We, humans, tend to not see things for what they really are. Instead, our beliefs and assumptions distort how we experience the world. Research has discovered many different ways that we tend to misinterpret reality. These misinterpretations are called cognitive biases.
Knowing about cognitive biases will give you more control over your social life and you will become harder to fool. You will even become less prejudiced about others. Today, we know about hundreds of different biases. Here are two important ones that you need to know about to avoid getting tricked by life.
The Trait Ascription Bias
We tend to think that other people’s behaviors are caused by their personalities. If you, for example, come across someone who behaves in a rude way, you might explain that with him or her having a rude personality. On the contrary, let’s assume that you happen to act rudely towards someone. You are then more likely to explain that with external factors – such as being stressed due to a hard day’s work – instead of attributing it to your personality. While we think that our own behaviors are affected by the situation, we think that the behaviors of others are due to their personalities.
This phenomenon is probably caused by how we constantly experience our own emotions and see how they affect our behavior, while we can’t as easily experience the feelings and emotions of others.
By knowing about this bias, you won’t be as easily fooled by your mind into believing that people always behave like they do just because they are stupid or evil. There might be a reason for their actions, in the same way as you have a reason for your actions.
This bias is about how we interpret others. What about how others interpret us?
The Forer Effect
Every now and then, you probably come across various descriptions of who you are or how your life looks. It could be personality tests, horoscopes or fortune telling. Here’s the weird part: It turns out that the more general a personality description is, the more specific do we think it is for us. On the contrary, a personality description that has been made specifically for us is often seen as less specific for us than the general one. Confusing? Let’s look at an example.
In 1948, a psychologist named Bertram R. Forer gave his students a personality analysis that he said was unique for every student. In reality, he gave the same analysis to everyone. It was a very general description that had been gathered from various horoscopes. Here is the analysis:
You have a great need for other people to like and admire you. You have a tendency to be critical of yourself. You have a great deal of unused capacity which you have not turned to your advantage. While you have some personality weaknesses, you are generally able to compensate for them. Your sexual adjustment has presented problems for you. Disciplined and self-controlled outside, you tend to be worrisome and insecure inside. At times you have serious doubts as to whether you have made the right decision or done the right thing. You prefer a certain amount of change and variety and become dissatisfied when hemmed in by restrictions and limitations. You pride yourself as an independent thinker and do not accept others’ statements without satisfactory proof. You have found it unwise to be too frank in revealing yourself to others. At times you are extroverted, affable, sociable, while at other times you are introverted, wary, reserved. Some of your aspirations tend to be pretty unrealistic. Security is one of your major goals in life.
On a 5-digit scale, how accurate would you say this text corresponds with you?
On average, the students gave the test an accuracy rating of 4.26. In a later test, students received both unique personality tests made specifically for each student and general ones like the one above. The majority of the students thought the general statement was more accurate for them than the personality test that had been made specifically for them. Since then, these tests have been done numerous times with similar results. In these later experiments, it was shown that we tend to think the test is more accurate when it’s more positive. Next time you read a personality test or the daily horoscope; don’t let the Forer effect fool you.
Cognitive biases are fascinating in that they make us see the world like we want it, instead of like it really is. When was the last time you wrote someone off as stupid because of his or her actions, or read a horoscope? Did you notice any of these biases in those situations? Let me know in the comments!
- Kammer, D. (1982). “Differences in trait ascriptions to self and friend: Unconfounding intensity from variability”. Psychological Reports 51 (1): 99–102. doi:10.2466/pr0.19188.8.131.52.
- Marks, David F (2000). The Psychology of the Psychic (2 ed.). Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books. p. 41. ISBN 1-57392-798-8.
- Forer, B.R. (1949). “The fallacy of personal validation: A classroom demonstration of gullibility”. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology (American Psychological Association) 44 (1): 118–123.doi:10.1037/h0059240.