Flawed Thinking

The mistakes that our brains make are too numerous to count. You might think that this book has presented a thorough view so far—it has and it hasn’t. It has shined a light on a few key areas where our brains create and operate in a world that does not resemble reality, but there are far more that haven’t even been mentioned. It’s almost a wonder that we can all agree on the general premises of our world given that there is so much variance in how we can experience and interpret things.

From a lack of free will to chasing superstitions and ghosts and to a memory that malfunctions more often than not, we’re clearly not set up for success—if our definition of success involves accuracy and perspective. Remember, we’re typically operating in the ways that our brains are accustomed to from 10,000 BC, when there were very different concerns.

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  • Brain Blunders: Uncover Everyday Illusions and Fallacies, Defeat Your Flawed Thinking Habits, And Think Smarter (Or Just Less Stupidly) By Peter Hollins
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Sometimes our brains are tricking us through a vestigial evolutionary tendency. Other times this is done to us intentionally, such as with the car salesman my parents encountered in the first chapter. But sometimes we just don’t use critical thinking skills and fall prey to tricks and having the wool pulled over our eyes. We think stupidly most days, but most of the time it doesn’t come back to bite us in the butt. Flawed thinking can sometimes be as simple as having thinking that is, well, flawed. It’s either logically (consequences don’t follow the premises) or perceptively (four pennies is not the same as a nickel) unsound.
To continue with the analogy, our flawed thinking can result from paying for coffee in cash and receiving your change in pennies and nickels. It seems like you have probably received the correct amount, but upon closer inspection, you might be one penny too few or too many. Still, upon first glance, you’ve gotten all of your money back and you can’t spend the time to inspect all the pennies—so you move on with your day and you don’t examine your change closely. This is similar to how our mental processes function. The misadventures of the human brain result from our divided attention and focus on creating the most complete mental picture with the least amount of information possible. As long as we’re in the ballpark, we’ll run with it. Imagine if you were at a pre-surgery consultation and that was the approach your surgeon had. As you might imagine, this is not the best approach to thinking. In this chapter, we’ll cover a few of the most common fallacies and flaws in thinking that plague us. First Impressions Gone Wrong
Naturally, the first place to start is with first impressions. This is where we latch onto our initial exposure or evaluation of a situation. It makes a disproportionate impact for no reason other than it being what we saw first.
For instance, if you’ve ever made a significant purchase in your life, such as a house or car, you’ll have wondered what you could have done to reduce the price in your favor. Let’s say the sticker price of the car you wanted was $20,000. You might think if you’re lucky, you could get the price down to $17,000. In reality, the dealership slapped a new sticker over the old one that labeled the car as $15,000. If you are able to get the car down to $18,000, this feels like a significant win to you—and the dealership would feel the same way.
Why didn’t you think you could get any lower than $17,000 and eventually settle for paying $18,000 for a car worth $15,000? Because first impressions stick with us, for better or worse.
Both parties feel good about this because the dealership presented you with a high initial price. Specifically, this was an 174 example of the psychological phenomenon of anchoring.
We’ve all heard that first impressions are massively important when we’re meeting new people. Whatever we think of someone will be emblazoned into our minds for the foreseeable future, and it may never change. With people, if we like someone right off the bat, we are willing to give them the benefit of the doubt and will allow them to get away with questionable behavior. However, if we hate someone right off the bat, we are going to attribute everything they do to malicious intent.
First impressions matter in every aspect of life. If you see a high price for a car, that is going to pervade your thoughts far more than you realize. Not only will you not feel like you can’t ask for a low price, but you’ll be resistant to the idea of a low price. You’ll have it lodged into your mind that the prices simply aren’t low for this type of car, regardless of whether it’s true or not. You may also feel that it would be a huge social faux pas, and borderline insulting, to go 175 drastically below the price you were quoted! You can see that you will start to convince yourself of the price’s correctness.
Anchoring is a psychological effect that occurs based on first impressions. The chapter opened with an example of anchoring—the car’s sticker price was $20,000, so you felt compelled to stay close to that range. Consciously, you felt $20,000 was close to the true value and couldn’t deviate too far from it. Subconsciously, the initial price anchored you to that relative price point. Your conscious and subconscious will create a conflicted feeling which leaves you generally unable to deviate.
“Anchoring” as a term was coined in a 1974 research study (by Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman) that asked participants a simple question: how many African countries did they think were included in the United Nations (UN)?
This is not a question most people can answer or even have an informed estimate 176 for, so the participants were basically guessing. Before the participants answered, they spun a wheel that had a range of numbers on it but was fixed to only land on either or 65. In the context of this chapter, these numbers were indirect first impressions. You’ll see that anchoring doesn’t even have to be direct or blatant, as you might see in the car’s pricing; it can just be something that is present in the environment that influences your evaluation.
Regardless of whether the wheel landed on or 65, participants were asked the same two questions:

Whether they thought the percentage of African countries in the UN was higher or lower than the number they had spun.

What they thought was the actual percentage of African countries in the UN.

The participants who spun the wheel and landed on estimated on average that 25% of African countries were in the UN, while participants who landed on estimated 45% on average. It didn’t even matter that the wheel was inconsequential and seemingly unrelated to the questions— the wheel provided a number that persisted in people’s minds, which anchored them to either higher or lower values. Since they had no idea as to the answer to the original question, they were essentially grasping for any hint of a reference point. Without any other type of indicator or data point for guidance, they unknowingly latched onto the random number generated by the wheel and were thusly anchored.
Anchoring takes your first impression and makes you unconsciously use it as your mental reference point. It creates a set of expectations we adhere to and drastically decreases the amount of wiggle room you may have thought you had.
Let’s look at another example: do you know what the population of France is? You probably have no clue. Me neither.
But suppose in one instance I told you I thought it was million people and in another instance I told you I thought it was million people, then asked you to estimate after each time. In the first instance, your estimate will be in the 20- million neighborhood, and in the second instance, your estimate will be in the 60- million neighborhood.
Anchoring is interesting in that it can completely skew your judgment and logic just because it’s what you first see and assume is relatively accurate. We latch onto it and trust that it represents some sort of honest evaluation. You shouldn’t trust your first impression, however.
When we go to a store, we see high prices that anchor us to a certain perception of value. It is much smarter for stores to keep products above a certain price sometimes so they can all anchor each other, and high prices also serve to impart a perception of quality and worth. JC Penney once attempted a dubious marketing scheme in which it introduced a “no coupons or 179 discounts” policy in favor of generally lower pricing. They made much less revenue as a result because of their lower profit margins and the fact that people like discounts, and often discounts are what psychologically push people to purchase.
Restaurants have been known to engage in a practice known as decoy pricing, in which they place an extremely expensive item on the menu with the intention that it acts to anchor prices to a higher level and make less expensive items seem more palatable. After all, if you see a duck entrée for $50 and no other items are more expensive than $30, suddenly the other items will appear more attractive and acceptable.
The overall lesson of anchoring and first impressions at large is that people absorb information quickly and seek to make meaning of it even more quickly. It’s like what people say about the Internet and other mass media—don’t believe everything that you read. It turns out that it’s hard for us to resist when it’s how we’re wired.