We live in complex world, and our minds take shortcuts to make sense of things more quickly. However, some of these shortcuts lead to errors in our thinking (also known as cognitive biases or cognitive distortions). Some of these biases affect the way we see ourselves and other people, often in a more or less positive light than is accurate, and sometimes in a way that has a negative effect on our well-being.
One bias that makes us see some people in a more positive light is the halo effect. When people have one good quality, we tend to think that they have other good qualities, too. Psychology author Kendra Cherry gives a good real-world example of this: job applicants who are attractive and likeable are more likely to be thought of as intelligent, competent and qualified for the job, whether they are or not. The opposite of this is a bias known as the horn effect: if a person has one negative quality, we tend to think they will have others too.
There are also differences between how we understand other people’s behaviour and how we understand our own behaviour. The actor-observer bias means that when we think about another person’s actions, we tend to think their personality had more of an influence on what they did, and the situation was less important than it really was. For example, if a colleague makes a mistake, this bias makes us more likely to think that it’s because they aren’t competent. In contrast, when considering our own actions, especially negative ones, we tend to think the situation had more of an influence on what we did.
We also tend to believe that we are more intelligent and skilled than we really are. This is known as the Dunning-Kruger effect, from the work of psychologists David Dunning and Richard Kruger. As Dunning explains, we tend to overrate our skills in a variety of areas, such as work skills, leadership skills, maths and emotional intelligence. For example, one study found that 88% of American drivers believed they have ‘above average’ driving skills, Dunning says (think about the maths there for a moment). He adds that the people with the least ability tend to overrate their skills the most, partly because unskilled people don’t know what they don’t know.
These biases may serve a purpose. For example, the halo effect makes things simpler and allows us to have a fuller (though maybe inaccurate) impression of someone when we don’t have much information, and the actor-observer bias and Dunning-Kruger effect may protect our self-esteem. However, there are many other thinking errors that are bad for our well-being, and when we get stuck in some of these ways of thinking, it can contribute to depression and anxiety, says therapist Emma McAdam. She has a list of ten of these, and common themes in her list are misunderstanding why other people do what they do and believing that our problems are worse than they really are.
One way we misunderstand others is through a bias called mind reading: believing that you know why another person did what they did or what they think about you, McAdam says. Similarly, personalisation is thinking that other people’s actions are connected to you in some way. And when it comes to thinking about our problems, a common bias is catastrophizing: believing that things in the future are going to be terrible (a catastrophe) when something goes wrong in the present. Overgeneralising is another and means thinking everything is bad (or we are bad), when one bad thing happens, she explains.
Although our biases help us to make sense of our complex world more quickly, they can also leave us with inaccurate ideas about the way things are – as McAdam puts it, our minds lie to us all the time. And it might be worth paying attention to this, especially when it comes to distortions that are bad for our well-being. If you can learn to notice how you think, you can check for thinking errors and challenge the thoughts, McAdam says, and perhaps then you can change your thinking and change how you feel.
IELTS Reading Questions for Thinking Errors 2:
True / False / Not Given & Summary Completion
Sources and links from Thinking Errors 2
– Article about thinking errors by Kendra Cherry in Very Well Mind.
– TED-Ed talk on YouTube by David Dunning about the Dunning Kruger effect.
– Article about the Dunning Kruger Effect in the journal of personality and social psychology.
– Emma McAdam’s video on YouTube about cognitive distortions.
– Image by Enrique Meseguer from Pixabay.