How Preconceived Notions Hijack Your Mind

Preconceived Notions

I had a near-death experience. I was on a train to meet some friends outside Paris. People were getting on and off at various stops, and eventually, there were only two of us. The other guy was wearing a sleeveless jean jacket with worn-out biker boots. His knuckles were tattooed, and he had a scar above his right eye. He wasn’t the type of guy I’d want to meet in a dark alley.

He looked straight at me. I made sure my backpack was secure. The train was slowing down. He looked at me again. I secured my passport. He took one step towards me. I stood up, ready for anything. He took two more steps. My hands shook. I braced myself: “This is it,” I thought, “he’s gonna rob me and slit my throat.” I could see the newspaper headline: “Young American slashed to death on a train.”

He was an arm’s length away. The train came to a stop. He lunged forward, right past me through the door and into the arms of a tiny, gray-haired woman: “Maman!” he exclaimed.

I watched them exchange hugs and kisses. I felt like an idiot as she ran her fingers across his balding head with affection. The train doors closed and sent me on my way. 

I’m relieved I didn’t die that day, but I’m embarrassed by my snap judgment: I completely misjudged this guy. I realized that I had watched too many movies with villains that looked like him. I’d stereotyped him. 

Stereotyping happens when we make a judgment about someone based on a preconceived notion of the kind of person they are. In other words, we see some traits the person has, and automatically categorize them as someone of a certain kind. We then use our preconceived notions about that kind to make further judgments about the person. 

For example, I was stereotyping when I made a judgment about the train guy based on my preconception of a tattooed biker. I saw his traits (the sleeveless jean jacket, tattoos, and scar) and automatically categorized him as an outlaw. My personal beliefs and preconceived notions about outlaw bikers led me to further judgment that he meant to slit my throat.

Stereotyping is a very common type of cognitive bias. 

The concept of cognitive bias was first introduced by Daniel Kahneman in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow. Kahneman distinguishes two cognitive mechanisms for decision making: fast thinking, which uses mental shortcuts, and slow thinking, which uses reasoning. Cognitive biases are examples of fast thinking. Think again about stereotyping: rather than investigating the train guy’s character, or withholding judgment about him, I made a snap judgment about him and his intentions based on how he looked. 

Kahneman explains, “As we navigate our lives, we normally allow ourselves to be guided by impressions and feelings, and the confidence we have in our intuitive beliefs and preferences is usually justified. But not always. We are often confident even when we are wrong, and an objective observer is more likely to detect our errors than we are.”

The train story provides an example of my own cognitive bias in action, and perhaps yours: if my description of the guy on the train triggered your suspicions that he was a villain, then you made a judgment based on a stereotype too. 

The Evolution of Cognitive Autopilot

Cognitive biases (synonyms include “cognitive illusions” or “cognitive distortions”) evolved as a way of saving time and energy while at the same time promoting survival. We make so many decisions during the day that it would be taxing on our brains to make every decision in a slow, thoughtful manner. Imagine brushing your teeth and thinking about every brushstroke, or thinking about applying soap to each part of your body while showering, or every bite at breakfast, or every word you type on your keyboard. You would be exhausted by 10 am. To avoid this kind of decision fatigue, we make most of our minute-to-minute decisions using cognitive shortcuts. 

You can think of cognitive biases as thinking on autopilot. Many aircraft have an autopilot system that enables the plane to operate without the pilot intervening. It’s designed to give pilots a break from making thousands of decisions over the span of the flight. That way they can save energy and be ready for really important decisions like when and where to land the plane.

Our brains evolved a similar division of labor. A brain has only a limited amount of processing power. To make the most of that processing power, natural selection favored mental shortcuts, known as heuristics, for information processing. For example, when I ask you what 2 + 2 equals, you can answer with minimal effort. You are using a mental shortcut: instead of adding (1 + 1) and (1 + 1), you are simply using your past experience with numbers to come to the shortcut answer of 4.   

Cognitive psychologists estimate that we make around 80% of our decisions using these energy-efficient shortcuts; in other words, we make them on autopilot. 

How Thinking on Autopilot Hurts People

When we think on autopilot, we use the pre-programmed cognitive biases in our brain. We make decisions, in other words, based on a prejudgment or prejudice. Let me give you examples:

Imagine you are working for a New York company, and you’re interviewing an overweight guy who’s poorly dressed. You judge him to be lazy and incompetent based on his looks. It turns out that this man is like a younger Winston Churchill, and you miss out on a great hire.

Imagine you are interviewing a handsome guy that is well dressed to manage your family money, and you judge him to be hard-working and competent by his looks. It turns out that this man is a younger Charles Ponzi, and you end up hiring a con man.

When we form these misconceptions, the effects are often harmful. Our first impression of a person has nothing to do with their ability to do a certain job or ability. In my anecdote with the train, I completely misjudged the guy.

3 Ways to Manage the Cognitive Autopilot

As we discussed earlier, we can’t eliminate thinking on autopilot. It’s part of our evolutionary inheritance. However, there are 3 things that we can do to minimize the harmful effects of thinking on autopilot. 

  1. Accept that we can’t eliminate thinking on autopilot.
  2. Know the limitations of thinking on autopilot.
  3. Manage the tendency of thinking on autopilot by withholding. 

#1: Accept that we can’t eliminate thinking on autopilot: Cognitive biases are part of our evolutionary inheritance. We’re hardwired with tendencies to make snap judgments. We can’t change those tendencies; we can only learn to manage them. 

#2: Know the limitations of thinking on autopilot: Every good pilot knows the limits of the autopilot. Pilots know that autopilot is a necessary evil for efficiency. They rely on autopilot once they have taken off, but they use their own experience and knowledge for important tasks like landing or handling emergencies. 

The same goes for our automatic thinking: every good thinker knows the limits of automatic thinking. Good thinkers know that automatic thinking is a necessary evil for efficiency, but that they can’t rely on automatic thinking for important decisions. Thinking on autopilot can work well for inconsequential decisions like where to eat dinner, but isn’t good for important decisions like which politician to vote for. 

#3: Manage the tendency to think on autopilot by withholding judgment: The most important thing a pilot can do in emergencies is to take over from the autopilot and decide on the situation at hand and act accordingly. The same goes for managing our automatic thinking: when we have an important decision to make, we need to stop thinking on autopilot. The next step is to use evidence to make important decisions. If the evidence is not sufficient to act or decide, then the best course of action is to withhold judgment.  

When you withhold judgment, you neither accept nor reject a claim. For example, when interviewing someone to hire, many people jump to a conclusion to hire or not in the first second of meeting the person. When you want to decide on an important decision like whom to work with, your best option is to withhold judgment until you are given enough evidence to make an informed decision about accepting or rejecting a claim.

Free Thinker Approach to Automatic Thinking

We can’t change the cognitive biases we have, but we can change whether we act on them. Free thinkers are committed to knowing and understanding what’s true, so they’re going to reject many of the decisions we make on autopilot. They understand that cognitive biases lead to false judgments. Instead, they default to withholding judgment until they have adequate evidence to accept or reject something.

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