Full text of psychological researcher Chaehan So’s talk: Why we are wrong when we think we are right at TEDxMünchen conference.
Hi, I’m Chaehan So. And you just saw me coming in and you saw how I’m dressed today. And before I even started talking, I bet you had formed your first impression on me.
Now, let me ask you just two details: how old am I and where am I from?
Well, if I were you, I would have guessed, “This is just a, like, 30-year-old, crazy guy from Korea who tries to bring breakdance back to Germany.”
Well, the true answer is I am 43 years old, and I was born here in Munich and I grew up here in Germany.
Now, how many of you have guessed this right? Please raise your hands. Okay.
Now, this happens to me all the time. People misjudge my age or my origin.
But …think about yourself now. Do you remember that somebody misjudged you? Maybe unfairly? Or do you remember a time that it was you who misjudged somebody else?
Today, I’m going to talk about why we are likely to make such mistakes in our judgment and how we can avoid making these mistakes by a simple principle.
But before I start explaining, let me ask you just one more question. Do you get annoyed by people who always want to be right? Please raise your hands. Okay.
Well, you know, this reminds me of a woman I met seven years ago when I started my PhD in psychology. She told me, “Oh, Chaehan, it’s great that you do this research in psychology, but, you know, for me, this is not necessary because when it comes to people, I am always right. “No, really. I always observe that people behave exactly the way I predicted.”
Well …This got me thinking, “How can she be so sure of herself? Or maybe, is it an illusion? And if it is an illusion, are there any psychological mechanisms behind that illusion?”
Well, I found a whole body of research in psychology explaining this illusion. It is called the research on cognitive biases.
You might know that the cognitive bias is a systematic tendency that leads our thinking away from a correct judgment. Psychology has found over 50 cognitive biases in the last 50 years, but there’s one question that has not been answered yet.
And this question was raised by one of my students when I taught psychology at the university. She simply asked, “How do I know that I experience such a bias in my daily life?”
And she was right.
Researchers have found and analyzed these biases in a lab, under laboratory conditions, with no connection to reality. So I had a new challenge: “How can I explain these cognitive biases without the academic background and select only those which are relevant in our daily life?”
Well, I thought a very long time on that. But finally, I found a fundamental, underlying principle. I found out that there is a trap our mind falls into. I call this trap the mental harmony puzzle, and it works like this.
Number one: We start with some precious thought, and this thought is like a picture of a puzzle. Once we see the picture of a puzzle, it becomes a picture in our mind.
Number two: When you’re building the puzzle, this picture in our mind serves as a reference for us to build the puzzle. So, any information that comes in, we check if it fits into the picture, then we put it into the puzzle. Any information that doesn’t fit into the picture, we throw away.
And as long as we follow this process, our mind feels in harmony, the mental harmony.
Number three: We are building this puzzle not only with our consciousness, but also with our unconsciousness. And by definition, we are unaware of our unconscious processes. One of these unconscious processes is selective perception.
Selective perception works like a filter. So it filters all information according to the picture in our mind, so that we can see and hear only that information that fits into the picture.
So, even if we started from a wrong picture, we would still see and hear that information that tells us, “Yeah, I was right! Yeah! Exactly how I predicted! Yeah!”
So, we wouldn’t even realize that we ended up in a wrong judgment, and that is a trap of the mental harmony puzzle.
Now, to illustrate this, let me tell you the story of a friend named Sarah. I met her during my PhD studies, and she told me a lot about her dating life. And usually it started like this, “Oh, Chaehan, I had a great date on the weekend. He was so intelligent and so handsome and so cool.”
Only positive aspects. Not any negative ones. This is the so-called confirmation bias. It is a systematic tendency that we actively seek only information that confirms our beliefs and we reject information that disconfirms our beliefs.
So, Sarah takes only those puzzle pieces of intelligence and attractiveness into a positive picture of her date, and she rejects information of negative ones, like he wasn’t generous in the way he treated her during their dates.
A couple of months later, I met Sarah again. And then, she told me something different, “Ah, he’s so stubborn! You know, he never listens to me, and when I tell him he never listens to me, he tells me the same thing back. But objectively, I’m the much nicer person in this relationship.”
This is the so-called self-serving bias. It is a tendency that we focus our attention only on that information that enhances our self-esteem and protects us from any negative feedback.
The underlying psychological mechanisms are similar to those of the confirmation bias. The difference is, in the confirmation bias, we’re building a puzzle of a picture of just any kind of belief, like Sarah thinks her date is the best person, whereas in the self-serving bias, we’re building a puzzle of a picture of ourselves, so Sarah thinks she herself is the best person.
A couple of months later, I met Sarah again. And then, she told me, “Ah, he’s so terrible. I had to end this relationship. Actually, you know, it was clear from the beginning this relationship was not possible. I saw it all coming.”
Well, this is the so-called hindsight bias. It’s a tendency that we don’t remember the past according to what we experience, but to what happened later.
So, if we started to build a puzzle on a smiling face and then reality turned bad, then we’d suddenly seem to remember it was a frowning face.
Now, what can we learn from Sarah?
The confirmation bias confirms our initial beliefs, the self-serving bias enhances our self-esteem and the hindsight bias changes our memory of the past reality. They have something in common. They are all based on one precious thought that our mind wants to preserve so it can feel in mental harmony.
But we have to fight this harmony because it triggers selective perception, and that makes our mind miss all the contradicting information. So, if we started from a wrong picture, this contradicting information could turn a wrong into a right judgment.
Now, here’s the news: we can do something about that. We can actively reduce our biases by willpower, and here’s how.
Recommendation number one: fight the first impression. Studies have shown that you’re forming your first impression of a person in the first 100 milliseconds. That is shorter than the blink of your eyes. So, even before you have your first conscious thought about the person you’re meeting, you’re already holding a picture in your mind, and you’re very reluctant to change this picture.
So, the takeaway message here is, constantly remind yourself that you’re unaware of your first impression. If you do that, you’re ready for recommendation number two: jump to the other side.
So, once you know that you’re already having a prebuilt picture in your mind, you can explore the other side of the picture. There’s one little trick: you have to find concrete evidence. So, find out what you have seen or heard, like, you’ve seen that this person helped an old woman cross a street, or you’ve heard him respond in a friendly voice to an aggressive person.
So, the takeaway message here is: “Jump to the other side” means find at least two concrete arguments of the opposite opinion.
Now, you can also train your unconscious mind by recommendation number three: define your inner focus. Once you become aware that you have a bias, for example, “I don’t like skinny persons,” then you can reduce this bias by formulating an intention, in the form, “When I see a skinny person, I immediately remind myself of the great Gandhi.”
Now, this works only if you do this repeatedly.
So, the takeaway message here is, repeatedly train your unconscious mind by an intention in the form, “When I see a person of my bias, then I do this counteraction.”
Now, all these takeaway messages are easy and simple to put into action. So, why not start today and spread the word to others tomorrow? It will be hard work, but it’s a little bit like climbing up a mountain.
At first, it’s hard. Then, it becomes painful. But once you reach the top, you enjoy a great view. And the more often you do this, the easier it becomes.
And if Sarah had done all that, I’m sure she would enjoy now a happy relationship … with me.
So, I wish you many happy climbings, and enjoy a great view into why we are wrong when we think we are right.
Thank you very much.
Resources for Further Reading:
- How Literature Can Help Us Develop Empathy: Beth Ann Fennelly (Transcript)
- The Human Skills We Need In An Unpredictable World: Margaret Heffernan (Transcript)
- How AI Could Empower Any Business: Andrew Ng (Transcript)
- Agoraphobia: The Fear of Fear – Linda Bussey (Transcript)
- Why Politicians Shouldn’t Appoint Judges: Aziz Huq (Transcript)