Tricks your mind plays causing you to misbehave - Part I
Spotlight, Halo, Horns effects, and Anchoring
We all trust our perceptions and thoughts to accurately represent reality and guide us in the right direction. Judging by all our mistakes and the suffering we cause ourselves and others, we should be less confident that this is true. Not everyone willingly questions themselves or likes to feel deceived and be wrong. So, on we go allowing our minds to play tricks on us causing us to misbehave and suffer the consequences.
For a reality check, here are a few examples of these tricks so you can coach yourself through escaping pitfalls and some real trouble – building Life Intelligence one corrected misperception a time! (I couldn't resist)
The Spotlight Effect.
Most people think that they are more noticeable than they are, especially when there's something wrong. Like a stain on your shirt, or your socks don't match, or a pimple on your face. When you do or say something embarrassing, you think everyone knows about it and judges you. Since we are in the center of our individual universes, we wrongfully assume that what we know about ourselves is also known to others. We further assume that our own self-judgments match how others think of us. We see ourselves in a constant spotlight.
Good news! Others don't pay as much attention to you as you think. They don't know as much about you as you know about yourself. If you don't draw their attention to what you obsess about, they will be busy thinking that the spotlight is on them. And you are off the hook! This egocentric bias affects everyone without discriminating! Even the most mindful and skilled.
So next time you feel the need to bring something up about yourself, and you find out no one had noticed or remembers what happened, don't be surprised and don't think people are patronizing you or secretly laughing behind your back. It's very likely not to be the case!
Be aware of the spotlight effect because it contributes to social anxiety, which has consequences for our social lives and overall health. You do not want to lose sleep over something no one else is judging you about. Being self-conscious is great until it gets in the way of being rational, and it starts causing you anxiety. In turn, the anxiety causes you to misbehave by over-explaining, feeling hurt, shame, and regret, overcompensating, and unnecessarily avoiding interactions with others.
You can diminish or even eliminate the spotlight effect by asking yourself how you would act or feel if the roles were reversed. Would you judge a person for a bad hair day? For a pimple? For not delivering a flawless speech, according to their self-imposed standards, that was still hugely inspirational to you and everyone else who heard it? You've listened to people fumble before and still receive a grateful reception. You've told a friend about something stuck in their teeth and didn't think any less of them. Thinking about being on the receiving end of an interaction and how it actually affected you can help you realize that likely this is how others see you and feel about you when they are on the receiving end of your presence, actions, and conversations.
If you still feel anxious because of the spotlight effect, consider a restructuring process from Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. It asks you to re-think the event causing your anxiety by looking for evidence to support your perception and then balance them out with evidence that does not support it. In the end, you try to come up with other explanations as alternatives to those you believe to be true.
When the spotlight points to someone else, we may suffer the consequences of the Halo Effect.
The Halo Effect
This occurs when we think positively about a person, brand, or product just because we like them in some other situation. For example, if you admire a person's dancing skills and dancing is important to you, you likely assume that they do other things equally well and that you will love spending time with them in another setting. You likely assume that a handsome guy, a cute kid, or a beautiful woman are also good people, sweet, and friendly. You may be in for a surprise! Research shows that we tend to trust good-looking people more without evidence or asking them to prove themselves, and frequently we pay the price!
We assume that a nice package contains something of good quality. We think that a person with many certifications and letters after their name is more experienced and provides a better service. We trust companies with polished websites, smiling, well-dressed, perfect-looking spokespeople, and claims of associations with trustworthy others we also already like. Marketing wizards have mastered the many ways in which they can exploit the halo effect, and you may end up being their victim if you don't watch out.
The consequences of succumbing to the halo effect can rob you of opportunities because you don't give someone a chance. To butcher T. Roosevelt's quote, most people don't recognize opportunity because it often wears overalls and looks like work when it knocks on the door. Meanwhile, those that wear suits, flash symbols of success, and promise fast and easy results, grab our imagination and deprive us of what's in our pockets. In the age of social media influencers, we like and follow young, self-important "experts" who seem to have it all. They sell us products, a lifestyle, and a way of thinking. But if we take a deeper look, like the movie Fake Famous did (you can find it on Netflix), we can see exactly what's behind the flashy pictures and how the halo effect both tricks us into believing and entices us to want to grow our own halos.
Did you know that studies have shown that just labeling a product "organic" makes people like it more? Subjects who were given a product labeled "organic" rated it much higher and were willing to pay a lot more than those who tested the same product when labeled "conventional." Organic products don't necessarily cost more to produce, package, and distribute, but they consistently demand higher prices. Think about that next time you shop and you see a product not certified as organic but stating that it contains "organic ingredients." "All natural ingredients" does the same trick. Like you'd expect something different from your cereal!
The halo effect occurs because humans don't default to rationality and prefer shortcuts in judgment. We construct images based on what we already know and believe. Knowing about this can help us employ our critical thinking capacities, look at objective information, and see past what we want to see. It can save us from making mistakes – from which University or program to attend, to what we buy, where we vacation, who we associate with, and what we want in general. Improving your objective decision-making capacity goes a long way!
One way to minimize the chance of falling victim to the halo effect is to slow down your decisions. This is something well known by anyone who's trying to sell you something. They get you excited with all the possibilities (the halo) and want you to immediately give them your credit card. They even sweeten the deal by offering you a discount if you act NOW! That's because they know that if you think about it, you can easily talk yourself out of spending the money. Perhaps, you realize it's not such a good deal or that you can get the product, the service, the program somewhere else for less or even for free. Perhaps, you realize it's not something you need and that you have more important things to deal with first. By asking for extra time to think about something, you give yourself a chance to see things objectively, rationally, and critically, and make a better decision.
The Horns Effect.
While the halo effect exploits our positive feelings and opinions, the horns effect uses our previously formed negative opinions and thoughts to work against us in future situations. In other words, when we start off disliking someone or something, we keep applying this negativity in the future and never give them another chance. As a result, we gravitate away from people and things that we dislike in one situation, always and in all situations. Ouch!
You can see how mainstream media and the political establishment exploit the horns effect. Depending on which side of the political spectrum you chose to reside and the media outlets you subscribe to, you likely hate the other side. As soon as you meet a person and identify them as "the other side" you dislike them. Your thinking automatically defaults to the negative messaging you've received from your media silo and no matter what this person does, you willingly kick them to the curb.
If your neighbor does something stupid once, you always expect them to be stupid. If you find out they work for NASA, you'll wonder how they got the job because no one this stupid could possibly work there. If you have negative interactions with someone at work and you see them in another context such as a fun party, you’ll likely avoid them and probably tell everyone how awful they are. Under the spell of the horns effect, we completely filter out all positive information about a person, product, or company, and stick to our complaints. Worse yet, we look for anything and everything that proves us right! We make friends with people who feel the same way and bitch collectively, further reinforcing our bias.
Sadly, the halo and the horns effects can cause some real damage. We know from research that doctors don't always choose well for their patients because they judge them by their appearance. A person that looks to have a healthy glow may not get the tests they need because they are perceived as healthy. Blacks get less attention and medical care than whites. The elderly are pumped with drugs they may not need because they are assumed to be unhealthy, broken, and needy. Women's and men's work performance are expected to be different even when performing the same task and holding the same level of responsibilities. Immigrants who do not speak English are considered inferior, etc.
The Anchor Effect. Related to the above effects, the anchor effect occurs when we begin to rely too heavily on something we first learned, even if it is contradicted by more and better information later. In general, people do not revise their initial learning and opinions. At least not willingly or easily. Our likes and dislikes, our opinions, and our beliefs endure. Sometimes, to our detriment. This pandemic gave us many examples.
Initially, there was confusion as to the effectiveness of masks. Initially, government authorities stated that we did not need them. It became a lot harder to convince people later that we do need them. It may be the reason for a lot of the opposition still. At the same time, there are still people who feel the need to wear masks while driving alone in their own cars or while jogging on a sunny day. On the other hand, conspiracy theories about vaccines hit the airwaves, and for many, these were the first sources of information. People got "anchored" and went down the rabbit hole, seeking similar and filtering out all contradictory knowledge.
By relying too heavily on something we learn first, we may become out of date and out of touch with reality. Making decisions about life, health, and finances by using outdated information can have serious consequences. Imagine you are the parent of a gay child and anchored in religious doctrine that vilifies homosexuality. Unless you update your worldview, you may have to disown your child or, worse, cause them lots of suffering from your criticism, guilt, judgment, and unacceptance.
The anchoring effect is very pervasive, even influencing courtroom decisions, which attorneys know well. They strive to provide anchors as soon as a trial begins to favor the outcome they seek. Most people feel reluctant to make changes to their plans for the future, be it financial, career, or social. They get stuck in the wrong strategy, with the bad real estate professional, doctor, financial adviser, pension plan, and just about anything thanks to the anchoring effect. In addition, we get anchored by values that are often not relevant to the task at hand. Such as conjuring up relevance to making decisions based on numerology, horoscopes, and "Mercury retrograding," none of which have been shown to have a causal relationship with anything in human life. Even extrapolating correlation with any of these requires extraordinary mind twists. Yet, millions of people ask for psychic help when facing difficult situations because that's how they were brought up or because a particularly clever psychic convinced them early on to trust the craft. All subsequent evidence that appears inconsistent with these predictions goes unnoticed and unquestioned.
Scientists still debate what causes us to be so ubiquitously susceptible to anchoring. One hypothesis points to how our minds get "primed" to accept or reject a piece of information. In general, when we are made aware of One Something, the information regarding it lives in the forefront of our minds for a period of time, available for easy access. So, if Another Something is presented to us, we are "primed" to accept it if it appears related and connected to the One Something or reject it when it doesn't. In other words, we are highly suggestible, and some are even more than that! People in bad and sad moods are more susceptible to anchoring than others, even though research has also shown that people in happy moods tend to employ more biased processing in general, while sad people supposedly do more thinking. So, it appears that "more thinking" is not the cure to anchoring. "Thinking outside of your box" may be the answer.
Some bad news/better news for everyone – entirely avoiding anchoring may not be possible. But eroding it is within reach. If you can make yourself notice when "priming" conditions occur, perhaps you can guard against them by asking questions such as "Is this true?" and "How do I really feel about this?" rather than accepting explanations as they fly by. If you can bring yourself up to allow for the possibility of other points of view having some merit and stray away from black and white thinking, if you can appreciate nuances and train yourself to look for changes, you may be able to avoid some of the influence of anchoring, and right when it matters most. A straightforward way to combat anchoring is to look for evidence and case scenarios where your belief or opinion does not apply or would be awful to hold. Such as, if homosexuality is evil and your child is gay, does this really make your 4.0 student, community volunteer, kind and humble child really evil? Ask yourself, "are there arguments against what I believe that also make sense" and put yourself in other people's shoes if you want to see different perspectives.
Questioning and revising your thinking and opinions is so uncomfortable for people that they'd rather surround themselves with "like-minded individuals" and avoid it altogether. That's the basis of tribal formation and rationale for every war out there. It's how Hitler put millions of Jews in camps and got Germans to guard them. Even nice Germans with families and cute kids! That's how people got together to storm the Capitol last January. And that's why we have a long road ahead to healing personally and collectively!
Good luck with all of these. Let me know how it goes. More coming in Part II. Subscribe, and you won't miss it. A little Life Intelligence goes a long way 😊
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Thank you for reading.