and Black Americans over the past 20 years, America would have been $16 trillion richer. If that number is too large to grasp, the gross domestic product of the United States was $21.43 trillion in 2019.
2. Keep in Mind That Examples Are Just Examples
I use a lot of examples in my teaching because cognitive psychology research tells me it’s useful to do so. Vivid examples are more convincing, easier to understand, and harder to forget than decontextualized, abstract explanations. But they can lead us to ignore important statistical principles.
Take the phenomenon known as the Sports Illustrated cover jinx. Right after an individual or a team appears on the cover of Sports Illustrated, their performance will often begin to decline. The August 31, 2015, issue of SI has a cover photo of Serena Williams, looking at the ball she’d just tossed in the air to serve. The headline reads, “All Eyes on Serena: the Slam.” No sooner did the issue hit the newsstands than Serena lost in the US Open, without reaching the final. Check Wikipedia for a long list of the teams and athletes who experienced the SI cover jinx all the way back to 1954, the year the magazine launched.
If the jinx is real, why does it happen? Perhaps those who make the cover get arrogant and let their guards down. Or they might become overly anxious because of the spotlight it shines on them. But rather than blaming the athletes themselves, the jinx may be explained by a purely statistical phenomenon known as regression toward the mean.
Whether people are taking tests, or engaging in sports, music, or any other activity, random factors that affect performance always come into play, often giving a result that is better or worse than usual. Athletes are affected by playing conditions, the strength of the competition, quality of rest and eating, the bounce of the ball, variability in refereeing. Those who performed well enough to be featured on SI’s cover have likely had many random factors aligned in their favor for a stretch. But statistically, it can’t last forever, and it won’t. And when someone is playing at an extremely high level, even a little bad luck can mean a loss, and hence the jinx. That is, unusually high scores–or unusually low–tend to regress toward the average the next time one tries the same thing, whether you became arrogant or anxious or not.
The regression fallacy can happen in job interviews and auditions, and this is where the power of specific examples can be problematic. Many hiring decisions are made after face-to-face interviews. Those who have made the short list have already passed a threshold, so there is not much variance among the candidates, meaning that random factors can be enough to shift the final decisions. Many things can go well or badly for the candidates during an interview, and many of them are out of their control. The interviewer could be in a bad mood because of the news they heard in their car on the way to work. I know of one candidate who showed up with mismatched shoes because they happened to be lying next to each other when she was rushing out of the house; just imagine how self-conscious she must have been throughout the interview.
On top of all these random factors, the inherent problem with these encounters is that interviewers observe only a thin slice of the person’s performance. And this impression drawn from that particular day can make the decision-makers ignore the records that reflect the candidate’s skills over many years. A person who looks brilliant during an interview may not be as awesome once they are hired. And the candidate who was nervous because of her mismatched shoes could turn out to be the big catch the company missed. Given regression toward the mean, that is what we should expect.
But how can we avoid committing the regression fallacy ourselves? What should interviewers do, for instance? If possible, the most straightforward method would be to evaluate candidates solely on the basis of their résumés.
Doing away with job interviews might not be feasible for hiring decisions that require you to see the candidate in action. Résumés and recommendation letters may feel too impersonal and vague; we may believe that we can make a much better decision if we can set our eyes on the real person even for a brief moment. The problem is that once we do, it is hard to keep that one impression from overly affecting us. We just need to remind ourselves of the regression toward the mean, and make multiple observations of applicants. It takes more time and effort to see them in different settings, but in the end, it might be cheaper and easier than hiring the wrong person.
3. Stop Flipping Out About the Negative
Many psychological studies have shown that people weigh negative information more heavily than positive information. The negativity bias can affect us so severely that it causes us to make decisions that are blatantly irrational. For instance, we tend to avoid an option framed in terms of negative attributes, while we would gladly accept the exact same option when it is framed by its positive attributes. Thus, people prefer flights that are on time 88 percent of the time over flights that are late 12 percent of the time. In one study where researchers cooked ground beef for a taste test, participants who ate burgers that were described as “75 percent lean” rated them to be less greasy, more lean, and better in quality and taste than people who’d eaten identical burgers that were “25 percent fat.”
The negativity bias also affects us when we make decisions involving money. Suppose you decide to buy a new car. You spend a month researching, pick a make and model, and visit a dealer. Then the salesperson starts asking you about all sorts of options, like auto-dimming mirrors, blind-spot alerts, “evasive steering assist,” and so on. He says the base model is $25,000, but you can add feature X at $1,500, and feature Y at $500, and so on. Every time he presents a feature, he explains how it would make your life better and safer–that is, what you would gain.
At a different dealer, a savvier salesperson proceeds in the opposite direction. She starts out with a fully loaded model at $30,000. Then, she says if you give up feature X, which could save your life, the price would be $28,500, and if you also lose feature Y, which could make your parallel parking so much easier, it would be $28,000. This salesperson frames your choices in terms of the features you would lose. And that pushes your loss-aversion button.
In a study conducted in the 1990s, participants who were told to imagine a base model of $12,000 (prices were a lot lower back then) and were then asked to add features (that is, gain-frame) spent $13,651.43 on average. In contrast, participants who started with a fully loaded model of $15,000 and were asked which features they were willing to lose spent $14,470.63 on average, about $800 more than those who received the gain-frame. If we convert this to the current car price of, say, $25,000, it would be like spending $1,700 more just because the prices were presented in loss-frame.
One effective method to avoid the negativity bias is to turn the negative frame into the positive frame and see how you feel. For instance, when considering flights that are delayed 12 percent of the time, frame them as flights that are punctual 88 percent of the time, and see how bad they appear to you.
As another example: When patients with lung cancer were told they had a 90 percent chance of surviving if they had surgery, more than 80 percent of them opted for the operation. But when patients were told they had a 10 percent chance of dying after surgery, only half chose the intervention. Clearly, patients should be presented with both framings so their decisions are not swayed by the negativity or positivity bias.
4. Remember That We Don’t See Things as They Are
We always have to rely on what we know to make sense of the things happening around us. That means we tend to see the world based on what we already believe. Thus, a benign and useful cognitive mechanism can hurt others by helping perpetuate inaccurate impressions based on stereotypes. One of my favorite studies of this phenomenon examined the gender pay gap and shows what happens when two candidates for a research job are identical in every respect except gender.
The participants were science professors at large American universities with prominent, well-respected science departments. They were asked to rate a candidate for a position as a student laboratory manager. The application showed where the candidates had received their bachelor’s degrees and gave their grade point averages, their GRE scores, their previous research experience, future plans, and other information typically asked of people applying for jobs. All the professors who participated in this study were presented with the same application, except that on half of them the applicant’s name was Jennifer and on the other half it was John.
Even though Jennifer and John’s credentials were identical, the study’s participants–all of them science professors trained to interpret data without any biases–rated John to be significantly more competent, hirable, and deserving of faculty mentoring than Jennifer. When asked to estimate how much salary they would offer the applicant, the average for John was more than $3,500 (or 10 percent) higher than that for Jennifer. These scientists interpreted the same application differently solely because of the gender of the applicant. It is all the more disheartening that this was true not only for the male professors making the judgments, but also for the female professors.
5. Want to Know What I Think? Ask Me
Our tendency to interpret the things around us in the light of what we already know can also lead us to assume that everybody participating in a conversation would reach the same conclusion, including people who don’t know what we know. Which is why miscommunications are more common than we think, even with those who are close to us.
In a famous study, participants are asked to select a well-known song that anyone randomly paired with them for the experiment would recognize. Let’s say Mary chooses “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” She taps out the beats of the song without singing it. And the partner has to guess what it is.
The tappers estimated that about 50 percent of their listeners should be able to guess the song. But of 120 songs that were tapped, only three people guessed correctly. The tappers were experiencing the illusion that anybody could guess their song, simply because the answer was playing in their minds.
The curse of knowledge helps account for why smart people who know a lot are not necessarily good teachers or coaches. I have heard complaints from college students about a course taught by a Nobel laureate: absolutely brilliant, but utterly incomprehensible. One of my former students took violin lessons from a maestro who had won several Grammy Awards. When I asked her if he was a good teacher, she tactfully answered, “Violin comes naturally to him.”
There actually is something concrete that each of us can do to improve our ability to grasp others’ minds and convey our thoughts more clearly. And it is simple: Stop letting others guess what we think and just tell them. Also, when texting sarcastic jokes, add emoticons.
Yeah, articulating our thoughts sometimes feels awkward and dull. It definitely looks uncool to spell out that we’re joking. Yet it would be much more prudent to remind ourselves of how clueless we felt when someone was tapping out a song for us.
6. Imagine Your Future Self When Facing Delayed Gratification
Here is a typical test to measure how we discount delayed rewards. Would you prefer $340 now or $390 in six months? Most participants choose the former, which may sound reasonable considering inflation, interest rates, and investment opportunities. Wouldn’t it be wiser to take the money now and look for a way to do something with it that might yield a higher return?
The answer is no. To turn $340 into $390 in six months, the annual return would have to be about 30 percent–much higher than any interest rate on the market.
We tend to discount the value of future rewards more than is justifiable. We also discount the value of things in the future simply because the future is uncertain. Whenever we are faced with a choice that involves delayed gratification, our preference for certainty (getting it now) over uncertainty (getting it in the future) may be a factor too.
This hypersensitivity is not easy to overcome. Most people are risk-averse; they can’t wait for a larger gain because they fear uncertainty. So an obvious solution would be to boost our confidence in the future.
One method that has been shown to work is to think about future events with as much specific detail as we can summon in order to make the future feel more real. And some cool new tools can help us do so.
In one study, researchers used immersive virtual reality to help young people prepare for their financial futures. First, the researchers created digital avatars of the undergraduates participating in the experiment. Then, they altered some of the avatars so they appeared to be close to retirement age. The students whose avatars were age-progressed were about twice as likely to allocate a hypothetical $1,000 windfall to their retirement than those who saw only their same-age avatars.
In another study, participants ate 300 fewer calories at an all-you-can-eat buffet when they were listening to an audio recording of their own musings on good things that could happen to them in the future.
Yet overthinking one’s future and relentlessly pursuing a goal can lead to a host of mental and physical health problems. So how can we tell when to persist and when to quit?
If a goal is worth pursuing, even the pain that accompanies our practice feels good–just like the pain of good exercise, spicy hot pot, or tingling, ice-cold soda. But if you feel like you’re hurting yourself to achieve your rewards, and you enjoy only the goal and not the process, it’s probably time to rethink–not just your priorities but the way you think about them.
Excerpted and adapted from Thinking 101. Copyright (c) 2022 by Woo-kyoung Ahn. Excerpted by permission of Flatiron Books, a division of Macmillan Publishers. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. You can buy Thinking 101 now.
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