Written by Michael Mantz, M.D.
The nation has become highly charged. Mainstream media, incentivized to maximize how much ATTENTION you give them, will often attempt to emotionally hijack your brain by evoking FEAR & OUTRAGE, in order to bypass your higher executive & cognitive functioning capacities.
When they are successful, you lose your ability to evaluate new information in an accurate way and you become prone to make many thinking errors or cognitive biases, which when left unchecked, can lead you down a road towards confusion and conflict.
The amount of information that you expose your brain to each day, if too much, will trigger the tendency for your brain to take mental shortcuts. These shortcuts often lead to cognitive biases -> in your brain’s desperate attempt to make sense of the overly complex and turbulent world we currently find ourselves in.
Lastly, social isolation and its negative consequences (low-quality sleep, more frequent and intense low mood states) can stimulate your mind programs to regress back into immature thinking styles.
This powerful combination of emotional hijacking, informational overload and social isolation will often drive your mind into child-like thinking loaded with cognitive distortions that are unfortunately spreading like wildfire in today’s social environments.
In an effort to reduce the impact of these cognitive biases, I will explain 6 of the most common ones I have been seeing in my patients, in social media and in my personal interactions. Although knowing these 6 biases does not necessarily protect your mind from using them, it is a powerful first step in that direction.
You see things only in black and white categories. If your performance (or anyone else’s) falls short of perfect, you see yourself (or them) as a total failure. All-or-nothing thinking forms the basis of perfectionism. This cognitive bias forces your experiences into absolute categories, often putting yourself (and others) into an unwinnable situation and increases your chances to be depressed (when aimed at yourself) or to be in conflict (when aimed at the other). You will likely suffer because your thinking and corresponding perceptions will not conform to reality.
Reality is not binary but a spectrum. There are not only black and white but at least 50 shades of grey and all the other colors in between. Examples of this type of distortion: I got a B/made a mistake/lost the game -> thus I am a total failure/loser/worthless.
All-or-nothing thinking is a powerful and appealing way to make sense of complex experiences, especially when they are confusing or threatening, by oversimplifying them into good and bad categories. When we are stressed we begin to lose our sensitivity for nuance and subtlety – this also plays a role in our next thinking error: overgeneralization.
You see a single negative event as a never-ending pattern of defeat. One thing happens to you and you think it will keep occurring over and over again. For example: A bird craps on your car window –> “That’s just my luck, birds are always crapping on my window.”
The pain of rejection is amplified by this error. You ask a girl on a date and because of a previous engagement she politely declines -> “I am never going to get a date. No girl would ever want to date me.”
Another version of overgeneralization is to overextend your beliefs & models of the world onto experiences that do not fit those beliefs or models.
For example: You have a negative encounter in a classroom that is highly embarrassing. This memory grows and creates a negative predictive model that develops not only for that specific classroom but expands to other contexts that are similar (other classrooms -> school in general -> learning in general). The overgeneralization biases you to predict negative experiences surrounding anything remotely associated to the classroom (generating anxiety) which leads to avoidance of such activities and making it harder to learn.
Overgeneralization is common when people experience trauma and other highly charged negative events. Many articles written by the media will purposely try to get your mind to overgeneralize information by including emotionally evocative anecdotes and then try to use them as evidence for larger trends within a much broader context than is reasonable from the data from the anecdote alone. Be on the lookout for this common bias in the media.
You quickly jump to a negative conclusion that is not justified by the facts of the situation. There are 2 general types:
You take emotions as the evidence for the truth. This can happen with any strong or frequent emotional state. Emotional reasoning is strong in people who tend to get depressed or anxious.
When you feel depressed you may feel your body as being heavier, less energetic and less mobile. Based on these feelings you might think to yourself, “I am trapped.” This thought can act like a hypnotic suggestion that makes you feel even more paralyzed in your body and confirms your trapped-based thought.
However, your assumption that ‘ I am trapped’ is solely based on your current emotional state and the negative thoughts it elicits. Because your thoughts are in alignment with how you feel, you make an error using that correlation as evidence that your negative thoughts are valid. Without careful reflection and analysis of your experience, you will fail to notice how your emotions are generating your thoughts and that is the real reason why the two correlate with each other. You miss out on understanding that this correlation between feelings and thoughts is simply a feature of the associative nature of your mind and is not evidence of the accuracy or validity of the emotionally elicited thought.
Examples: “I feel badly therefore I must be bad.” or “I feel overwhelmed and helpless therefore my problems must be impossible to solve.”
Emotional reasoning is commonly found in trauma victims and PTSD. A common feeling-thought link in trauma victims is “I feel badly all the time, therefore I must be worthless.” Another one is “I feel guilty therefore I must have done something wrong.”
“Once you label me you negate me.” -Soren Kierkegaard.
Labeling, when directed at yourself, can create a negative self-image based on your perceived errors. You drop the ball during the end of a football game and you say to yourself -> “I’m a complete loser.” instead of “it just wasn’t my best quarter.”
Your “self” cannot be equated with any one thing. Life is a complex flow of changing thoughts, emotions, and actions. You are more like a flowing river than a statue.
Labeling yourself is irrational, overly simplistic and incorrect. To label your “self” or anything or anyone else is putting an imaginary categorical box that acts like a psychological prison cell that blocks or taints your ability to accurately perceive whatever you label. The label acts like an association trigger and brings forth all of your past conditioned associations and expectations for that particular label that has been trained into your cognitive programs. This is why Kierkegaard noted how labels negate the objects that are tagged with them. Once an object is tagged with a label, it triggers our minds to weave giant webs of conditioning around the object and the object can no longer be seen in its native form.
Directed towards others, labeling generates hostility and amplifies other thinking errors. Labeling plays a pivotal role in stereotyping and is the edifice from which racism can emerge.
You think your dad is an “asshole” and that label triggers perceptual filters – conditioned by past memories – that are tagged into the category: EXPERIENCES WITH ASSHOLES. The label “asshole” triggers a perceptual distortion that will shift your perceptions of your dad in a negative bias and will increase the likelihood for you to interpret neutral expressions and communications from your father as being negative or hostile. The asshole label will also exaggerate and amplify negative emotions you have towards your father and increase the tendency to dismiss information that runs counter to your associations and predictions on how an “asshole” acts.
Labeling (especially pejorative terms) evokes mental rigidity AND reduces perspective changing, metacognition and empathy. These factors all increase the likelihood for continued miscommunication between you and your Dad resulting in repeated negative emotional encounters. This process of negatively labeling people often generates negative self-fulfilling prophecies.
Labeling example 2:
You are on a diet and you eat a dish of ice cream and you think -> “I am such a pig” and you wind up eating the whole quart. Same principle applies. In this case the label “pig” is associated with the emotions of disgust, guilt, and shame. These emotions act like kryptonite to any remaining will-power you have and increases the likelihood of overeating.
Labels have great trance-inducing power. Be careful what you label.
Kierkegaard’s wisdom, also echoed by mindfulness practices, is to let go of labels in order to free your mind and give it an opportunity to see, hear, and feel the world around you with less distortions.
Side Bar: The feeling of “waking up” can happen during mindfulness practices, when the conditioned labels that have been trained into our minds are released and we can perceive the world again in its ever fresh and pristine naked beauty. In Zen Buddhism they call this unbiased state of mind the BEGINNER’s MIND.
Cognitive bias in which people with low ability and experience at a task or with a subject matter -> tend to overestimate their ability or knowledge.
Dunning described the Dunning–Kruger effect as “the anosognosia of everyday life,”referring to a neurological condition in which a disabled person either denies or seems unaware of his or her disability. He stated: “If you’re incompetent, you can’t know you’re incompetent…The skills you need to produce a right answer are exactly the skills you need to recognize what a right answer is.”
You will see the Dunning-Kruger Effect all over social media. People will often outsource their critical thinking by absorbing and echoing the beliefs and ideas of the politicians and media outlets they tend to believe in. They essentially become parrots who haven’t spent the time to develop the necessary skills and to acquire the required knowledge to critically evaluate the data for themselves. This is especially true when it comes to interpreting and analyzing scientific data. (Admittedly a difficult task that takes years to learn how to do properly).
In this fast-paced, information-overloaded environment, we need to be careful to not pollute the informational ecology we all inhabit. The 6 thinking errors to familiarize yourself with are: All-or-Nothing thinking, Overgeneralization, Jumping to Conclusions, Emotional Reasoning, Labeling, and the Dunning-Kruger Effect.
By becoming more aware of these biases, you will take the first step in reducing their ability to corrupt the information your mind sends out and receives.
GOAL: Increase the accuracy of your mind’s thinking capacities. It takes active practice in order to reduce these 6 thinking errors in your mind.
Cognitive Bias Training 101
I recommend focusing on 2-3 cognitive biases at a time and scan your informational ecology and call out the biases as you see them. It’s easier to see it outside of yourself first. After you get more adept at this, next observe any of your own repetitive negative thoughts that might be frequent flyers in your mind and write them down. Look at the 6 biases discussed in this article and ask yourself if these negative thoughts fall into any of the thinking error categories. After that, actively write down an alternative thought that corrects for the bias. This is an active practice that is essential to reducing these biases.
Over time it will become easier and easier to catch your own thinking biases and the biases in the thinking of others. This learning process will be a great service to helping you and our society’s ability to communicate more effectively by increasing the fidelity of our shared informational ecology– something that is desperately needed during these strange and challenging times.