Bad thinking traps

Our brains are designed to find us food, safety and mates. We have adapted our brain processes to deal with all the claims and questions of our modern world. We often mess up. Learning and applying critical thinking takes practice and understanding.

Martin Bridgstock does a fine job of explaining skeptical concepts and applications in his book “Beyond Belief”. In it, he describes three typical traps that we humans fall into that gum up our thinking [Bridgstock, p 48-49]:

  • Make incorrect conclusion or explanation when data is insufficient to support it,
  • Seek and find patterns and meaning where there actually are none,
  • Feel that there must be “something more” than what we see or to our purpose.

Practical skepticism means using evidence, not belief, to support your conclusion. It is a normal tendency to “jump to conclusions” that we favor or that serve some major purpose. So, observers may conclude that the shady character they saw around their neighborhood was responsible for local thefts. It’s an easy jump and seems like “common sense” until we notice that our personal perceptions may be the only reason why we conclude that. There is no actual evidence that the person in question is guilty. Another example of this is using “home remedies” or non-medical treatments to cure a condition. The placebo effect comes into play where it’s not really the treatment that makes us feel better but our thinking about the treatment. Or, it could be something else – germs don’t always take hold and make us sick but our body can fight it off and we feel better the next day without intervention. It’s easy to jump to conclusions and hard to hold back, but try.

tumblr_n2h8c2DFOn1rkjab3o2_500Humans are pattern finders. The main example is to readily recognize a “face” in things like clouds, wood swirls, burn marks, and all kinds of natural and artificial surfaces. It’s an astounding effect that once seen, we often CAN’T unsee. And we feel that this pattern is meaningful. Well, this ties into the other two traps. We believe there is greater meaning and we conclude this is so. But it’s a fallacy. Humans are terrible at calculating probabilities. So we think that if we keep playing the lottery, we will eventually win; if we wear our “lucky” socks in the game, we play better; and if we look for anomalies, we will find evidence for government conspiracies. Patterns happen in random sets too, so to attribute meaning to randomness that looks meaningful can very well be a flawed approach leading to a wrong conclusion.

men-in-blackAs with the last trap, some people are more prone to see “agents” as the cause of a situation. That could be a god, fate, karma, angels, demons, a secret society, world leaders, aliens, paid shills, etc. But the truth is, sometimes stuff just happens due to factors and circumstances. The world is very complicated. People are very complicated. In order to make sense of life, many find it comforting to have an agent (either good or evil) directing the show. That seems to simplify things in the mind. Randomness may be scary to some – they want to see a “point” to living or doing. It’s a shortcut to say that something is “God’s plan” or that we can’t “know” the universe. Humans have done very well in understanding nature in our short existence and we will continue to do so. It’s a personal belief system, not a form of evidence, to say there is “something more” we can’t understand or that we are part of a bigger story in which we have no control. It’s a poor way of finding anything out that can be useful to us and it tends to make people shirk responsibility or misattribute a cause.

Once we understand and acknowledge these ways we derail decision-making, we can pause and question ourselves as well as recognize these tendencies in other people. Pretty soon, you won’t be able to NOT use some critical thinking in your daily assessment of things around you. We can avoid the traps. Better thinking becomes a LIFE SKILL – an extremely valuable one at that, if you value the BEST answer.

Bridgstock, Martin. (2009) Beyond Belief: Skepticism, science and the paranormal. Cambridge Univ Press. 202p.

One thought on “Bad thinking traps

  1. Memo Salazar says:

    I only disagree with the first sentence: our brains are NOT designed. It would be better to say “Our brains have evolved to…”

    Otherwise, excellent article!


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