When you experience difficult times, or when adversity strikes, you need to be able to recover and bounce back. That’s called being resilient or mentally strong. Being continually stressed or dealing with unrelenting difficulties however makes this difficult to achieve.
When we experience low points in our coping, our thinking and decision making can be most at risk. This is ironic, because it’s at these trying times that we need to be at our best in terms of thinking clearly and making good decisions.
There are five common thinking errors that you should be aware of that can substantially erode your mental strength and resilience:
1. Survivorship Bias
We tend to focus on what successful people do and try and learn from them. For example, self-help books and social media often contain headlines like “Invest like Warren Buffet”, “Richard Branson’s best advice for new entrepreneurs”, and “Bill Gates dropped out of university, so should you”.
The problem is no one remembers and pays attention to people who did the same thing, but who were unsuccessful. It’s entirely possible that the highly successful person in the public eye succeeded in spite of a particular behaviour, not because of it.
Implications for you: be aware that what works for other people may not be appropriate or work for you.
2. Aversion to Loss
We are mentally wired to actively avoid losses, more so than activity acquire gains. For example, we experience a slight gain in pleasure from a small gift of cash, but a much more profound sense of loss if we lose the same amount of money. Even although the responses are the opposite, we feel loss more profoundly.
This stronger bias of not wanting to lose something over gaining something, may lead to poor decision making. If we don’t want to lose out, we may feel compelled to also do what others are doing, even if it does not benefit us. That’s how peer pressure and crowd behaviour results in people taking decisions and doing things they wouldn’t necessarily do if they had carefully thought about it.
Implications for you: be aware that your decisions could be overly influenced by wanting to avoid losing out.
3. The Availability Heuristic
This refers to the mistake our brains make in thinking that the examples which easily spring to mind are the most relevant ones. Our brain over-values and over-estimates the impact of them and they create our reality. In contrast, we undervalue and place less importance on the things that we know nothing about. It’s a form of lazy or short-cut thinking, sometimes seen in the workplace when some individuals get labelled as a “blue-eyed boy”, whilst others labelled as a “troublemaker” or having “low potential”.
Implications for you: ensue you have as much information as possible on which to base your decisions.
When making decisions, our minds are wired to start at a set point, and move from that, rather than to start from scratch or consider all options. This is called Anchoring.
For example, I was recently negotiating a fee for some exciting work which I really wanted to do. I was prepared to accept any sum, because whilst earning income is important, this particular experience was more important to me than money. Once the other party had seen what others had agreed to however, it became their set point, and they closed the negotiation within 5% of that figure.
Implications for you: when making decisions, try to remain open to all options, despite what others have already decided.
5. Confirmation Bias
This refers to the prevalent tendency to look for information to support our beliefs. In doing so, we tend to ignore or downplay the information that does not support our beliefs.
When making a decision, despite what people say, most people don’t want new information. They particularly don’t want information that goes against a tentative conclusion they might have. On the contrary, they want information that supports their beliefs. We then focus on these facts, which enable us to confirm what we believed in the first place.
Implications for you: look for information that questions your conclusion, and then weight it up carefully.
What does all this mean for you?
As difficult as it is when you are over-stressed, try to question your thoughts and be open to changing your mind. Understand that your thoughts are not real. They are simply constructs or ways you are trying to make sense of your experience in the world. They are changeable.
Hold yourself and your thoughts lightly. Try to be open to new information and views different to your own. That will enable you to make better decisions and thus cope better – particularly in difficult times.
Nickerson, R. S. (1998). Confirmation bias: A ubiquitous phenomenon in many guises. Review of general psychology, 2(2), 175.
Tversky, A., & Kahneman, D. (1973). Availability: A heuristic for judging frequency and probability. Cognitive psychology, 5(2), 207-232.
Tversky, A., & Kahneman, D. (1974). Judgment under uncertainty: Heuristics and biases. science, 185(4157), 1124-1131.
Tversky, A., & Kahneman, D. (1991). Loss aversion in riskless choice: A reference-dependent model. The quarterly journal of economics, 1039-1061.
Inspired by a blog from the talented James Clear: http://jamesclear.com/
Image courtesy of Danilo Rizzuti at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
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