Life is not easy. At some of the most difficult times, we are asked to make complex decisions about out health, our family, our job or other important parts of our lives. When it comes to mental health, easy answers are particularly tempting.
Thinking errors are common for ALL people, including people who are well-educated, well-trained, and intelligent. Biases area part of being a human being. We are all guilty. Understanding this fact is one step towards making better decisions for ourselves.
This week, I spent more time listening for how often these cognitive biases were offered to me, friends I know, or people I work with as solutions for large or complicated concerns. Some examples included:
“You should never consider home-school for an anxious kid.”
“Public schools are not the answer.”
“Your boss is unfair.”
“You need a nicer peer group.”
“Your child needs a residential placement.”
“Your child doesn’t need medication.”
“Your child needs medication.”
“You need to spend more time with your children.”
“You need to spend less time with your children.”
“We need to arm teachers.”
“They won’t appreciate you.”
“You need to break-up with him.”
“You need to honor the commitments of your marriage.”
“You need a new job.”
“You need to make more money.”
Before we make important decisions for ourselves or our loved ones, it is often helpful to review cognitive fallacies (or thinking errors) that we can all fall victim to.
Confirmation Bias as a Thinking Error
Confirmation bias what happens when we only look for perspectives that support our values and
viewpoints. At the same time, we ignore or dismiss opinions — no matter how valid — that threaten these beliefs. Often, it’s not intentional or even something that we are aware of. We simply love to agree with people who agree with us.
Confirmation bias is why we visit websites that express our political opinions, or why we are friends with people who hold similar views and tastes. We are naturally uncomfortable of things or people that challenge our thoughts and views. It makes us feel vulnerable and sometimes, stressed. Unfortunately, it often results in us making biased decisions.
Negativity Bias as a Thinking Error
People tend to pay more attention to bad things or things they feel are (or could be) threatening. Researchers believe that this is due to some of our brain structure. Our brain is fine-tuned to pay attention to danger. This “fight or flight response” keeps us alive (and kept our ancestors alive) in dangerous situations. Unfortunately, these biases often surface first, before our rational thinking and ability to weigh multiple perspectives or sources of information.
Self-Serving Bias as a Thinking Error
Self-serving biases occur when we blame external forces for bad things and give ourselves credit when good things happen. For example, if we fail to do well on a test, it is because the teacher isn’t fair, rather than the fact that we didn’t study well or were overly tired on the day of the test. Conversely, if we get a raise, we may believe it is because of our job skills, and not the generosity of an employer. Regardless, either way we look at it, these biases reduce our able to have a balanced view of the information.
The Bias of Quick Solutions for Chronic Problems
Oftentimes, life choices are complicated and overwhelming. Many times, those around us want to help. They don’t want us to suffer, especially for things that are on-going or complicated. As, a result, they often recommend quick or easy solutions as the best ones. We also do this for ourselves, often hoping that a quick solution is all that we need.
There are some problems with this logic. If we listen to the advice of others, it is important to remember that other people do not have all the information to make the best decisions. Although easy solutions are shiny, glittery, or tempting, they are rarely the best ones. The best decisions are well thought-out, and may involve a slower, more complicated (but often more successful outcome). For example, the 30-day weight loss challenges advertised after the new year, although successful in their completion are often forgotten by June. But, consistent, healthy lifestyle changes may have less timely results, but are often more successful after a years’ time.
Always be aware of acute solutions for chronic concerns.
They rarely work.
Here are some things to consider when you are making difficult decisions
We are the only one who should make decisions about our needs
Even though others may have opinions, we are the ones in charge of ourselves. You owe it to yourself (and any other people involved) to weigh your options and consider your decision carefully.
When we ask advice from people, consider the source
How well does this person know you, the people involved, or the subject material? For example, if someone is giving you solutions for your child’s mental health, it can be meaningless unless they have evaluated or worked with your child.
If you are asking for advice, ask yourself whether the source wants to protect you from suffering rather than help you think this through?
Try to consider how objective this person is. You may even contemplate how well they typically sort through decisions, or if they have a tendency to rush life’s problems away.
When we ask advice from people, are we presenting all the information?
When we ask advice from people, remember to give them pros and cons, and explore both sides of the issue with them. Remember not to just ask for advice that echoes your own opinion. If we don’t look at both sides with kindness and empathy, we are introducing thinking errors.
It is not productive to demean anyone
Pay attention to good things too
Sometimes, we make decisions based on things that feel frustrating or difficult. But, it is also important to consider we are also missing or devaluing positive things that also happen. Working with gratitude has been found to help many people live happier lives, sleep better, and exercise more.
The best decisions are often not perfect. They often do not completely eliminate our distress. But, when we pay attention to our thinking, our biases, and our needs for seeking the opinions of others, we are often more successful.