5 Ways Your Brain Plays Tricks On You

Your brain is a wondrous thing, but it certainly isn’t perfect. Sometimes it forgets important details like the exact time of an important meeting. Other times it fails to notice essential things in the world around you, leading to mistakes or poor judgments.

You might be inclined to just write off these mistakes as simple errors or blame situational variables. You were too busy, too tired, or perhaps too distracted. The fact is, however, that your brain has several limitations and patterns that can trip you up in a number of different ways.

The following are just a few of the psychological tendencies that might lead you astray.

Your Brain Likes to Take Shortcuts

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One of the biggest shortcomings of your brain is that sometimes it's just plain lazy. When trying to solve a problem or make a decision, your mind often falls back on rules of thumb, mental shortcuts, or solutions that have worked well in the past. In many cases, this is a useful and effective approach. Using such mental shortcuts allows you to make decisions quickly without having to laboriously think through each and every possible solution. But sometimes these mental shortcuts, known as heuristics, can trip you up and cause you to make mistakes.

For example, you might find yourself terrified of flying on a plane because you can immediately think of several tragic, high-profile plane crashes. In reality, traveling by air is actually much safer than traveling by car, but because your brain is using a mental shortcut known as the availability heuristic, you are fooled into believing that flying is much more dangerous than it is in reality.

Hidden Biases Influence Your Thinking

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We are also susceptible to a number of cognitive biases that prevent us from thinking clearly and making accurate decisions. These common mental mistakes are patterns of thinking that result in errors, distortions, and downright inaccurate conclusions. One example of this is known as the confirmation bias.

Let's suppose that you have a friend who does not believe in global warming. She gives stronger credence to news stories that support her beliefs while discounting evidence in support of the existence of global warming. The confirmation bias causes us to place a greater emphasis or even seek out things that confirm what we already believe, but to ignore or discount anything that opposes our already existing ideas.

You can probably imagine how this bias influences people on a daily basis. As we encounter information about different political debates, for example, we are highly prone to seeking out stories that are well-aligned to our beliefs.

There are many different types of cognitive biases in addition to the confirmation bias. These predispositions can influence how we perceive people (such as the halo effect), how we perceive events (the hindsight bias), and what aspects of a situation we pay attention to when making a decision (the attributional bias).

Your Brain Likes to Play the Blame Game

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When something bad happens, it is only natural that we look for an underlying cause to blame. The problem is that we often place the blame on the wrong person, event, or object and frequently distort reality in order to protect our own self-esteem.

Imagine for a moment that you just bombed an important test in your psychology class. Who’s responsible for your failure? If you are like many people, you might explain away your poor performance by blaming situational factors (“The room was so hot I couldn’t concentrate!”) or on your instructor (“We didn’t learn any of this in class! There were too many trick questions!”). In psychology, this is what is known as the actor-observer bias. When it comes to our own behavior, we are often too quick to place the blame on external forces rather than on personal choices or characteristics.

But what happens when a classmate fails a test? While we might focus on outside forces when it comes to explaining away negative events in our own lives, we often fall prey to the opposite problem when we are looking for the causes of other people’s behavior. When you fail a test, it’s because the teacher didn’t provide adequate preparation, but when a classmate fails a test, you’re likely to believe it’s because he didn’t study, that he is lazy, or that he is just plain stupid. This is what is known as the fundamental attribution error.

When something great happens to us, we tend to fall victim to what is known as the self-serving bias. If you get a promotion at work, a great grade on a test, or win a medal at an athletic event, you attribute your success to internal factors. You got that promotion because you worked hard. You did well on your test because you're smart and you studied. You excelled in your sport because you practiced regularly and are more skilled than the other players.

So why do we engage in this blame game? Researchers believe that many of our attributional biases function as a way to protect our self-esteem and guard ourselves from the fear of failure. According to this way of thinking, bad things happen to other people because they do things that you would never do, bad things happen to you because of things outside of your control, and your successes are the result of your traits, skills, efforts, and other internal characteristics.

You Miss Major Changes That Happen Right In Front of You

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There is simply so much going on in the world around us at any given moment that our brains cannot attend to each and every detail. As a result, we can sometimes completely miss major changes that happen right in front of our eyes. Do you think that you would notice if the person you were talking to suddenly switched into someone else mid-conversation? Researchers have found that when conversational partners were swapped during a brief interruption, the majority of people didn’t even notice the change.

Change blindness refers to this failure to detect differences in visual scenes.

So why are we so prone to missing important shifts in the world around us? Researchers suggest that several different factors probably play a role. First, we have to deal with the limited resources that are available to us. If we are busy concentrating on one thing, we simply have to tune out huge amounts of other information that our brains cannot deal with.

Our expectations also play an important role. Would you expect a person to suddenly transform into somebody else while you were talking to them? Of course not. Because of this, our brains simply are not attuned to notice such a strange shift.

Your Memory Isn’t as Great as You Think

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 While we often believe that our memory works like a video camera, carefully preserving events exactly as they occurred, the reality is that our memory is much more fragile, inaccurate, and susceptible to influence than we would like to believe.

For example, experts have found that it is surprisingly easy to induce false memories of events that did not really occur. In one study, researchers found watching a video of other people performing an action actually led participants to believe that they had performed the task themselves.

Your memory might be good, but it is worth remembering that it is not perfect and certainly not always dependable.

We also tend to forget enormous amounts of information, from trivial details that we encounter each and every day to important information that we need. Memory expert Elizabeth Loftus suggests that there are a few major reasons behind these memory failures. Failing to retrieve the information from memory, falling victim to competing memories, failing to store information in memory, and purposely forgetting painful memories are just a few of the possible underlying causes of forgetfulness.

Final Thoughts

Your brain is capable of remarkable things, from remembering a conversation you had with a dear friend to solving complex mathematical problems. But as you've seen, it certainly isn't perfect. So what can you do? There's no way to avoid all of these potential problems, but being aware of some of the biases, perceptual shortcomings, and memory tricks that your brain is susceptible to can help.

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