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15 Wacky Ways Your Brain Is Messing With You

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Used carefully, the power of intuition is such that it can cut through decisions like butter. In a previous article, I explained how by practising better somatic awareness and brain pattern recognition you can drastically improve your decision-making. 

Unfortunately, intuition is also far from infallible. Most of us who rely on our gut feelings too often know that it can lead us down some pretty shady avenues. 

Intuition is often quick to judge but slow to correct itself. In this article, I'll look at the dangers of placing too much importance on your gut feelings. 

I'll also give you plenty of reasons never again to fully trust a hunch. And that's not necessarily a bad thing.  

What is intuition?

In part 1 of this series on intuition, I mentioned the two modules of thinking everyone subconsciously uses to process information. Nobel prize winner Daniel Kahneman described them as System 1 (intuition) and System 2 (reasoning). The first is automatic, subconscious and fast. The second is deliberate, conscious and slow.

Intuition happens when our brain reaches a conclusion without using conscious thought. That conclusion usually hits us in the form of an emotion or a physical feeling ­– often in the belly (hence a 'gut' feeling).

Think of your brain as a powerful prediction machine. It always has a few tabs running in the background that help us figure out which bits of information are essential and which ones can be ignored. Every time new data comes in, the hippocampus – the brain's librarian – will scan its bank of memories to see if it looks like anything we've experienced before. If so, then it'll create a match. A match means you'll get a signal that all is well in the world and that your conscious mind can continue to focus on more important things.

But sometimes, the librarian notices something unusual. For example, you're happily driving around in the dark. You're lost in thought about the earful Janine from Accounts gave you earlier today for not sending your expenses over in time. Meanwhile, your subconscious has noticed that the car in front of you swerved ever so slightly to the left. 'Mismatch!' screams the librarian, who will quickly tap your amygdala (aka the reptile brain). Responsible for regulating emotions, the amygdala will then trigger a physical signal to alert the conscious mind that something's off. If that signal's strong enough, it'll cause you to slow down. 

Just in time, because you were about to hit a pothole the size of Luxemburg. 

When intuition misfires

As per above, intuition relies on our ability to match experiences with memories. That means it can only ever be accurate at predicting a mismatch in those areas where we have plenty of memories to work with. So, unless you have significant expertise – be it your role, art, or relationship – your intuition is bound to be unreliable.

Indeed, for the pothole example above to work, you'd need at least a couple of years' worth of driving experience under your seatbelt.

But there's another reason why a gut feeling can be widely off the mark. As Eric Bonabeau explains, when our brain tries to categorise a new experience, it often filters out the things that made this experience novel. It does so by fitting it around existing patterns already stored in our memory. That means we're inclined to constantly rehash the same reactions and solutions that have worked in the past. Or, as he puts it:

'Intuition is a means not of assessing complexity, but of ignoring it.'

And here lies the problem. Our brain has evolved into seeing patterns everywhere because, for millions of years, our two main concerns were to fend off predators and to get laid. This unconscious desire to connect the dots is now so hardwired that we see associations even in utterly random data. And that's a problem.

Illusion leads to delusion

As author Mark Greer explains:'  People's intuition derives from a desire to find patterns in an otherwise random universe'.

Our brain tries to be helpful by reducing some of the world's complexities but sacrifices a lot of accuracy in the process. These errors in thinking that occur when we try to make sense of what's happening are known as cognitive biases. They're mental shortcuts designed to simplify our environment and allow us to make faster decisions. Sadly, they're often wrong. 

Unless you learn to recognise those biases and check your decisions against them, your gut will always be unreliable.

Author Buster Benson wrote a Medium article with a helpful list of the most common psychological biases. He structured them around four major problems our brain tries to help us solve. They include 1) having too much information to deal with, 2) not fully understanding that information, 3) having to act fast, and 4) not knowing what to remember.

Using his classification, I've picked out a few of the most common and juiciest biases you need to watch out for.

Brain problem #1: Having too much information to deal with

With so much incoming data to process, our brain has no choice but to filter out most of it. Without such editing, we'd have a proper melt-down every time we had to make even the most straightforward decision.

  • Shortcut #1: We only notice things that have been repeated often enough. This is also known as the illusionary truth effect. It makes it much more likely for us to believe false information as long as we've heard it often enough. In other words, repeat a lie regularly, and people will eventually start to believe it. As we can see with ex-presidents crying out' fake news' at the slightest whiff of criticism or current presidents subjecting an entire nation to one-sided war propaganda, the illusionary truth effect is a major tool for autocrats with daddy issues. 

  • Shortcut #2: We prefer things that have already been primed in our memory. Anchoring is a classic example of this. When making a decision, we often use the first piece of information we were offered (the 'anchor'). This is a staple technique for salespeople and advertisers who will anchor you with their most premium product before then guiding you towards a more acceptable offer. Oldest trick in the box, yet we all still fall for it.  

  • Shortcut #3: We're drawn to data that confirms our existing beliefs. Our confirmation bias means we only tend to seek out information that strengthens our prior personal convictions. This has been particularly harmful in criminal proceedings where investigators regularly miss out on obvious clues simply because those clues aren't validating their existing hypotheses.

  • Shortcut #4: We think we see a lot more of the world than we actually do. If you want to experience this cognitive bias for yourself, try out Christopher Chabris' hilarious video experiment. The cognitive bias it uncovers is known as the monkey business illusion. It shows that whenever we focus our attention on a select piece of data, we become blind to any other events that may be happening outside of that tight circle of focus.   


Brain problem #2: Not having enough meaning

Desperate to connect as many dots as possible, our brain edits each bit of incoming data. It filters all inbound information through the lens of our personal values, belief systems, memories, state of mind, etc. It'll then block out most of what it doesn't agree with and subsequently fill in the blanks. 

  • Shortcut #5: We project our current mindset and assumptions on the future and the past. The hindsight bias is a classic example. After an event has happened, most people are convinced they could have correctly predicted this event before it even occurred. This 'I-knew-this-would-happen’-shortcut often leads to over-confidence and plays a major role in medical errors.

  • Shortcut #6: We veer too much towards optimism. Take note of the normalcy bias that fools us into thinking that things will probably work out exactly the same as they always have. This bias leads us to underestimate the likelihood of something actually going wrong. The way most of us just assumed COVID-19 was going to stop outside our borders in early 2020 despite an abundance of signs it was about to uproot life as we knew it, is about as clear an example as it gets.

  • Shortcut #7: We believe that the things we like are better than they are. Cue the halo-effect. Your lover's gorgeous golden retriever and perfectly hairy chest have made you oblivious that he's a manipulative sociopath who's sleeping around with your best friend. Right as we speak.

  • Shortcut #8: We think we know what everybody else is thinking. The spotlight effect is a good example. We forget that while we're definitely at the centre of our own universe, we're most certainly not at the centre of anybody else's. Nobody cares that you walked around all day with a bit of toilet tissue sticking out of your pants because nobody noticed you all day in the first place. Except for your potential soulmate. They walked past you, took one look at you and your paper tail and thought, 'Nah, not for me'.

  • Shortcut #9: We focus only on the most obvious. In relationship therapist Esther Perel's words, "We're wired to look for things and answers in places where it's easiest to search for them, rather than where the truth is most likely to be found." This is known as the streetlight effect, aka the drunkard's search. Picture a drunk fella looking for his keys wherever the street light is shining, not where he knows he's actually dropped them. Now stop judging me please.

Brain problem #3: Needing to act fast 

Our intuition relies on fast and subconscious information processing. That's why we often depend on our gut whenever time's in short supply. But there are some real dangers to using these shortcuts.  

  • Shortcut #10: We feel too confident. Known as the Dunning-Kruger bias, this is probably one of the most harmful illusions. In the words of Mark Manson: "Smart and experienced people are aware of what they do not know. Whereas dumb and inexperienced people have no idea what they don't know." Or, as philosopher Bertrand Russel put it: "The fundamental cause of trouble in the world is that the stupid are so confident and the intelligent are so full of doubt." Aho and Amen.

  • Shortcut #11: We prefer things we've invested time and energy in. Your gut might tell you to stick it out with that loser boyfriend of yours because, well, he loves you really. The reality is that he's just a sponge, and you've probably fallen victim to a sunk-cost fallacy. In other words, you see your partner in a more favourable light simply because you've already invested so much time, energy and financial resources into him. Bad Vegan on Netflix is the sunk-cost fallacy in action. 

  • Shortcut #12: The HiPPO in the room. I like this one. Also known as the authority bias, the HiPPO refers to the Highest Paid Person's Opinion. When a difficult decision needs to be made without useful data to determine the best course of action, the group will often follow the HiPPO's judgment. You can try this one out in your next team meeting.

Brain problem #4: Not knowing what to remember 

There's way too much information for our little brain to remember all of it. The inner librarian (hippocampus) therefore has to make some executive decisions. It'll keep some of our memories while moving others to the trash bin where they'll die a slow death along with recollections of previous flash mobs, planking and cinnamon challenges. Good riddance.

  • Shortcut #13: We edit and reinforce memories after the event. A friend of mine recently told me about a strange encounter he'd had with a drunk woman on a train platform. She accused him of carrying a bomb in his rucksack after claiming she could hear something ticking. She was about to call the police until he pointed out that the only thing ticking was the giant clock right above her head. The story was mildly entertaining at best, but it turned blatantly awkward when I pointed out this hadn't happened to him at all. It had happened to me. When I first told him about this experience, he must have visualised my storytelling so that my experience had become his – a classic case of misattribution of memory. Either that or I should stop hanging out with him. 

  • Shortcut #14: We like to generalise. Woke and aware as we may claim to be, unconscious bias is something nobody is immune to. It describes a prejudice in favour (or against) a particular thing, person or group – usually unfairly so. The Guardian did a series of eye-opening features on bias in Britain, which highlights just how present unconscious bias remains in all layers of society.

  • Shortcut #15: We store memories differently depending on how experienced them. Because of the picture superiority effect, we're more likely to remember images than words. As far as our intuition is concerned, the brain is therefore more likely to match experiences with things we've seen than with those we've heard.

Conclusion – seeing the world as it is 

Our intuition can be a tremendous ally when it comes to decision making. But it relies on an ancient evolutionary form of fast information processing, which makes it prone to distraction and mistakes.

You should only ever rely on your gut feeling in well-defined circumstances. In other words, when your bank of memories is large enough to ensure accurate matching and mismatching. And even then, our brain's desire to see patterns and connections means we may still be misinformed. That is why we should always test our intuition against some of the common biases and illusions above.

As Thomas MacMillan says in a fascinating article about flat-earthers and other idiots:

"We're not set up to perceive the world as it actually works. We're set up to perceive the world in ways that help us function in daily life."

So, by all means, lean into that sixth sense of yours. But just keep a third eye out for gorillas and hippos.

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