Before you read
This post is an excerpt from a 100 page book I wrote on Self-Mastery called 'Thriving', I plan on putting it up on kindle over the next week, however many of the redpillers have enjoyed my various posts over the past few months. So I am putting up my whole book for FREE only for the next 34 hours, click this link to get it GET THE WHOLE BOOK Otherwise, just enjoy this post.
Heuristics and cognitive biases
If you want to understand the mechanisms of your mind, you must make it a priority to become intimate with its favourite games and tricks.
Heuristics are simply the mental shortcuts that our minds choose to solve a problem. Our minds use shortcuts all the time, after all they are pattern recognition machines. Analysing each situation on a case-by-case basis would be taxing and waste mental resources that could be allocated to more sophisticated tasks. Generally, these heuristics serve us well. But when these heuristics lead to errors in judgement, they are then called ‘cognitive biases’.
In this next section, I will disclose many of the cognitive biases that our minds succumb to frequently. With this knowledge you will be able to discern when you are under the influence of a cognitive bias and regain control over your mind to avoid errors in judgement.
Perhaps one of the most powerful biases is social proof. That refers to assuming the actions of others to replicate the correct behaviour. Social proof is herd mentality and it is easy to succumb to this mindset. As a matter of fact, it is a default behaviour of humans. When we are unsure of what to do we often look at others for guidance.
In many cases, emulating the actions of others can be of great assistance. For instance, when trying to choose a good restaurant, it is often beneficial to look at the online reviews before deciding.
The problem arises when we rely too heavily on these opinions and put ourselves in danger as a result. I remember being in the engineering computer labs at my university when a fire alarm suddenly went off. One of the engineering students assumed that it was a false alarm and told everyone to “chill out and keep working”.
I did not fall for it, however, everyone else did. I packed my bags and walked out of the room, while everyone else remained in the lab. We found out that there was a fire, and the other students had to be evacuated from the lab by staff a few minutes later.
So why did the other students stay? Was it because of the one guy who insisted that it was all good? Absolutely not. If a few people had stood up as soon as the alarm started ringing, the rest would have made their way out. The class did not follow because I was the only one who left. Their error in judgement was due to social proof.
Would you walk across a road whilst the pedestrian crossing light is still red? Under normal conditions you would wait until the light turned green, and then safely cross the road. What about if a group of people started crossing the road on red? Suddenly you will have the urge to cross too, a desire that did not exist whilst you were alone. The impulse is the one that is derived from social proof and is written in your DNA.
When you were a baby, your first instincts were to emulate others to find your way in the world. This impulse made sense and was very useful as the only reference to how you should coordinate yourself in this strange world. Fast forward a couple of years and you still have the same primordial urges. The only difference is that now you have the capacity to reason and make your own decisions.
On a large scale, social proof has the potential to ruin your life. It can stop you from creating a future that is based on what you want. Instead of developing your own goals and metrics to live by, you look at others for solutions. You look at societal standards and place those as the hallmark of achievement, even if they are not your beliefs.
Social proof is dangerous because the independent thinker who has control of her mind is most anxious when in groups. It is in these circumstances that she pays more attention to her impulses for they may betray her. In groups one is forced to question their decisions with greater scrutiny. Ask yourself,
1.“Would I do this following action if no one was around?”
2. “If I were the only person on Earth would I carry on with this?”
If the answer is no, refrain from doing it. You must not allow social proof to win the battle.
Another dangerous partiality is the confirmation bias. It occurs when we unconsciously favour existing beliefs and look for supporting evidence, whilst simultaneously omitting what disproves them.
Let us say you believe in the stereotype of Indian men being prominent in the taxi driving industry. Each time you see a man of Indian descent you tell yourself,
“Uh huh! There is another one!”
Yet your mind pays no attention to the countless Caucasian, Asian and African taxi drivers that you have met during your trips around the city.
Perhaps you hold the belief that you have some sort of psychic connection with your sister. You tell your friends that you can always sense when she is about to call you. On the days that you think she will call and she does, the belief is reinforced with strong conviction in your mind. But your mind dismisses the other days when you think about her calling and she does not.
Confirmation bias is perhaps the favourite bias of conspiracy theorists. How many times have you heard stories about an impending Armageddon that never transpired? Whenever doomsday is meant to happen and fails to deliver, conspiracy theorists are quick to ignore the reality and look onwards to other readings to confirm their beliefs.
Confirmation bias is perhaps the reason for many religious wars. Once someone becomes a zealot for any cause, it is often a fruitless endeavour to try to reason with them. The confirmation bias keeps them close-minded. In their eyes, the amount of evidence supporting their claim is immutable. The error in judgement comes from their unwillingness to collect evidence to the contrary.
If you want to have full reign over your mind, you must not allow it to be swayed by the confirmation bias. You must wage a guerrilla war against your mind and always question your beliefs. A useful template to ensure that you do not fall in the snares of the confirmation bias is the Socratic method.
Socratic questioning was popularised by Socrates and it uncovers objective truths. Usually these questions are used in a dialogue with another person, however, you can ask your own questions and answer them. Often when we write things down, and we can see the ideas and beliefs for what they are, it becomes far easier to see logical flaws.
Start with a question that probes your assumption like the Indian taxi driver example.
Q. So, is it true that most taxi drivers are of Indian descent?
A. Yes. Yes, it is!
Use a question that probes the rational and looks for evidence.
Q. How many times have you noticed this? Can you give examples?
A. All the time. Just the other day I caught a taxi from the cinema and the driver was Indian! I am telling you it always happens.
Move on to questioning the viewpoint and perspective.
Q. Is it possible that perhaps there are drivers of other ethnicities?
A. Of course there are.
Q. Is it possible that you have failed to pay attention to these drivers?
A. Maybe that is true.
Question the viewpoint.
Q. Perhaps you have trained yourself to pay attention mainly to Indian taxi drivers while omitting other ethnicities?
Do you think this could be a reality?
A. I suppose that could be true.
Q. Let us assume that what you are saying is correct and most taxi drivers are Indians. Are you saying that other ethnicities are simply not interested and would not drive taxis? Or perhaps there is some conspiracy in which only Indian drivers can be in the taxi business?
A. Of course not, that is ridiculous.
As you can see, our racial-profiling friend would very quickly recognize the errors in his judgement just from going through these simple questions.
“Every man, wherever he goes, is encompassed by a cloud of comforting convictions, which move with him like flies on a summer day.”
— Bertrand Russell
If I gave you $100, you would be happy, right? Okay, let us say instead of giving you $100, I stole $100 from you. You would be pissed! It is understandable. Here is the interesting thing about human psychology. The pleasure you would gain from receiving the money does not amount to the pain you experience from losing the money. We are more wary of losses than potential gains. Studies have shown that losses are twice as powerful a trigger than gains.
How about I offer you a chance to win some money? The rules are very simple. I toss a coin, and if it lands on heads I will give you $200, if it lands on tails you will have to give me $100. Looking at the probabilities, you have a 50% chance of winning or losing, and a 50% chance of doubling your money and losing it. If a computer had to make this decision, it would, but chances are you would not. A gain of $200 would be amazing but losing $100 might not be worth it.
Internet marketers take advantage of loss aversion by offering you 30-day free trials to overcome the resistance of buying that is caused by the bias. No one wants to be ripped off nor lose their money over shitty products, so a 30-day free trial seems safe. However, the free trial is a double-edged sword! Once the customer has the product for 30 days, they develop a sense of ownership. The potential loss of the product far outweighs whatever cost the marketer asks. The customer does not hesitate to stay on the subscription list.
So far, we have talked about loss aversion regarding money and items, but it has another insidious role. Loss aversion is a major reason people choose to remain in the status quo.
Imagine you want to start a new diet after doing research online and finding the perfect program for you. Upon reading the guide, you quickly notice that you will be severely restricting your daily calories. You read further, and the diet has you eating broccoli and plain chicken breast. Now you are suffering from cognitive dissonance - a part of you wants to lose weight and the other to keep eating Pop-Tarts and other goodies.
Looking online you notice that other people’s transformations took several months, with some people claiming the diet did not work. You decide to choose the brownies and cookies over the broccoli. The reality of loss (losing the foods that make you comfortable) is far more painful than the potential gain of being fit and healthy.
You are trying to quit smoking and promise yourself to not buy any more packets of cigarettes after finishing what you have. However, your friend buys several for your birthday after you reach the last cigarette. You decide that you will smoke the packets because the threat of loss far outweighs the potential gains of having clean lungs.
As you can see from the previous examples, loss aversion is a very dangerous bias. It limits us from our full potential. The fear of losing what we have for the possibility of an uncertain future is one that is too potent for many to digest. This distress is most likely the result of evolution. Primal man lived in a dangerous world, where losing the little resources he had could potentially have resulted in a swift death. Leaving his familiar small cave in search for a bigger, more ‘bougie’ one may have risked him being mauled by a tiger.
We now live in a world that is very different to that of primal man. It is a world that is far more forgiving. Do not let evolutionary urges of fear dictate your future. Learn to take more risks, especially if it means leaving your circle of comfort. Most our fears of loss are simply limiting.
Are you more likely to get killed by a shark or a cow? Looking at yearly statistics of deaths by animals, it looks like cows are deadlier. Yet you fear sharks more than cows. Last time I checked, movies about killer cows do not exist. I have seen ‘Jaws’, but I am still to see ‘Moo’. The availability heuristic is when we put a greater emphasis on the information that is readily available to us in our minds over actual statistics and facts.
Our judgements are often clogged by media and the information we consume daily. After a while, we start to believe that what we hear and see on television is an accurate representation of the world. We fail to investigate much of what we consume with any scrutiny. This heuristic is what leads us to have an irrational fear of flying in planes when we are more likely to be killed walking down the street. The same goes for impending terrorist attacks when we are eight times more likely to be killed by a police officer.
However, the availability heuristic is not always negative. For instance, you are not likely to put a fork in an electrical outlet because something tells you it is not a good idea. You probably have never driven 200 kilometres per hour on a freeway in your car. I doubt you would have jumped into a volcano at any point as well. You do not have to experience the outcome of these things because of the collective intelligence of humanity. In some vault in your mind lies the information about the dangers of each of these situations. Information that has kept you safe for many years. But just like any computer, your mind is subject to computational errors. Mistakes that lead to the availability cognitive bias.
A good habit to form is regularly questioning the information that is readily available in your brain. Perform some due diligence from time to time, especially regarding matters that have a direct impact on your life.
Let us say that you have been offered a new job in a new city. Your friends tell you about the various crimes they have seen on the news and warn you about the move. You remember an article you read a few months back on the rising level of crime in that city. Instead of blindly trusting the information your brain serves up, research the crime rate and other important variables. Once you obtain a realistic picture of the situation, you are better suited to make an informed decision on the matter.
I am not asking you to research every possible dangerous situation. If you happen to see a piano dangling by a rope on a street path, trust your brain and avoid the potential hazard. There is no need to go over the probabilities of getting crushed by a piano on a sidewalk. In the event of immediate dangerous situations, the brain is usually right.