I feel like most of psychology exists to tell us that we’re wrong about everything. It seems that every book I read reveals yet another way in which my beliefs and ideas are mistaken or deluded.
What really fascinates me is how our minds are incredibly biased, and it’s extremely difficult for us to notice it in ourselves. We habitually distort reality to make it easier to swallow.
For instance, why does everyone think they’re above average? Or that they’re genuinely good people? Or that they make the best guacamole?
Whoever we are, we like to see the world in terms of ourselves being the hero. It’s just the way our minds operate.
But if our perceptions are so chalk full of bias, then so are our decisions.
I recently read the Paradox of Choice, by Barry Schwartz, which talks about why we make certain choices.
Rather than recapping the entire book, I want to focus on one idea that influences why we make certain choices.
We like what’s familiar to us.
Do you ever think back to a memory – perhaps of your school days, a job, or a relationship – and experience painful or guilty feelings? Or maybe you smile fondly at those pleasant younger years. Well, how we remember an event is based on something called the peak-end rule – basically, we remember how it felt at its peak (best or worst) and how it ended. So not only will we remember the best or worst thing that happened to us, we’ll also remember an experience as being less painful overall if it is less painful at its ending.
That’s why it’s important to end on a high note in a speech or conversation.
Since we base future decisions off of memories of past experiences, then having biased memories causes us to make biased decisions. It also causes us to misunderstand our own behavior and preferences.
For example, most of us think we like certain music due to its inherent qualities, but research shows that we’re really drawn by familiarity to that particular song, band, or genre. The same goes for shopping – we choose brands we’re familiar with (perhaps subconsciously), which is all the more reason for companies to advertise and gain publicity.
And it’s not like this occurs just once in a while; we do this ALL THE TIME. Just think of the musicians, teachers, athletes, television characters, or authors that you like the most. Are they the ones that spout ideas that you believe in or ideas that piss you off?
But is choosing what’s familiar really that bad? Not really. But we may have to consciously force ourselves to choose the unfamiliar – that is, to listen to and try to understand opposing viewpoints, even ones that seem completely absurd or even infuriating.
I’m constantly reminded of that in watching the 2016 presidential primaries and scrolling through my Facebook news feed. Most of my friends/family are Democrats, and are utterly bewildered at “lunatics” like Ben Carson and Donald Trump who don’t want to ban guns and who want to build our military! But we forget that the way the media presents information is intended to incite emotion and outrage.
As Nietzsche says, when we disagree with something, we seek to understand it in its lowest, most vulgar sense. We ignore information that may help us understand or even sympathize with the opposing viewpoint. Not only are we not convinced, but we don’t want to be convinced.
Most of us like to think that we’re fair and open-minded, and yet we relentlessly cling to the beliefs that define us and spit venom at opposing ideas. But if you truly want to be more open-minded and less biased, here’s a couple things you can do.
Get your information from a variety of reliable sources.
It’s usually best to look far outside of your social group at new ideas and perspectives. Go to different social classes, genders, cultures, ages – the other end of the extreme.
Although group predictions can be better than individual ones because they cancel out individual errors, they can also be damaging if the entire group gets its information from the same biased source, and these days, it’s not easy to get news that is pure and unfiltered. So be sure you vary your sources and don’t rely only on your neighbor, parent, spouse, Fox News, or the Huffington Post.
Genuinely try to understand ideas that make you upset or aggravated.
Try arguing in favor of the opposing viewpoint and sincerely try to convince yourself that your initial belief is wrong. Question your faith in a core belief:
- Are Democrats/Republicans really crazy?
- Is there really a god? Is there really not a god?
- Was Hitler really pure evil?
It seems crazy, of course, but this is the intelligent thing to do. It’s also one of the best ways to expand your mind and grow as an individual.
We should always question our beliefs about the world – hold them up to the light with suspicion. You’re not losing anything by doing this – maybe you’ll end up maintaining your initial belief, but it teaches you to be empathetic and trains you to be less biased. And who knows, you may just prove yourself wrong.
***To learn more about why we make certain choices, check out The Paradox of Choice, by Barry Schwartz.***
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