Humans are highly susceptible to error, and the mind – our strongest tool – is quite often the architect. To my way of thinking, this is not in spite of the mind’s strength, but rather because of it. Our minds are capable of tricking us into believing many things are rational and, therefore, a true representation of reality. However, because humans can never have perfect knowledge or skill, psychologists have concluded that we have the ability to be rational within the constraints imposed upon us by our environment, goals and abilities. This is known as bounded rationality.
In real terms, this means that our rationality is subject to bias, assumption, expectation, defensiveness, subjectivity and beliefs based on flawed arguments or mental short-cuts.
But even being aware of these mind-traps does not always mean we have awareness of exactly how they’re imposing themselves on our day-to-day lives. Our thought patterns and perceptions, problem-solving skills, communication and coping styles – every aspect of our lives really – are influenced by these traps. And because they feel so natural, they become stronger over time and are therefore even harder to detect, like any habit we engage automatically. So really understanding our cognitions and their impacts requires a deeper look.
While not exhaustive, the most common mind-traps are listed below and provide a good starting point for further reflection.
Appeals to authority
The fallacy that an argument must be true because of the authority or reputation of the person making it.
Appeals to popularity
The fallacy that a popular or widely believed argument is true.
Arguments directed to the person
The fallacy in argument based on attacking the authors of alternative arguments, rather than the argument itself.
The process of inferring the causes of one’s own and others’ mental states and behaviours. External attributions are made about the situation and internal attributions are made about the person.
People rely on three types of information to make attributions:
- Consistency – how likely a person is to respond in a particular way to the same situation.
- Distinctiveness – how likely a person is to respond in a particular way to different situations.
- Consensus – how likely other people would be to respond in a particular way in the same situation.
Discounting occurs when people downplay (discount) the role of one variable (such as personality, intelligence or skill) because they know that others variables (such as the circumstantial stress of a high workload) may be contributing to the behaviour in question.
Augmentation is the opposite, where greater importance is placed on an internal attribution (such as personality) for a behaviour that has occurred despite situational demands.
Belief that a certain behaviour will lead to a particular outcome. For example, being kind means people will always be kind in return.
When one attitude, belief or behaviour does not align with another. For example, being an ethical consumer does not always align with the desire to minimise expenses. This leads to a state of tension and a subsequent change in attitude, behaviour or perception.
The tendency for people to search for confirmation of what they already believe. This is a convenient way of avoiding alternative perspectives.
Unconscious mental processes which aim to avoid difficult emotions and/or increase pleasant ones.
- Repression – traumatic thoughts, emotions and memories are kept from one’s awareness.
- Denial – a person consciously refuses to acknowledge realities or emotions.
- Projection – attributing one’s own unacknowledged feelings to others.
- Reaction formation – overemphasising another’s successes despite internal feelings of resentment
- Rationalisation – justifying behaviour to avoid feeling guilt or shame.
- Displacement – directing anger away from the real target to a substitute.
The tendency for a person to assume that others think, feel and act in the same ways they do.
Fundamental attribution error
The tendency to assume that other people’s behaviour corresponds to their internal states rather than external situations — that is, to attribute behaviours to people’s personalities and to ignore possible situational causes.
A tendency to cluster positive characteristics together. This is also known as the belief that what is beautiful is good – that is, if a person is attractive then they must also be good-natured, intelligent, warm etc.
Cognitive shortcuts for deciding between options without carefully examining each one in turn. One example is the availability heuristic – which is used to judge the likelihood of something happening on the basis of how easily it comes to mind. For example, frequently thinking about a significant betrayal might create a perception that one is more susceptible to future betrayals, without considering all the variables and alternatives.
Erroneously believing that a relationship exists between two variables. This is usually how stereotypes are formed and maintained. For example, that idea that people who live in small towns are kind. Not only does this exclude any unkind people who live in small towns, but it also assumes there is a direct relationship between kindness and city population. This is a convenient way of distorting evidence to suit a theory – we notice only what we have been programmed to expect.
The expectation that one cannot escape an adverse situation. Motivation, resilience and problem-solving skills tend to be weakened as a result.
The tendency to have a greater awareness for negative experiences, thoughts and emotions than positive ones. This bias stops us from taking chances and making changes, trusting others and seeing how other possibilities might come into play. This has evolved from our primal instincts, where learning from negative experiences is vital for survival.
Polarised (or black-and-white) thinking
Events, thoughts, people and actions are separated into one of two categories (usually positive/negative). This type of thinking is very limiting as there is no space for nuance, no shades of grey.
Organised, repeatedly exercised thoughts, beliefs or behaviours that are stored in memory. Schemas help people categorise and navigate new experiences, the way a template might. We develop schemas based on our experiences and then apply them to future events to help us know what to expect.
Because we rely on them to navigate future experiences, schemas can end up being a self-fulfilling prophecy, which can be problematic. 18 maladaptive schemas have been identified. One example is the abandonment schema where, based on previous experience, a person develops the belief that they will always be abandoned by those close to them. This prevents them from developing secure connections, which in turn reinforces the schema.
A process by which people set themselves up to fail when success is uncertain, in order to preserve their self- esteem. Failure can then be attributed to some variable rather than the individual. For example, a student might feel unprepared for an exam but will enjoy a big night out beforehand. A poor result can then be blamed on a hangover, rather than lack of preparation.
Where people tend to see themselves in a more positive light than others see them.
Occurs when an opposing argument is attacked in order to strengthen one’s own argument. The act of refuting one argument does not, in and of itself, prove the other to be correct.
- Burton, L., Westen, D., & Kowalski, R. (2012). Psychology:
Australian and New Zealand edition (3rd ed.). Milton, Queensland: John Wiley & Sons Australia, Ltd. VitalBook file.
- Marvasti, J. A., & Fuchsman, K. (2012). Impact of war and combat on veterans. In J. A. Marvasti (Ed.), War Trauma in Veterans and Their Families: Diagnosis and Management of PTSD, TBI and Comorbidities of Combat Trauma – From Pharmacotherapy to a 12-Step Self-Help Program for Combat Veterans (pp. 5-22). Springfield: Charles C Thomas.
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