Posts Major flaws of human thinking

Major flaws of human thinking

As in the lovely child’s quote found on the internet —

I know everything. Except anything I don’t.

— we think that we see everything around us. But we don’t. There are so many things that greatly affect our lives, yet we don’t aware of them. One type of such things is deep inside us — the flaws of our own thinking. Here is my top list of those flaws.

1. Wishful thinking, conservatism and conformism

By wishful thinking I don’t mean optimism, which is rather speculation about the future. Wishful thinking is when we put more weight on the present knowledge that is pleasant to us, and at the same time ignore the knowledge that is not so nice. For example, people like to ignore the knowledge that puts them in a bad light. This is clearly seen in toxic relationships, where an abuser justifies his actions by “the care” of its victim. A dictator probably thinks that he is doing the best for its nation, while completely ignoring his incapabilities and bad doings. The same is true for groups of people or even nations. An invasion is commonly portrayed as liberation.

On the other hand, anyone who had experienced an addiction probably knows how it can alter decision-making. “Vodka is an antiseptic, didn’t you know? Let’s drink those bottles so we’ll be healthier!” Gambler thinks that he is going to make money, so his family will be happy. An ordinary gamer thinks that other real affairs are not that important, so it’s ok to spend more time on the game.

This is just few examples, but such thinking is so common that I don’t think a single book will be enough to collect all different “use cases”.

Another flaw of our thinking is conservatism — an insufficient ability to change our common views and beliefs with the new data, new evidence. This is understandable — changing basis views leads to a reconsideration of all related knowledge. An enormous amount of rebuilding is required. Our biological brains just can’t do that in a short time, also it’s much harder with age. Because of this, we give much more weight to old knowledge rather than new evidence, thus making a conservatism bias.

In our rapidly changing world, this problem will have even more impact.

Conformism is when we weigh our knowledge in accordance with our community. The effect of this is highly underrated. An ordinary human thinks that “her thoughts are her own”, without realizing to what extent they are shaped by a community. I think that we’re all conformists to some degree. And it’s hard to imagine what’s that means not to be. This is proved by numerous experiments with a group of actors and one unsuspicious testee, where actors trick the testee to make some ridiculous statements or to do some crazy actions, like the one described here. We are social creatures.

An extreme version of conformist thinking is the one imposed by religion. I’m not against religions in general, they can be useful, but a blind belief, an unquestioning subordination to “sacred” authorities — that’s just a disaster for a clear mind. A clear mind should have the ability to stress any dogmas.

2. Binary (black-and-white) thinking, overgeneralization

Good-evil, smart-stupid, beautiful-ugly, tall-short, fast-slow, and so on and on. We think in binary terms. Our language reflects that. And some people are stuck very hard in such thinking. The worst case of it is all-or-nothing thinking, when any result other than the best is considered as a failure. It causes stress and depression in people. They don’t realize anymore why the world is so mean to them. They stop seeing how many gradients are there, and also how colorful our world is.

A similar flaw is overgeneralization. We put into the same category very broad types of information. Prejudice, labeling, stereotypes are all related to overgeneralization.

3. Self-projecting thinking

Mind reading is an ability that everyone would like to have. It would be so easier to communicate. Also, it’s an advantage if we could read the thoughts of our rivals. While we can’t do it in reality, we’re still trying to predict other people’s thoughts, both in collaboration and confrontation.

To make such predictions we use two main assumptions:

  1. Other people see the same things as we do.
  2. Other people are like us, thus their way of thinking is similar to ours.

Based on these assumptions we use our way of thinking to deduce the thoughts of others. And this is very natural since we have to model another person’s thinking somehow. But the only model that we have is ours. It’s the only model that we can use. So, we essentially project our mind into another person’s head.

This has a fatal flaw. Because both main assumptions are only half true. While we see the same bits of the world, perception is a way more complex process. From bits we see high-order patterns, but they can be very personal. People could see different patterns and focus on different things. Also, the same bits (e.g. colors) can cause different emotions. Associations are also personal. The way we do conclusions is also very different in people because every person has its own experience, principles, beliefs, preferences, etc. We do not understand how unique the mind of every human.

And this causes a lot of trouble. People are fighting because of misunderstandings. In most situations they don’t realize, that they are fighting against their own reflection (from a distorting mirror).

4. Human-centric thinking

Humans are extremely focused on their own businesses. Yes, we are successful as a whole, in comparison to other creatures. But we are still part of nature. We follow its laws. Despite this, we neglect nature and the life of other species at scale.

Moreover, we value leaders, rulers and heroes amongst us much more than others. Even in fiction secondary characters usually die (who cares), while all hail goes to the main performers. We think that leaders are responsible for like 99% of the job done. Thus, we are trying to analyze them, rather than abstract patterns, situations and laws of nature. For example, from the popular culture it may look like Hitler was solely responsible for WWII and the Holocaust. Yeah, sure. How about WWI? Or any other war, genocide, mass conflict in human history? It’s silly to think that all these things were mainly because of leaders. This is just how humans work. In every moment in history there is a mix of wishes, intentions, beliefs, possibilities, thoughts of a total population. It could be that nature just picks a random guy as a leader that represents the mass.

On the other hand, we think that human is a singular, indivisible unit. That’s also not true. We are a composition of attributes, that are selected by evolution. Any child has some attributes from its mother and some attributes from its father. Human is a composable organism, the same is true for its mind. I’m sure that everyone experienced competing thoughts in his head. There is a natural selection of thoughts ongoing in the mind of every human.

5. False associations, confusion of causation and correlation

Our thinking is associative, and we can make connections very fast based on very small data. A typical example is superstition, which is clearly seen in pigeon experiments.

Survival bias and filtering are accompanying flaws that lead to false associations. In probability theory, this is related to the fact that independent events are not necessary conditionally independent.

Even when our associations are quite objective we can make false conclusions about the causes. In fact, in probability theory and statistics the notion of a cause is not even defined. Events can be either correlated or independent in this theory. To deduce what causes what we use other tools, like common sense, physics, etc. Typically, to deduce a causation from two correlated events, we check two main things:

  1. One event is earlier in time than another one.
  2. There is no common cause that could explain the correlation.

This is hard stuff even for scientists. Because you have to exclude any possible common cause. Earlier we could use physical locality of events to exclude a lot of possible common causes. But with the advance of quantum mechanics, even locality is not a reliable factor anymore.

Final words

There are a lot of other flaws, if you want to learn more you can start here and here. But those described above I find the most impactful. I feel them myself and meet them all the time.

Discussion on HackerNews.

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