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The 5 Psychological Traps We All Fall Into

These are the tricks we play on ourselves.

There are many times when our social perception fails us. We have a tendency to take mental shortcuts, using what psychologists call “heuristics,” when trying to make sense of our social world. As a result, we are prone to make errors in our mental processing.

Here are some examples of common biases in social perception and how they lead us to misjudge people and events:

Hindsight Bias

Hindsight bias is the “I-knew-it-all-along” effect whereby we believe we had a premonition that some event was about to occur, but there really was no objective way we could have predicted it. In other words, we have a premonition that something is about to occur, and it does. However, we focus on this one instance, forgetting the dozens of times that we had premonitions but they did not come true. This common bias leads people to believe that they have some sort of extrasensory perception.

The Availability Heuristic

This is the reason that we overestimate the chances that a particular event—a plane crash, or getting a certain disease—could happen. Seeing events in the news, for example, can lead us to overestimate how likely a similar event is likely to occur. This is one reason why people overestimate the chances that they could contract ebola.

The Actor-Observer Effect

The Actor-Observer effect is a common bias in social perception. When we are the actor in a situation—for example, a minor car accident—we tend to overattribute cause for the result to elements of the situation: “The sun was in my eyes," or, "My brakes didn’t work right." Observers, on the other hand, are biased toward making attributions about the actor and his or her characteristics: "He's a terrible driver," or, "He just wasn’t being careful." The effect leads actors and observers to see things very differently, observers tending to see cause as something about the person, while actors seeing it as a result of the situation.

Illusory Correlation

Illusory correlation is when two events happen together in time and we mistakenly believe that one was related to, or caused by, the other. For example, someone might wake up with achy joints and then it starts to rain. This person may then come to believe that his joint pain is a predictor of bad weather. Illusory correlation is one explanation for superstitious behavior—e.g., a person blows on the dice and rolls a 7, thinking that it was the blowing that caused the favorable outcome.

The Barnum Effect

Named after circus mogul P.T. Barnum, who said, "There’s a sucker born every minute," this effect explains why fortune tellers and psychics seem to be so accurate in describing us or knowing our secrets. The Barnum Effect occurs when someone is given a very general description of their personality—"Someone in the room sometimes has low self-esteem and occasional depression, but is also kind and loving”—a description that could fit just about anyone. This leads the person to believe that the psychic has somehow zeroed in on her or him or read their thoughts.

Gambler’s Fallacy

This is the mistaken belief that if something happens more or less frequently than normal during a certain period, then it will happen more or less frequently in the future. For example, if Red keeps coming up on the roulette wheel, a gambler plays Black because of the mistaken belief that the likelihood of Black is greater than another Red outcome. I once watched a woman lose thousands of dollars at a roulette wheel because of the gambler’s fallacy: She would wait until there were several Reds or Blacks in a row and then bet heavily on the opposite outcome. Needless to say, she lost all of her money because each outcome is independent—and, besides, the house has an advantage since there are two outcomes (zero and double-zero) that are neither Red nor Black.

The best way to prevent becoming a victim to these common biases in social perception is to be aware of them, and to stop and analyze situations before you act.

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