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Health: Life Hacks – Time To Get Down Off Your High Horse

Posted October 3, 2012 by Ann Cronin in Lifestyle

Today we’re going to start talking about one of many cognitive biases, which is a term for describing how we don’t necessarily take in all the information available to us, or how we are inclined to think in certain ways. These thought processes are essentially shortcuts which allow us to make quick judgements and cut down on the amount of processing power we have to employ in our day-to-day lives.

To begin, I want to outline how we think about ourselves, and how this is quite different to how we think about others. When you remember an incident in your past you remember a lot of details: all those little nuances of the situation, who was there, what it was like, what was on your mind before and after. When we consider our own actions and most notably when we tell others about them we fill in details, we colour in the picture, we flesh it out. Most importantly in the case of a negative act we do not attribute it to our personality (internal factors). In other words, we do not blame ourselves, we blame the situation. Nobody says ‘I reversed over the family dog because I’m a horrible human being’. There would have to be a story to explain such a terrible thing; the road was dark, the dog was lying across the rear axle, the children were playing tag in the back seat, you had a bad day at the office, and so on.

Now, imagine what you would think of somebody else if you heard they reversed over the family dog. You might call them careless, dangerous, cruel, because when you are on the outside you tend to blame behaviour on the person themselves, not on the situation. Open a gossip magazine, click into the Daily Mail, look at how judgments are bandied about on various media. Chances are, you don’t see the subtleties that informed those situations.

What we tend to do is blame behaviour on the person’s personality; he got naked in public because he is an extrovert / she chose that dress because she has no taste / he strapped his dog to the roof of the car because he hates animals, and so on.

It’s one of the best known of the cognitive biases and it’s called the fundamental attribution error. We attribute behaviour in others to stable internal traits, not the situation. Our own behaviour, on the other hand, is as a result of the situation. This is exploited mercilessly by gossip columnists and mean people everywhere; it’s so easy and lazy to look at another person and make a quick assessment. Overestimating dispositional elements in others’ behaviour and underestimating the situational determinants may make for some rather shallow determinations of others.

Think about it long enough and you may never leave the house again. That bit of baby puke on your collar? That’s because you’re a slob. That mismatched outfit? You’re eccentric and possibly colour blind. You get my drift.

Fortunately, most people are too busy to bother giving much thought to you. Cognitive biases are mental shortcuts; we use them to cut down on the amount of time we have to spend thinking about anything other than our wonderful self. Yes, ME ME ME, that’s what your brain likes to think about, so if this revelation has you worried about others’ judgments then remember that they just want to spend time on themselves; chances are you don’t even register in their thoughts. While we will never fully shake our little shortcuts we can be aware of them and call bullshit when we see armchair psychology brought to bear on a person in the name of ‘entertainment’. In the absence of all of the facts, there’s always more to a person than we can see.

About the Author

Ann Cronin

  • http://twitter.com/nuckpang Stephen R.

    Oh I love cognative bias! And by “love” I mean “often fall victim to” and “am greatly annoyed by”. Ah, what a thing the human brain is…

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