Sometimes we can be too sure — too cocky and confident — and it can distort reality to the extent we become irrational.
Take the misfortune that befell me recently. I lost my credit card, but noticed it had disappeared only a few days ago. According to my records the last time it was used was a month ago when I paid a street parking meter. But after that there is no record of any transactions because I prefer to use my other card.
I went ballistic trying to find it, emptying out bags, pockets, wallets, more bags … even took out the torch and foraged under the car seats. It was a bright red card so I just saw red everywhere: “Ahhh, there it is between papers” (no, it’s a menu); “Ahhh, there in the bag!” (no, it’s a bandage). Lying in bed at night I retraced my steps, and asked in shops I had visited. My fury was worsened by the fact I’ve had a few cards cancelled recently because of suspected fraud. I couldn’t go through all those phone calls and direct debit changes again.
Finally, after a two-week suspension, I did it — cancelled the card and wore the replacement fee. And then, only then, did it dawn on me. Several months earlier the bank had sent out a new card. It was green. The old one was the one that was red and had been for a decade, so the change hadn’t properly clicked in my mind. And, yes, there it was in my wallet. Green, green green.
I had been staring at it all the time. I was so certain the card was red, it never crossed my mind to think laterally during the big search or to even see what was in front of me. Once on a mind path, I kept reinforcing the red image with my brain neurons.
This situation is called primacy error, a distortion in selective working memory based on the primary impression we have of a person or thing. We muck up facts because we are so sure about something that no other evidence enters our head. We see what we want to see. A short man may seem tall because he has strong views we respect, and we will argue to death the fact he is tall.
I call it blind spot thinking. Amusingly, eminent psychologist Ulric Neisser did an experiment in 1979 to prove this. He filmed a video of two teams of students passing a basketball back and forth and superimposed another video of a girl with an umbrella walking right through the centre of the screen. Subjects were told to count the number of times the ball was passed. They were good at counting but surprisingly the results proved 79 per cent failed to register the girl with the umbrella.
People often fail to notice other things right before their eyes, says Keith Payne, a psychology professor at the University of North Carolina, in an article for the magazine Scientific American on unconscious selective attention.
Why do we not notice the girl? Payne says we are constantly overlooking much of the world around us because we have to be selective.
“For a brain with finite computing power, zooming in to focus on one thing always means picking up less information about everything else,” he says.
“That’s how we are able to concentrate on anything at all and leave behind the blooming, buzzing bundle of distraction that is the rest of the world. It is also why being absorbed in a basketball game renders us blissfully oblivious to all requests to take out the garbage. Prioritising one thing and neglecting everything else are two sides of the same coin.”
During his own experiments, he noted the phenomenon went deeper, with unconscious stereotypes and biases in play. His experiments using black people and white people across a screen showed selectivity based on race.
Recently, at a science-based conference in Sydney, audiences were fooled into counting chairs or some such thing while a gorilla walked across the screen. I didn’t see the animal until the film was slowed down. We all gasped. In 350BC, Aristotle noted that “our senses can be trusted but they can be easily fooled”.
Blind spot thinking is simply errors of thinking that stop us seeing a universal truth and convince us irrationally that we are right. Psychologists identify several main errors.
The first is memory error. After all, memory is an unreliable witness. University of California researchers did an experiment on memory using lures — words that would make subjects think of other related words. The words pillow, duvet and nap, for example, led to a false memory of seeing the word sleep. A test group was shown photographs with lures or suggestions that made them think they’d seen details in the pictures they hadn’t. Magic tricks play on this flaw in thinking.
Then there are assumption errors that lead to a false “ipso facto”. Basically, the error is: the fact this happened or is the case means that will happen or is the case. An example may be: because Bob is rich he will vote Liberal. Stereotyping and generalisation create assumption error.
Recency error is the most prominent error outlined in work organisation protocol manuals. Because you don’t give your partner a hug, the 22,000 other times you did are forgotten; you are unfairly labelled unaffectionate. This error is at the root of a lot of “You never … you always …” arguments that feature in so many relationship fights.
Primacy error, as with my red credit card, happens when how you originally felt, or what you thought, influences how you feel now. You liked Sandy when she first started working in the office and concluded she was honest. It will take a long time to see that she is anything other than your initial surmise, even in the face of conflicting evidence.
Contrast error is the way we assess something based on things around it. A person may appear to be a higher achiever simply based on the fact those around at the time are not.
This ties in with comparison error, often used by marketers, in which we may see a cheap four-star hotel advertised next to a really expensive four-star hotel and think we are getting great value without assessing whether the first is worth even that price.
Similarity error is where we tend to like people who think like us because we unconsciously overlook anything or anyone that threatens our world views.
This flows into halo error, where we, as the observer, drive the outcome because we have a view of a situation or person as positive, and by our questions and reactions we create a self-fulfilling prophesy.
False memories and irrational thinking afflicts everyone; even people with the best memories might think they were at a party 10 years ago when they were on a flight to China, just because they were told a story. And a person might remember, for instance, her card was red even though it was green. No, I didn’t see the lost red card. But I’m certainly seeing red now as I reset all my direct debits — literally.