Our minds take shortcuts to make sense of the world, but sometimes this leads to errors in our thinking. These errors are also known as cognitive biases, and there are perhaps over a hundred of them. This article will focus on some of our biases that lead us to create stories about things and to see patterns and causes that aren’t really there.
Our tendency to create human-type stories about things was shown in a 1940s experiment by psychologists Heider and Simmel. In the experiment, people watched a short film of a big triangle, a smaller triangle and a circle moving around on a screen and sometimes bumping into each other. When asked to describe what was happening, the viewers tended to see the shapes as having human intentions. For example, the larger triangle was seen as aggressive, bullying the smaller one, explains psychologist Daniel Kahneman, and the smaller triangle and circle were described as joining together to defeat the bully.
This way of seeing human characteristics in things that are not human is known as anthropomorphism. We often do it with animals, for example thinking that their feelings are similar to ours. Although it’s difficult to know for certain what animals are feeling, one emotion we tend to see that might not be real is guilt in our pet dogs, says dog expert Stanley Coren. When a dog does something wrong, it might look down at the floor, and, because of this, we might believe that it feels guilty. However, what might be happening here, Coren argues, is that we’re thinking about how we would feel in the dog’s position, and projecting that onto the dog.
We also tend to look for, or see, patterns in random events, and one example of this is a bias known as the gambler’s fallacy. This is the belief that past events affect future events in situations in which they don’t. For example, if a gambler is playing a game of coin toss (heads or tails), and the coin comes up tails five times in a row, he or she might believe that the next coin toss is more likely to be heads. It isn’t. It’s still a 50/50 chance of getting heads or tails; the coin has no memory.
As well as seeing patterns, we sometimes see causes that aren’t there or believe we know the cause of something when we really don’t. Cause and effect does explain much of what happens in the world – for example, when it rains, the streets get wet, and we know automatically that the rain causes the streets to get wet. However, just because things correlate (happen together), it doesn’t always mean that one causes the other; but we sometimes think it does because of the correlation fallacy bias.
A famous example of this is the connection between ice cream and murder. When ice cream sales increase in New York, the number of murders also goes up. However, it’s very unlikely that increased ice cream consumption is causing more murders; it’s more likely that both increase in hot weather. Other funny examples online include Buzzfeed asking whether a shortage of pirates caused global warming (as the number of pirates went down, the world got warmer), and Tyler Vigen’s website showing how the number of swimming pool drownings correlates with the number of Nicolas Cage films each year.
We also make errors in how we understand the causes of other people’s behaviour, and there will be more of that in another article. For now, though, here is a correlation from Kahneman for you to think about: ‘Highly intelligent women tend to marry men who are less intelligent than they are.’ What could be the cause of that?