Mind Traps: How Your Own Brain Can Sabotage You

Imagine you’re about to make a big decision—say, you’re looking to move in to a new house. Naturally, you’ll want to make the best choice possible, and you do so by considering your needs versus all possible options. After seeing a print ad about an impressive house model and a brief talk with a convincing broker, you’ve taken a particular liking to a certain unit we’ll call House A. It’s bigger than what you actually need, more expensive than what your initial budget would allow, and farther from your kids’ schools than what would be practical, but it remains your favorite among all the other choices you’ve surveyed. There’s another house unit available in a different subdivision that’s more appropriately sized, reasonably priced, and located nearer to the places you frequent, but for some reason you still favor House A.

To help you decide in this situation, you call up an acquaintance who’s living in the subdivision where House A is located, just to see her reasons for choosing to live there. You also discuss your dilemma with the broker for House A, who of course presents a strong argument in favor of that particular unit. Confident that you’ve taken measures to ensure you’re making a rational decision, you decide to purchase House A. Congratulations, you’ve just been tripped up by the confirmation bias.

Confirmation bias is the tendency to seek evidence only from sources which would most likely confirm your pre-existing beliefs and support the opinion you already have in mind. It draws you to accept only pieces of information that fit your pre-existing “theory,” while you conveniently reject the relevance or validity of any evidence that points to a different direction. This error in thinking hides under the guise of collecting relevant information for rational decision-making, but is actually a faulty way of making judgments based only on reassuring evidence favored to one side.

Confirmation bias is one of the most common examples of mind traps, or biases and errors in the way we think, interpret information, and draw conclusions about ourselves and the world around us.  The term “mind trap” is a colloquial term for cognitive distortions, a concept first theorized by psychiatrist Aaron Beck and popularized by his student David Burns. In situations when we need to make decisions, face difficult situations, or deal with life’s grey areas, our minds can rely on patterns of thinking that are more destructive than they are helpful. Let’s consider some other instances mind traps can negatively affect the way we think and interpret events in our day-to-day lives.

Let’s say you give a presentation before your boss and a group of colleagues at work. As you flip through one PowerPoint slide to the next, discussing this month’s company reports, you notice Jerry is preoccupied with his smartphone under the roundtable. You figure you’re probably making such a boring presentation that he’s been reduced to playing Candy Crush to pass the time instead. After your presentation, you get a “Well done” feedback from your boss and receive several other compliments from your other colleagues, but you remain convinced you did a horrible job and feel bad the rest of the day for making a fool of yourself in front of so many people. Jerry, after all, was bored enough to seek out distractions instead of paying full attention to your presentation. You picked out that single unpleasant detail and magnified its implications, while minimizing the positive messages of your other colleagues’ compliments.

This is the mind trap called magnifying/minimizing. This trap leads you to magnify or exaggerate the negative aspects of a situation, while minimizing or downplaying the positive aspects. How many times have you brushed off genuine compliments simply as attempts to make you feel better about something you’re absolutely convinced you did a poor job in?

Continuing with the scenario at work, now consider that office hours are over and it’s time to call it a day. You head home looking forward to a nice home-cooked meal after a tiring day at work where you, as usual, had your daily share of boo-boos. Upon arriving home, however, you find yourself face-to-face with your wife who’s obviously displeased and red-faced with anger clearly directed at you. Darn it, you forgot to buy the can of tomato sauce she asked you to buy on your way home from work. Now there’s no chance the afritada she’s preparing to cook is ever going to be as red as her face when she saw you arrive home empty-handed. You get into an argument as she nags you about forgetting about it and reminds you of the 56 other times you committed the same mistake, while you blame her for not reminding you about it as office hours drew to an end.

In the above situation, it’s likely that both you and your spouse have fallen into the mind-reading trap. This trap can mess up rational thinking in two ways. One, this trap lets you assume that you absolutely know what others are thinking about you, even when you haven’t confirmed it with them. In the example, your spouse might’ve succumbed into mind-reading if she assumed you forgot to buy what she asked you because you considered her needs as not that important, or that you considered grocery-shopping for the household as none of your responsibility. And two, mind-reading can lead you to expect others to know what you’re thinking even without you telling them, as when you expected your wife to know you’re too preoccupied with concerns at work to even remember what’s lacking in her list of ingredients for the dinner meal tonight.

Because it involves making assumptions and jumping to conclusions without proper communication, the mind-reading trap can be the underlying cognitive distortion that sparks or aggravates difficulties in both personal and professional relationships.

The mind traps of confirmation bias, magnifying/minimizing, and mind-reading are just a few of the cognitive biases and errors that act as barriers to rational thinking, sound decision-making, and good handling of interpersonal relationships. There are dozens of other mind traps psychologists have identified and studied, and each one of us has particular vulnerabilities to one or several of them.

While mind traps are primarily subconscious ways of thinking we tend to automatically resort to especially in stressful situations, awareness that these biases and thinking errors exist is one of the key ways they can be brought to conscious thinking for resolution. After all, being aware that you’ve just fallen—or are about to fall—in a mind trap is the first step towards avoiding or getting out of it.

Once you become more conscious of the errors and biases you’re prone to making in the day-to-day decisions you face, you can train yourself to be more vigilant of the way you think and draw conclusions about the people or events in your life. Now, whenever you recognize you’re knee-deep in a cognitive bias, you can talk back to your brain and learn to correct the distortions in your own thinking. With that, you are granted the power to get up and out of a mind trap, and continue walking through life a wiser person with a better capacity to reason rationally, make sound decisions, and maintain positive relationships with the people around you—and with yourself. ♣

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