6 Thinking Traps That We All Fall Into

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Snow in Las Vegas — I never thought that could happen! But it did, in December 2008, when I took this photo. Luckily an American friend warned me how cold it could get in the winter. Otherwise, I would have expected it to be hot, just like the other two times I had previously been there. After all, it is a desert, and I had to drive through Death Valley, the hottest place on the planet, to get there each time. But, unfortunately, my past experiences had negatively impacted my ability to predict the weather in winter.

But why was this so?

Have you ever wondered why past experiences can damage judgment?


Why should you never accept a “free” drink?

Why do we prefer a wrong map to no map at all?

Why should you forget the past when making a decision?

Why is less sometimes more?


Why is a lame excuse better than none?

‘The Art of Thinking Clearly’ by Rolf Dobelli answers all of these questions and more. He lists 99 cognitive biases or thinking errors that research has shown trap us. Each chapter is only 3–4 pages in length, introduces a cognitive bias, gives an example of what it is, and gives some advice for avoiding these errors. It has sold over a million copies and is extremely popular in Europe. I would highly recommend it for anyone who wants to be as effective as possible at work and as happy as possible outside of it.

Here are the answers to the above questions:

1. Association Bias

As well as me expecting Las Vegas always to be hot, our past experiences can also affect our judgment through the development of superstitions. For example, let’s imagine that I’ve played an excellent game of Basketball. My mind may reflect on the game afterwards and think about what led to me playing so well. Even though it is unlikely to be a particular cause, I could attribute it to the bowl of pasta that I ate for lunch, or that I had the orange and not the red Powerade during the game, or that I wore my unique socks that were just the right level of thickness and comfort. I then try to do these same things again the next game in precisely the same way, but I don’t play as well. Instead of breaking this association then and there, my mind is more likely to look for other reasons I didn’t play so well and try to avoid these things for the next game. Pretty soon, if I’m not careful, I have 20 things that I must do to play well, and I’m still not playing any better because I’m stressed about having all of the things go “just right”. In reality, the thing that may have allowed me to play well in the first place was that I was relaxed and engaged fully in what I was doing, without having to do anything except play the game.

I see the same issue in individuals with insomnia, who “can’t sleep” unless they have their eye mask on and earplugs in, even though they aren’t sleeping well anyway, and they used to sleep well without these rituals in the past.

The Russian Scientist Ivan Pavlov first discovered the association bias with his work on classical conditioning. He was studying the digestive system of dogs, and he realised that the dogs were able to quickly associate two previously unrelated things (bell = food) if they occurred in close enough proximity to each other. While responding to a bell that signals dinner time is helpful because the dog is better able to eat and digest their food, it may be less valuable if they became hungry and started salivating each time they heard the bells of a local church. We can apply this to humans too. Not eating a poisonous berry that has previously led an individual to be sick would increase their likelihood of survival, but not being able to enjoy any berries and the antioxidant properties inherent in these may reduce their health over time.

The reality is that many things in this world are out of our control and that sometimes things just come down to luck. However, our mind doesn’t like to think this and tries to develop an illusion of control by assuming that merely correlated things are causally related to each other. Just because carbon emissions and obesity have increased since the 1950s doesn’t mean that increased carbon emissions lead to an increased risk of obesity. Many different factors are likely to explain our generally expanding waistlines much more efficiently.

The solution is to realise what is in your control and read up on what research has shown to be helpful for whatever you are trying to do. Then, focus on what you can influence, and accept whatever you can’t. For example, carbohydrate loading before a big game or race could be helpful, as could electrolytes when dehydrated. It’s unlikely that the colour of the Powerade or the socks had anything to do with how well I played, however.

Don’t let one experience influence how you react to all similar situations in the future. Instead, build up a bigger sample size of experiences before deciding if the two things that your mind is trying to create an association between are helpful for you to maintain. For example, if 10 minutes of mindfulness consistently leads to a better quality of sleep for two weeks in a row, it is worth keeping up. If not, let it go and see what else can help.

2. Reciprocity

I remember a few summers ago stopping off at a winery to do a “free wine tasting” with my brother and father on the way to a hike. Fortunately, I don’t enjoy drinking wine and declined, buying some food and a drink from the cafe instead. However, my brother and father participated, and both walked out with at least two bottles of wine each from the cellar door, at what I thought was a fairly hefty price.

Robert Cialdini, a Psychologist, has studied reciprocity and has found that people struggle to be in another person’s debt. Where possible, they will naturally feel the urge to repay the favour so that things seem equal or balanced again. Whilst this can lead to a collaborative and cooperative society, some people know about the pull of reciprocity all too well, using it to their advantage to get what they want when they want it. For example, a lot of pharmaceutical companies used to go to extreme lengths (and may still try at times) to get doctors to use their products with patients, ranging from giving them pens or a nice bottle of alcohol to sponsoring conferences and all-inclusive weekends away at a lovely beach resort somewhere in the Caribbean. Even those Timeshare nights where you get a “free dinner” may not sound like such a good idea if you understand our natural urge to repay the debt to someone who gives us something for free.

The solution is to think twice before saying yes to something if you don’t want it.

3. Availability Bias

Imagine this scenario:

Your 9-year-old child comes to you and asks if they can go to the house of either of their two friends on the weekend — one family has guns in the place, and the other family has a swimming pool.

Which house would feel safer?

If you said the family with the swimming pool, you would be wrong, but I don’t blame you for thinking it. It is an availability bias, where what comes to your mind most quickly is confused with what is right. We assume that guns are more dangerous than swimming pools but don’t realise that firearms are often locked away in a safe and secure spot in the house, whereas kids can quickly drown in a swimming pool if left unattended, even briefly. In the US, as pointed out in a Steven Levitt article, one child under ten drowns annually for every 11,000 pools, whereas a gun kills only one child under ten for every million guns. So swimming pools are almost 100 times more likely to kill children under ten than guns. When we think of pools, we don’t think of them as a death trap typically, but instead, we think of summer and fun with family and friends.

We are much more likely to think of the risk of death and severe injury when thinking about guns. Therefore, our risk map is often wrong, replacing what is right with what information comes to our mind the easiest. We tend to overestimate the risk of dying from a plane crash or murder and underestimate the health risks associated with smoking, binge drinking, an unhealthy diet and inactivity.

The solution is to look at the statistics and to spend time with people who think differently than you. We need external sources to understand that what is most available to us isn’t always true.

4. Sunk Cost Fallacy

This problem was posed to me when I was learning about this phenomenon at University:

Let’s imagine that you have booked an upcoming holiday for yourself and have already put down a non-refundable $500 deposit towards this trip. However, you still have $400 to pay. You are looking forward to this trip but wished that you were going with some friends, as you usually don’t enjoy solo trips as much.

You speak to your friends who say that they have already booked a trip for the same week. Of course, it’s not as lovely a place, but it will only cost you $400 a week, and you do prefer going on a trip with friends than by yourself.

What do you do?

The sunk cost fallacy occurs when people let their past investments, whether time, money or emotions, influence their decision about what they should do going forward. Both trips will only cost you $400 from this point onwards, so the $500 you have already spent shouldn’t factor into it. So the only logical thing to do is to take the holiday that you are likely to enjoy more. I hate to waste money, so I probably would decide to say no to my friends and try to enjoy the holiday by myself as much as possible or see if I could get another friend to come along. It doesn’t make it the right choice, however.

So how does this play out in your life? Should you stay in a university course, job, or relationship because of how far you have already come, even if it is evident that it is no longer the right choice for you and that another option would lead to higher happiness? It’s a tricky question again because we are horrible at predicting what will make us happy in the future, as highlighted in the book ‘Stumbling on Happiness’ by Dan Gilbert.

The solution is to use a surrogate and find out the level of happiness of someone who has just completed what you would like to do. If it’s a holiday, movie, show, or restaurant, check out the reviews. If everyone else wants it, there is a good chance you will, too, so go for it. And if you don’t, don’t feel that you have to see it through to the end just because you have started it. Instead, close the book you aren’t enjoying, turn off the movie, or quit the course, providing that you think there is a better option that will allow you to achieve your long-term goals. Be brave, forget the past, and do what is likely to serve you best going forward.

5. The Paradox of Choice

Have you ever noticed how the more of something there is, the harder it is to choose? It is a problem with online dating, cable television, potential career options, deciding what to eat for dinner, and where to go on a holiday. The more decisions we have to make, the more tired we become, but there seems to be a constant need for precisely this everywhere we turn these days. For example, we used to be able to order a coffee. Now it has to be a tall (or another size), skinny (or no milk, 1%, 2% or full cream) soy (or almond or regular cow’s milk), decaf (or caffeinated weakly or extra strong), caramel (or no sugar, raw sugar, stevia, white sugar or other flavours) macchiato (or espresso, latte, flat white or cappuccino) without the cream on top (or with cream, foam or powered chocolate). No wonder people sometimes become nostalgic for when there were fewer choices, and things just seemed to be more straightforward.

In his book ‘The Paradox of Choice’, Barry Schwartz, a Psychologist, talks about an experiment performed at a supermarket where they offered 24 different jelly samples to customers on day one and six different jelly samples on day two. Which day sold more jelly? Day two, by ten times the amount. Too many options led to indecision and paralysis, and many left without getting any jelly. On the other hand, providing fewer choices made it easier to choose which one they liked the best, and they bought it. So while we may always think that more potential partners, channels, dinner options, and holiday brochures equal a better final decision and outcome, this isn’t always the case. Extensive selections often lead to more unfortunate choices and more significant discontent after a decision.

The solution is to think carefully about what you want before you decide to search through the options. For example, if you want to watch a recent horror movie set in outback Australia, Wolf Creek is likely to be a clear winner. Then once you have made your decision, stick to it, at least for a set period, before reviewing the situation and deciding once again. Another research study found that people were happier with their decision when they were unable to take it back than when they could change their mind whenever they felt like it in the future.

6. ‘Because’ Justification

This one is great because it just doesn’t seem like it would work, but it does. In the 1970s, Ellen Langer, a Psychologist, experimented in a Harvard library. She asked numerous people to cut to the front of the line at a photocopier.

In the first scenario, she asked, “Excuse me; I have five pages. May I use the photocopier?” 60% of respondents agreed to it.

In the second scenario, she asked, “Excuse me; I have five pages. May I use the photocopier because I’m in a rush?” 94% of respondents agreed to it.

In the third scenario, she asked, “Excuse me; I have five pages. May I go before you because I have to make some copies?” 93% of respondents agreed to it.

Notice how the third scenario is asking the same thing as the first scenario, with no other reason apart from needing to make copies. Anyone else in the queue at the photocopier needs to do this. Yet because the word ‘because’ is used, 33% more respondents agree to it. Overall, only 1% less than for those in a rush. The second excuse is seemingly much better, and one that you would expect more people to allow if they weren’t in a big hurry themselves.

Therefore, the solution is to justify your reason whenever you want to do something or get away with something, even if the idea isn’t convincing or logical. It may give you that extension that you need on the assignment because you preferred to go to the party on the weekend or get you out of the speeding ticket because it was more fun to go fast. So I dare you to try it next time, because it very well may work. As long as you use the word because.

There are plenty more thinking errors that most of us succumb to from time to time or all the time. I am sure that I will touch on these more when talking about Cognitive Behavioural Therapy in more detail. Until then, check out ‘The Art of Thinking Clearly’, ‘Thinking Fast and Slow’ by Daniel Kahneman, or ‘Predictably Irritational’ by Dan Ariely if you are interested in learning more.

Once we realise that we are not as rational and in control of our actions as it seems, it becomes a lot easier to be compassionate towards ourselves after we fall into the same trap for the 100th time. The key is to identify once you have fallen into the trap and learn the steps and skills you need to get yourself out.

Dr Damon Ashworth

Clinical Psychologist

Published by Dr Damon Ashworth

I am a Clinical Psychologist. I completed a Doctoral degree in Clinical Psychology at Monash University and a Bachelor of Behavioural Sciences and a Bachelor of Psychological Sciences with Honours at La Trobe University. I am passionate about the field of Psychology, and apply the latest empirical findings to best help individuals meet their psychological and emotional needs.

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