You've seen optical illusions. They always show up in psychology textbooks. There’s a famous one that looks like an old witch or a young lady, depending on how you look at it. There’s the simple three dimensional box — look at it one way and it seems you’re looking up at it; look at it another way and it seems you’re looking down on it. There is a new kind of optical illusion, generated by computers, that give you the impression you’re looking into a three dimensional object when your eyes refocus, even though at first it looks like a flat, random pattern.
Psychology students are often introduced to optical illusions, not because most psychology students become eye surgeons, but because the illusions aren’t created by our eyes; they’re created by our brains. It has nothing to do with your childhood or your personality. Everyone with a normal brain sees the same illusion because it’s caused by the way our brains are designed. The specific design of the human brain is very good for some things, and not very good for other things. It is by no means perfect. For example, you’ve probably seen the optical illusion of the two lines next to each other, one with the arrows pointing out, one with the arrows pointing in.
The lines are the same length, but it doesn’t look that way. Even when you know they’re the same length — even when you go get a ruler and measure them — they still look like different lengths. What you’re experiencing is a flaw in the way your brain perceives.
Our brains are not designed perfectly. We don’t perceive perfectly and we don’t think with perfect reason. We can call our mistakes in thinking thoughtical illusions.
not positive thinking
All human brains tend to make certain mistakes in the same way. In this article, we’ll explore some of these common mistakes. There is no technique in this article. I’m simply trying to show you why it’s in your best interest to be sceptical of your own mind. That may seem like a sadistic goal, but it isn’t. The feeling of certainty has caused more problems for people than skepticism ever did.
When you’re arguing with your spouse, the thing that keeps the anger intense is: you’re both certain you’re right. If each of you had a little more skepticism about your own ability to remember and reason, it would be easier to work out your differences.
The scientific method has made so much progress because the theories are provisional — good until something better comes along. When a scientist comes up with an idea of how things work, she doesn’t call it a Law or a Fact, she calls it a theory. And she fully expects other scientists who come after her to test it and improve it (or trash it if it turns out to be wrong). That attitude allows progress. And it’s extremely hard to do. A scientist has to impose the discipline on herself, just as you and I would be wise to do, to prevent herself from thinking of something as a truth.
We have a tendency to come to a conclusion and then close our minds on the matter. Probably for most of our evolutionary history this tendency served us well. Now we are rarely in a life-or-death, you-must-make- a-decision-now situation, and it’s usually best to hold off from drawing a conclusion. This has to be done deliberately, however, because your brain just naturally clamps down on the theories you come up with (or get from others) and labels them Facts.
Cover your left eye and hold your face close to the screen, and look at the X. As you slowly pull away from the screen, at some point the 0 will disappear. Or cover your right eye and look at the 0, and pull away, and the X will disappear.
You have a blind spot in each eye where the bundles of nerve fibers go back into your brain. But I want you to notice something: you don’t see the blind spot. It doesn’t show up like a dark, empty spot. Your brain fills in the emptiness.
In the same way, when there are things you don’t know, your brain fills it in, giving you the feeling that nothing is missing. In other words, when you feel certain, it doesn’t really mean anything. Your feeling of certainty often doesn’t necessarily have any relationship to your actual correctness or knowledge. Your brain produces that feeling of certainty at the drop of a hat because it’s wired up to do so.
improve your life with this knowledge
This tendency to come to a conclusion quickly and to feel certain about it even when we’re wrong is compounded by some other thoughtical illusions. For example, in numerous experiments, researchers have found that our brains automatically seek evidence to confirm (rather than disconfirm) an already existing conclusion — whether we have any personal stake in it or not.
When you allow yourself to come to the conclusion that you aren’t very organized, for example, you’ll see and remember everything you do that confirms your conclusion even if you don’t want it to be true (and ignore the times you were well-organized — because they don’t confirm anything; they disconfirm). When you decide your spouse is a slob, you’ll notice and remember (clearly) all the times when your spouse acted like a slob, and you’ll ignore or explain away all the times when your spouse acts neatly.
Premature conclusions — especially negative conclusions — alter your perception and your reason along those lines. And telling other people makes it even worse.
In one experiment, people were asked to determine the length of a line. One group was told to decide it in their heads; another group was told to write it on a Magic Pad (those pads for children that erase when you lift up the sheet) and then erase it before anyone saw it; and a third group was told to write their conclusions on a piece of paper, sign it, and give it to the researcher. Then the subjects were given information indicating their first conclusion was wrong, and they were given an opportunity to change their conclusions. Those who decided in their heads changed their conclusions the easiest; those who wrote it on the Magic Pad were more reluctant to change their minds; and those who declared their conclusion publicly were convinced their first conclusion was correct and were unwilling to change their minds.
Their feeling of certainty was an illusion; it wasn’t related to the correctness of their conclusions. It was being influenced by another factor, in this case, how public they had made their conclusions.
Thoughtical illusions are flaws in your brain. You can’t get rid of them, but you can work around them — if you know they exist. If you know you tend to come to a conclusion too quickly, then you can slow yourself down when you find yourself concluding something. Just the fact that you know your feeling of certainty might not mean anything — just that understanding — will allow you to place less confidence in your conclusions. When your conclusion is making you unhappy, your skepticism can make you feel better and act more sanely.
Another aspect of the tendency to come to a conclusion too quickly is our tendency to generalize from too little information. One of the greatest things about your mind is its ability to generalize: to see a pattern from only a few examples. Little Johnny sees the flames in the gas heater and touches it. Ouch! From only one or two such experiences even a child can generalize: “Every time I touch that heater, I will burn my hand.”
Your ability to generalize allows you to make your actions more effective because it allows you to predict what will happen. But our tendency to generalize is so pervasive that we sometimes overgeneralize, and this gives us unnecessary limitations and unnecessary misery. Little Johnny may avoid touching the heater even when it’s off on and there is no danger of being burned. He has overgeneralized and it limits him unnecessarily.
one source of negative thinking
Have you ever heard these (or made statements like these yourself?):
- It doesn’t do any good to try.
- Women are too sensitive.
- People can’t change.
- Men are pigs.
- Politicians are all crooked.
- Our situation is hopeless.
- I’m not that kind of person.
- It’s a crazy world.
- Human beings are a violent species.
Any of these generalizations, with enough qualifications, might have some validity. But as they stand, every one of the statements is an overgeneralization. The ones that’ll really make a difference to you in your daily life, though, are the ones you make when you’re experiencing dysphoria. I’ll tell you why in a few minutes.
Thoughtical illusion number three is that some things are more noticeable than others, so they register in your memory more clearly and strongly. For example, let’s say your child is goofing around and breaks a vase. All the memories of similar times when he goofed around and broke something come easily to mind. All the times he was careful and didn’t break anything don’t come to mind, because when he doesn’t break anything, what is there to notice?
Another thoughtical illusion is our human tendency to think in all-or-nothing, black-or-white, one-extreme- or-the-other terms. It shows up in hundreds of different ways, and it will be especially apparent (if you’re looking out for it) when you’re experiencing dysphoria (unhappiness).
Sometimes one-extreme-or-the-other thinking causes dysphoria. For example, Jeff thinks if he isn’t a millionaire, he’s a failure. It’ll make him feel bad if he isn’t already a millionaire. If Becky thinks she must be either her ideal weight or she’s a fat slob, the extremist thinking will cause her misery when she’s not at her ideal weight.
Not many issues are truly cut-and-dried. But thinking in an all-or-nothing way makes it easier to think about things. You can separate issues cleanly, and then simply position yourself on one side or the other. It’s a way to simplify an issue. But reality is full of shades of gray, so although you’ve made your task easier, you’ve increased your chances of being wrong. It’s like what the congressman said on the issue of whiskey:
If you mean the demon drink that poisons the mind, pollutes the body, desecrates family life, and inflames sinners, then I am against it. But if you mean the elixir of Christmas cheer, the shield against winter chill, the taxable potion that puts needed funds into public coffers to comfort little crippled children, then I’m for it. This is my position and I will not compromise.
There's hardly an issue that isn’t like that. But the way our brains are designed keeps pulling us to one side or the other. Our brains polarize issues. It would be in our best interest to avoid getting pulled to one side of an issue, although this is admittedly very difficult to do. But if you aren’t perfect at doing it, the effort is still worth your while. Just because you aren’t perfect at it doesn’t mean it’s a complete waste of time.
The last thoughtical illusion is that dysphoria itself warps your perception. Research shows that when someone is in a bad mood, he’s more likely to believe negative statements about himself, he remembers more times he was punished for failure and remembers fewer times of being rewarded for succeeding, and when you flash two pictures at the same time (one to each eye with a divider between the eyes), he’ll see the negative picture but not the positive picture more often when he’s feeling bad than when he feels good.
In other words, feelings affect your perception in a way that reinforces the already existing mood.
And each emotion warps your perception in its own way. When you feel angry, you tend to see the world in terms of enemies and allies, and you’re more sensitive to trespasses — or what could be remotely construed as trespasses.
When you’re experiencing anxiety or worry, you tend to see the world in terms of threat and danger. You’re more likely to notice potential dangers; more likely to see what might go wrong, and more likely to interpret what you see as dangerous, even when it isn’t.
In depression, you’re attuned to loss. You see what you had once and is now gone. You’re more likely to doubt your abilities and your chances of success. You feel helpless, and you notice all the things about the world that seem against you, and you don’t notice your own strengths or the circumstances that might work in your favor.
An emotion affects what you see and exaggerates what you see in the direction of the emotion. When you’re angry, for instance, you’re likely to take an innocent remark someone made and read into it an insult or a threat. When you’re anxious, you see what might go wrong and consider it quite possible even when the chances of it going wrong are extremely remote. When you feel depressed, you remember all the things in your life you’ve lost, and you remember them easily, and you forget all you’ve gained.
When you feel bad, things aren’t as bad as they seem. It’s just a thoughtical illusion.
When you know how your brain makes mistakes, you can watch out for it. You can’t fix it, but you can learn to work around it. Like someone who is blind in one eye, you can learn to compensate for it. I urge you to go through a mental checklist — especially when you feel dysphoric:
• Have I jumped to a conclusion too quickly?
• Have I placed too much confidence in a mere theory?
• Am I thinking it’s one-extreme-or-the-other?
• Have I overgeneralized?
• How is my dysphoria coloring my perception?
Any time you ask those questions when you’re feeling bad, you’re probably going to find two or three thoughtical illusions messing up your thinking. Suddenly becoming aware of them can return you to sanity and evaporate the bad feeling. And your improved mood won’t be any illusion!
Adam Khan is the author of Slotralogy: How to Change Your Habits of Thought and Cultivating Fire: How to Keep Your Motivation White Hot. Follow his podcast, The Adam Bomb.