How observant are you?
Before continuing through this article, take a minute to take this quick visual assessment. DO IT.
This book lists six illusions that shape our memories and perspectives.
Are you paying attention?
If you fell for the gorilla gag in the introductory video, then you experienced the illusion of attention. Once pointed out, it seems absurd that we could miss something so obvious. It goes to show how little of our visual world we actually experience, particularly when we become transfixed on one thing.
This is easily exploited by magicians when using misdirection or sleight of hand. By drawing our attention to something that seems important, they are free to perform other actions without us noticing.
For example, watch how Derren Brown expertly pick-pockets this innocent pedestrian.
We may think we see it all, but really we don’t know what we’re missing. But we can be in for quite a shock when our inattentiveness is exposed (as likely happened to this first-time chess player in this humiliating 2-move checkmate).
If you’re too focused on one thing, you can miss the most obvious details and opportunities.
Don’t assume you’re seeing everything there is to see.
The Magic Loogie
If you’re familiar with Seinfeld, then you may remember Kramer and Newman’s incident with Keith Hernandez, the magic spitball, and the varying accounts of what happened ranging from conspiracy to the physically impossible.
Well a magic, self-guided loogie may be unrealistic, but misremembering our experiences is not.
We assume that our memories are fairly accurate and trustworthy, but memory depends not only on what happened, but also on how we make sense of what happened.
In some cases, we may not be remembering what actually happened but rather what we believe should have happened.
This is the illusion of memory.
Just as people see what they expect to see, they also remember what they expect to remember.
For example, in therapy or hypnosis, when a patient seems to uncover subconscious or repressed memories, it’s possible that they are simply constructing these “memories” based on the suggestions of the therapist: “Now that you mention it, I do remember my parents chaining me in the basement for weeks on end….”
Interestingly enough, research shows that when we are forced to verbally describe a memory, we often distort it and misremember key details like how a person looks or what really happened.
This has resulted in many false testimonies and convictions where the witness described a suspect or incident from memory and ended up incriminating an innocent person.
Don’t place too much certainty in the accuracy of your memory.
Are you above average?
In 2014, I gave a series of rather humorous and well-received speeches. I started to feel pretty confident in my joke-making abilities and so in my infinite wisdom, I decided I could pretty much just wing it from now on.
Then on one fateful day (which happened to be my birthday…), I gave what was supposed to be this HILARIOUS speech. I had given it once before and had the audience in hysterics.
But this time, instead of being funny, it turned out to be a wretched, torturous disaster. It felt like I was trying to make jokes at a funeral (R.I.P. my self-esteem).
I quickly wrapped up my speech, gravely gathered my things, and walked straight out of the room.
This is an example of the illusion of confidence, which says that we over-estimate our own qualities, particularly those relative to other people. We think we’re smarter, funnier, more moral, talented, and even better drivers than most people. Sounds fine, until you realize that EVERYONE thinks they’re above average.
This illusion is usually the mark of a novice. In fact, research shows that those who are least skilled are the most likely to over-estimate their skills and knowledge.
Simply put, they don’t know enough to even realize how much they don’t know.
You may know someone who fits the following:
- Took a couple martial arts classes – can beat up anyone because size doesn’t matter
- Started an introductory programming class – thinks he can program anything
- Took a summer guitar class – now a heartthrob musician
- Took a psychology class – smugly points out that your shy and insecure behavior is rooted in feelings of inadequacy stemming from your disapproving father and troubled childhood, you psychopath
- Or my favorite: consistently beats his noobish friends at chess – is a DOWNRIGHT GENIUS
We all fall for these illusions at one time or another. I’m just grateful my situation wasn’t life-threatening, but even more so that there wasn’t a video….
Remember that thinking you know it all shows you probably don’t know very much.
Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge.
— Charles Darwin
Trust me – I’m an engineer.
Have you ever used a toilet?
I have. It was great.
Well I’m guessing you’re familiar with how to use a standard American toilet. But could you describe in detail the precise inner workings of the porcelain pot such as to explain them to a child, martian prince, or to write your own engineering design manual?
Most people wouldn’t get far past describing the tank, Coriolis effect, or the u-bend before trailing off and changing the subject.
The illusion of knowledge says that we think we know more than we actually do. We mistake our knowledge of what happens for an understanding of why it happens.
To further illustrate this idea, just try the toilet exercise with any other everyday object – a toaster, microwave, television, light switch, vacuum, etc.
Better yet, have you ever looked at brain porn?
It’s not what it sounds like — brain porn is a term used to classify colorful images of brains with certain key areas highlighted, commonly used in advertisements.
These types of images convey the notion that real, peer-reviewed, scientific research went into this stuff, and thus can make us perceive whatever information we are absorbing as being more credible regardless of whether or not the images are directly related to the content.
But as Rick Perry’s glasses demonstrate, just because something looks smart doesn’t necessarily make it so.
Beware of certainty, both in yourself and in others.
I think, therefore I am smart.
The illusion of cause, also called correlation bias, is a term used to describe the perception of a relationship between a cause and result when little to no such relationship actually exists.
- Steve Jobs was a genius. He was also arrogant. Therefore, arrogance is a sign of genius.
- The violent teenager plays violent video games; therefore, video games cause violence.
- Many US presidents have been left-handed. Therefore, being left-handed makes you more likely to be elected president.
It’s easy to assign meaning where none exists, particularly when we think we understand the cause. In fact, our brains are especially attuned to seeing patterns that we find important such as faces in food or bird droppings.
There’s actually a special word for it too: pareidolia. Whip that bad boy out at your next dinner party.
Many of our superstitions, rituals, and irrational beliefs are merely expressions of our need to understand and control our naturally chaotic environments. This urge can be so strong that even if we are confronted with contradictory evidence, we will either disregard that evidence or contort it to fit into our preexisting beliefs.
Be careful about thinking that you know the exact cause of something just because you know what happened or tends to happen before or after it.
This NEW IQ-BOOSTING pill has college professors STARK RAVING MAD!!!
Have you heard that we only use ten percent of our brains?
Ever played brain-enhancing games on Luminosity?
Seen the Secret and learned to get what you want just by thinking and using the Law of Attraction?
Each of these topics is rooted in the belief that our minds hide vast reservoirs of untapped potential just waiting to be accessed, if only we knew how.
This is the illusion of potential.
Indeed, it may be fun to believe in past lives, psychic abilities, or Hogwarts, but perhaps the most appealing aspect of these ideas is not only their fantastic nature but also their promise to reward you with something highly coveted and useful for little to no effort (and perhaps a modest fee of $49.95).
Often, these ideas are allegedly rooted in scientific research (and shamelessly slathered with hardcore brain porn), and since we would all like to have an easy solution to all of our worries and problems, these ideas can quickly go from being a single research study to being a multi-billion dollar industry.
But what we fail to notice is the follow-up research that quite often refutes the original claims backing the supernatural product or idea.
We also ignore some important questions:
- Why would evolution craft such an inefficient brain?
- How do you know you’re actually getting smarter and not just better at the online brain-training game?
- If all it takes is thinking, why am I not a billionaire?
We usually argue in favor of our mystical beliefs using both correlation bias and confirmation bias (“creatively” interpreting data so that it fits into our current beliefs).
Don’t get me wrong – our cognitive abilities can be improved, but it’s just unlikely it will happen by playing few online games or popping a pill. And practices like visualization can be valuable, but it’s just one piece of the success puzzle; thinking alone is useless if it’s not followed by action.
The brain does indeed have amazingly vast potential that you can access, but it takes time and effort to develop.
Always be suspicious of a simple cure for a complex problem, and be hesitant about claims that you can acquire skills without effort.
It may be impossible to avoid all of these six illusions all of the time, but becoming more aware of your mind’s tricks can make you more careful, understanding, and able to make clearer and more logical decisions.
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