Denver counselor, therapist, and life coach, Gideon Killion, shares some thoughts about the ways our brains skew our thinking.
Like many people, on Friday I watched the inauguration of President Trump. And like many people, I am very much wondering what the next four years are going to be like.
Studying psychology and working as a counselor has changed the way I see politics, especially the way in which we, as a nation, seem to be so divided. (Actually, there is a good argument to be made that the US is made up of not one nation but several. If you’re curious, check out the book American Nations, by Colin Woodard.)
Our brains distort the way we perceive reality
Before, I would have blamed it purely on differences in issues and values, but now I believe that our divisions actually have a lot to do with something we all have in common — the fact that our brains distort the way we perceive reality.
These are called cognitive distortions, and we’re all susceptible to them. Here’s an example: once you form an opinion, your brain — without asking or telling you — starts looking for and emphasizing information that supports your position, and it starts discounting or ignoring evidence against it. This particular distortion is known as confirmation bias. Research shows that the more you care about an issue, the stronger this distortion is.
No-one is immune
We also all share an instinct for tribalism. We have a strong tendency to see the world in terms of us vs. them: to see the group with which we identify, whether it’s a political party, a religion, a nation, or a race, as good, and to see the others as bad.
When you combine tribalism with cognitive distortion, it’s no wonder that we so often and easily divide into Left and Right and wonder how the other side could possibly see the world so differently. And so we draw the conclusion that they must be stupid, misinformed, or ill-intentioned.
Heading into a new presidential era, my hope for my country is that more and more people will become aware of how all of our brains distort our perception of the world, particularly the things we care most about. I hope more people — myself included — will make a habit of looking for and challenging these distortions in our own thinking, not just in those of the people we disagree with.
Of course, being rather cynical, I’m not holding my breath.
But if you want to learn more about our tendency for irrationality and skewed perceptions, I highly recommend the excellent website and blog, You Are Not So Smart.
I would also recommend reading any of the following great books:
- Thinking Fast and Slow, , by Daniel Kahneman
- How We Decide, by John Lehrer
- Predictably Irrational, by Dan Ariely
- Stumbling on Happiness, by Daniel Gilbert
Ariely has some great Ted talks, here: https://www.ted.com/talks?sort=newest&q=dan+ariely
… as does Gilbert, here: https://www.ted.com/talks?q=dan+gilbert&sort=newest
… and Kahneman, here: https://www.ted.com/talks?q=kahneman&sort=newest
I would love to know what you think about this topic!