The weird psychological trap everyone falls into

Blind Spot

The mental blind spot we all have

Here’s a simple way to watch the Internet burn. Go to Reddit or any forum and bring up fat people. Watch as the crowd goes bat-shit with the fury of a million exploding suns. I predict replies like how easy it is to lose weight because they were xxx kgs over-weight before and they managed to do it. All it takes is will-power and how incredibly lazy you must be to get fat.

Pick any one who responded and ask them about problems they’ve experienced. Then apply the same logic to their problems.

“You’re unemployed? How lazy are you not to go out there and find a job!”

“You smoke? Er duh, why don’t you use your will-power and not kill the people around you and yourself?”

Watch their brain twist and turn to deliver 10,000 different rationalizations about why they haven’t got around to solving their problems. The economy is bad! I have an addiction!

Our brain builds a model to interpret the world

Have you thought about how your brain understands the world? You haven’t stroked or been to every part of the universe, but you sure as hell know the part you’ve seen. In an ideal world, there would be blank area for the parts we haven’t learnt with a little Post-It saying, “Go read a book or something, lame-brain!”. Except that doesn’t happen, because your brain never admits that it doesn’t know something. It’ll just find something that looks kinda similar and fill the rest in with guesswork. With the sucess rate of a coin toss.

This is a kind of mental blind spot when we process information. Psychologists call this blind spot the Fundamental Attribution Error (FAE), which is a fancy way of saying we think that when other people mess up, it’s because they’re have some sort of character flaw, not because of any external factors.

A colleague didn’t return your calls not because he was swamped with other work, he did it because he’s a guy who can’t deliver on promises. Your boss doesn’t value you not because you didn’t made your value known, he did it because he’s evil and eats whole chickens.

But when we mess up, of course it’s due to our extremely distressing extenuating circumstances. It’s obvious when explained. We don’t have the context surrounding why the other person messed up, so we fill it in with our own.

We think their up-bringing, work hours, proximity to McDonalds are exactly the same as ours, and it MUST be a deep personality flaw that caused them to be that fat. Like both of us faced the exact same fork in the road and only one of us chose that triple decker cheese-burger / char kway teow.

The reality is: you were never even on the same road.

Behavior is determined by context, not personality

If I asked you to describe the personality of the people around you, would you say things like: “My best friend, Henry is incredibly generous, but only when I ask him for things, not when his room-mates do,” or “Angela is remarkably candid when it comes to her personal life, but at work, she’s very evasive’. Please let me know if you do that, I know several psychologists who would love to meet you.

We think of personality as this nebulous thing. As an absolute. A person is a certain type or not a certain type. Never in the context of their circumstances. Have you heard the story of the Good Samaritan? Some traveler gets robbed, beaten and left for dead by the side of the road. A priest comes by him on the road and didn’t help, only a Samaritan (a despised minority people some 2000 years ago) went up to him and bound up his wounds.

The Experiment

Professor John Darley and Daniel Batson from the social psychology department of Princeton University set out to replicate these circumstances in real life.

The Set-Up

A group of students were asked to prepare a short talk on biblical studies. Some were asked to present on subjects like the relevance of professional clergy in our everyday lives. Others were asked to talk about the Good Samaritan.

On the way to giving the talk, each student would run into a man slumped in an alley coughing and groaning. The instructions given by the experimenters to each student would vary.

The Variable

In some cases, as the experimenter sent the students on their way, he would look at his watch and say, “Oh, you’re late. They were expecting you a few minutes ago. You better get moving.” In other cases, he would say, “It will be a few minutes before they’re ready but you might as well head over now.”

If you had to predict the outcome of the experiment, you’ll probably pick the group presenting on the Good Samaritan as more likely to stop than the other group presenting on the clergy. What type of monster presents a tale about compassion and walks by a person in pain?

The Results

In fact, it didn’t make the slightest difference. Darley and Batson concluded, “Indeed, on several occasions, a student rushing to his talk on the Good Samaritan literally stepped over the victim as he hurried on his way.”

The only thing that mattered was whether the student was in a rush. Of the group in a rush, only 10% stopped to help. 63% of the group who knew they had a few minutes to spare stopped to help regardless of what type of talk they were going to deliver. This study suggests that the immediate context of your current situation outweighs your thoughts and convictions .

Being blinded by over-simplification.

This comes up a lot in investing. When an actively managed mutual fund out-performs the S&P500 by 50%, people think it’s due to the fund manager’s oracle like prediction abilities. In truth, the fund might be based on the gold mining sector and the gold mining sector is having a bumper year.

The fund out-performed because of the situation surrounding it but it’s attributed to the fund manager instead. Most financial situations are way more complex than a yes or no situation.

When you hear things like:”Sales of X-boxes have gone down the crapper this year”, people start thinking that stocks of Microsoft will go down. In reality, X-Box sales are such a small part of the Microsoft’s portfolio, they really couldn’t give a damn as long as everything else is doing great.

How to avoid over-simplification?

To make better decisions, we need to be extremely suspicious if our financial decisions are based one simple reason. “This guy seems to know a lot about investing, let’s just buy what he buys” is a recipe for disaster.

To make better decisions, introduce more information to consider:

Instead of thinking whether you should invest in gold, think about how much is appropriate, ranging from 0% to 100% of your portfolio.

Instead of thinking it’s a now or never decision, think about when in the next few months or even years would you like to invest?

Avoid oversimplifying complex scenarios, and you can make better decisions.

PS: For more weird tricks your brain plays on your unsuspecting self:

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