A Yale psychologist explains how to avoid common thought traps: Life Kit: NPR


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Illustration of a woman in profile with the top of her head open like a lid.  she takes a tangled string out of the space her brain would be in and examines it.

Malte Mueller / Getty Images / fStop

The mind is a difficult thing. This may lead to the belief that we can confidently sing “Bohemian Rhapsody” to karaoke even though we haven’t heard the song in years, or that one horrible review on Yelp is reason enough not to go to a 4-star restaurant.

These thinking errors are what people in the psychological community call cognitive biases. And that’s the subject of a new book coming this month, Thinking 101: How to reason better in order to live better?, by psychology professor Yale Woo-kyoung Ahn. In his book, Ahn highlights some of the most damaging cognitive errors we make – and how prejudices can cloud our judgment and affect those around us.


Woo-kyoung Ahn is a professor of psychology at Yale and an author Thinking 101: How to reason better to live better.

Left: StudioDUDA photo; Right: Flatiron books


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Left: StudioDUDA photo; Right: Flatiron books

Scientists suspect that many of these biases are evolutionary, says Ahn. In times of scarcity, our ancestors had to make quick judgments to survive among predators or thrive in a harsh environment. But in times of plenty, she adds, we don’t always do well to make quick judgments.

However, we can do whatever we can to try to fix these thinking pitfalls, says Ahn, whom she teaches her students at Yale’s popular undergraduate course. Overall, he says, the key is to stop before making assumptions – and pay attention to our tendencies towards different kinds of bias.

Ahn talks to Life Kit about three common cognitive biases and how to counter them.

Mistake: we overestimate our possibilities

This is known in the field of psychology as the “fluid illusion”, which describes our tendency to be overconfident in our abilities without sufficient evidence. This can lead us to, for example, inept career-changing presentations due to inadequate preparation or a drastic underestimation of the time needed to complete projects.

In his class at Yale, Ahn uses an experiment to illustrate this phenomenon for his students. He shows them a dance clip from the song “Boy with Luv” by K-pop group BTS. After watching six seconds of the easiest choreography over and over, he invites students who believe they have a down dance to do it themselves. One by one he stumbles.

“People may be too sure of what they can achieve by watching others do it so smoothly,” says Ahn. When the professionals dance effortlessly, they think they can do it effortlessly as well.

How to counteract it: You can correct that attitude, he says, by doing what the Yale students did: try it out for yourself. It will quickly soothe any feeling of overconfidence.

You can also combat this tendency by preparing and considering potential obstacles in advance, says Ahn. For example, if you are working on a home remodeling project for the first time and you have no idea how long it will take, don’t try to guess. Talk to friends who have undergone a recent remodel or consult several contractors to understand how long a project could take and what problems may arise. The more information you have, the better and more accurately you can assess the situation.

Trend: We tend to focus on the negatives

The concept of “negative error” illustrates our tendency to weigh negative events by far more than an equal number of positive events. It explains why, for example, a less enthusiastic review of an Oscar-nominated movie by a friend might encourage you to watch something different. Or why you might be less inclined to hire a potential employee after hearing one negative thing about him despite positive recommendations.

Negative fascination can be dangerous because it can lead us to make wrong choices. It can keep us from making a decision, say, a big purchase, such as a house, or even a political candidate, for fear that there may have been a negative event related to the right choice.

How to counteract it: When making your choice, use the positive attributes of your options, says Ahn. Marketers use this tactic all the time. For example, instead of saying ground beef contains 11% fat, they describe it as 89% lean. These are both true and accurate descriptions of the same product, but inverting its frames could make it a more attractive choice for buyers interested in fat consumption.

Mistake: we choose data that fits our worldview

Ahn considers the “confirmation tendency” – the tendency to seek or interpret information to support what we already believe – the worst bias of all. This is because of its potential, which leads us to miss out on a whole range of possibilities for ourselves and others.

Ahn and Matthew Lebowitz, professor of psychology at Columbia University, conducted an experiment in 2017 to illustrate the pitfalls of this error. They gathered a group of participants and told some of them that they had a genetic predisposition to depression – even though they didn’t. Self-assessment results for depression in this group showed a significantly higher level of depression than in the control group, who were told they had no predisposition.

Due to a confirmation bias, participants who were told they had a genetic risk of depression “only obtained evidence that fits this hypothesis,” says Ahn. And in doing so, they managed to convince themselves that they were Actually depressed. Research shows that if be careful something is a fact, even if it is not, our mind can find information to support these views.

Now imagine how this attitude works at the social level. Ahn says this can lead to under or overrepresentation in, say, leadership in politics, business, and other industries, which can fuel gender or racial inequalities.

He gives an example. Suppose you are a male scientist and want to hire other scientists to join your company. Since you can see that the greatest scientists in your field today are men, you have convinced yourself that the next generation of great scientists Also be men. It colors your hiring decisions – so you fill positions with men.

This choice will still have a domino effect, says Ahn. For others looking at new hires, this may perpetuate the idea that “only men can be great scientists – and this is how prejudices and stereotypes are created in society.”

How to counteract it: Allow yourself to analyze all possible explanations before making a judgment. For example, if an actress got a role, but her parents also worked in the entertainment industry, many of us can attribute her employment to nepotism. Since we have seen many examples of parents giving their children an advantage in business or politics, another example of a child enjoying their parents’ success would fit this theory.

But could it also be true that she gave the best audition? Looking at the issue from many different points of view – not just your own – it undermines your confirmation bias. And you may realize that there may be another side to this story.

The audio portion of this episode was produced by Michelle Aslam. The digital story was edited by Malaka Gharib. We’d love to hear from you. Leave us a voicemail on 202-216-9823or write to us at [email protected].

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