7 Most Common Errors That Humans Make

During various psychology courses, I have always enjoyed learning about the errors that humans unconsciously make. Humans are neither rational nor objective when making decisions. Enjoy browsing through some of the most interesting and common errors that we make. Making this errors and biases conscious is the first step to eliminating them. Although, as you’ll read on, some are actually very important for self-preservation. I added the section “Why is this error/bias important?” for you to see the actual implications it has for our everyday life.


1. Hindsight bias


Hindsight bias is a term used in psychology to explain people’s tendency to overestimate their ability to have predicted an outcome that couldn’t possibly have been predicted. Individuals think they should have seen something coming as they see “obvious” signs as they look back in time. This bias is commonly referred to as the knew-it-all-along phenomenon. For example, my sister sometimes says, I knew they were going to play that song on the radio now, but actually, there’s no way she could have known.


Why is hindsight bias important? If you’re beating yourself up about something that has happened in the past, thinking you could have stopped it if you noticed the signs, you should let that go. If you could have stopped it, you would have. End of story. It might seem like everything makes sense now that you look back but it certainly might not have felt like that a while ago.


2. Confirmation bias


Everybody holds certain beliefs, stereotypes or opinions. We unconsciously seek out information that confirms our preconceptions. For example, if one believes that their boss is unfair he or she will only look for information and events that are in concordance with his or her belief. Moreover, he will remember events in which his boss was not fair much better compared to events in which his boss appeared friendly and understanding. Similarly goes for our belief systems. Conservatives like to buy conservative newspapers and magazines because articles in those fit their opinion and viewpoint of the world and current issues. On the contrary, a liberal is more likely to buy liberal magazines and attend events such as climate protests and pride parades. What is more, a liberal is more likely to hang out with people that have similar liberal beliefs. Because of this bias it is so difficult and rare to change your belief system and stereotypes; people’s attention and memory are focused on events and instances that confirm what they thought from the beginning.


Why is confirmation bias important?Because only by realizing this factor you can try and consciously change your ways of thinking.


3. Self-serving bias


The tendency to attribute positive events to internal factors and negative events to external factors is known under the term self-serving bias. Humans tend to seek causes for positive events in oneself, for example, I got my dream job because I’m so talented and hard-working. In contrast, in the case of not getting the job, we are likely to blame situational factors, such as, “the interview questions were odd and inappropriate” or “there were simply too many candidates for the job”. This human error has a basis in evolutionary theory; making such attributions preserves our self-esteem. If we blamed ourselves for every failure, we would be crushed and not very happy.


Moreover, the researchers found that individuals with depression are less likely to show self-serving bias, in fact they usually think the other way around. Persons with depressive explanatory style attribute negative events to internal and global causes, for example, I failed the last math test because I’m stupid. Positive events are more likely to be interpreted in the light of external situational factors, such as, “I received a good grade because I was lucky” or “I got the job because I was probably the only candidate”.


Why is self-serving bias important? It is crucial to feel good about ourselves, to maintain a healthy self-esteem and not to lose self-confidence.


4. Primacy and 5. Recency effect


Have you ever noticed we are more likely to remember the first and the last piece of information and in case of information overload tend to forget the one in the middle? That’s because of primacy and recency effects. When trying to memorize a list of words, the middle ones are going to be trouble, not the first or last ones. However, recency and primacy effects could be in your favor if you know how to use them. For example, when waiting for a job interview, try to go in first or wait to be the last one to go. This way, you will make a more memorable impression on the interviewers just because of the serial order of the interviews. When considering who to hire for a job they are more likely to remember the first candidate (primacy effect) and the last one (recency effect).


Why are primacy and recency effects important? Because you could use them in your favor as described above.


6. What-is-beautiful-is-good effect


What-is-beautiful-is-good effect occurs when we spontaneously assign positive qualities and desirable personality traits to physically attractive individuals. If we think someone’s beautiful, we could quickly assume that they must also be friendly, talented, and intelligent. We might treat them differently than others, in a more positive manner, because we expect they will be extraordinary. To put this in a real-life example, more attractive people are more likely to get a job because the interviewers might unconsciously believe they are also more conscientious, hard-working and creative. Moreover, according to research, teachers pay more attention to and expect more from good-looking students; they give them more opportunities to talk and share ideas, give them time to correct mistakes or even overlook the errors they make.


Why is what-is-beautiful-is-good effect important? It’s important to realize that our decisions are not always rational and objective. For example, we might fancy some classmates more because they are pretty. Issues could arise when working in HR office, selecting future employees. If we were to let what-is-beautiful-is-good effect influence our decision, it most likely wouldn’t be based on objective criteria and we would be in trouble with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.


7. Better-than-average effect


Most personality traits as well as other psychological variables (such as being happy) are distributed on a normal curve. Considering this, we would expect to get an average of .50 when we ask people to rate themselves on desirable personality characteristics, virtues or desirable psychological states from 0 to 1. However, when people rated themselves on a scale from 0 to 1 on how happy they thought they are in comparison to others, researchers got an average of about .80. This means that participants thought themselves somewhat happier compared to the people around them. We get similar results when we ask individuals to rate themselves on a scale from 0 to 1 on how friendly, nice, fair, or hard-working they perceive themselves to be.


Friendliness, for example, is just like most other traits distributed along the normal curve. That means we have a small percentage of very unfriendly people, a small percentage of the very friendly, and a great percentage of people being somewhere in the middle. Nevertheless, when people rate themselves on a scale of friendliness, everybody rates themselves as being in the upper division of the friendliness scale. We typically get a left-skewed distribution. Therefore, people perceive themselves more positively than they actually are.

Why is better-than-average effect important?Nobody likes to perceive him or herself as average, let alone under average. It’s only logical to have a high opinion of ourselves and to report our views in self-reports.


Do you recognize these errors and biases in yourself and others? Haha, I bet I got you overthinking your decisions and ways of thinking! Don’t worry, I do it too. I hope you have a lovely day.


XX, Ajda

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