Human beings may be the most rational creatures in the universe (as far as we know). We possess the ability to think logically, make sound decisions based on a myriad of competing factors, and do what needs to get done to both survive and also thrive in the world we live in.
But we’re acutely unaware of the various ways our “rational” thinking is oftentimes irrational, or at the very least, biased.
Regardless, here are three common thinking errors and biases that you probably didn’t even realize you had– but that shape how you see both yourself and the world around you.
Too Much Negative Focus
According to psychologist Rick Hanson, author of Hardwiring Happiness, our brains are programmed to look for the negatives in life. The brain is like “velcro for negative experience and teflon for positive ones,” as Hanson puts it. That’s right: our mind always scans for potential threats and when it discovers one, it fixates on the threat, oftentimes losing awareness of the “big picture” in the process. Though we no longer encounter the daily threat of being consumed by wild animals (hopefully), our brain still retains its sensitivity to perceived threats– even if they come in the relatively trivial form of, say, a pointed email from your boss.
This threat-awareness makes a “negativity bias” in our minds, causing your brain to react intensely to bad news– especially compared to how it reacts to good news. Since negative experiences affect us more than positive ones, research indicates that fulfilling, long-lasting relationships require a whopping five to one ratio of positive to negative interactions if they are likely to thrive.
We Think We See Patterns That Are Really Non-Existent
A common thinking mistake is called a Type 1 Error. This is when you believe a false hypothesis to be true, typically mistaking correlation for causality. Perhaps this is why we love coincidences so much.
In any case, Type 1 errors lead to thought errors– but also may provide an evolutionary advantage.
“Causal thinking evolved because it allows people to understand and control their environment, i.e. to be able to predict that, for example, if you eat a red mushroom you will die,” writes one Oxford University Press psychology textbook. “This causal thinking is adaptive but may sometimes lead to Type 1 errors –- where you believe something is true when it isn’t, for example you believe that tying your shoes laces twice causes luck.”
This propensity to look for connections or patterns in otherwise random information is known as apophenia.
We’re Heavily Biased Towards That Which Agrees With Us
Our brains don’t like unnecessary conflict and disagreement. In fact, they’d rather just avoid it altogether. Because of this, we find ourselves gravitating towards people and experiences that we agree with or that reinforce our predominant beliefs– while avoiding those that oppose our beliefs.
Confirmation bias is our innate habit to look only for information that sticks with our way of thinking, while ignoring altogether any information that disagrees with it. This is why we don’t like to change our minds about things, as it’s mentally tiring and confusing for us to remove what we think about something in favor of gathering evidence for a novel way of thought.
“Paradoxically, the Internet has only made this tendency even worse,” the blog io9 writes. Sure enough, whatever your beliefs on a topic, it’s not hard to find information that confirms how right you are, while you simply ignore the rest.
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