Thursday, June 18, 2015

3 powerful illusions created by thought

Which horizontal line is longer? Chances are high you have seen this picture before. And you know that this is a trick question. The truth is that both the lines are of the same length. However, every time we see the picture, the upper line looks longer.  This is an example of an optical illusion. Similar to optical illusions, we are also subjected to illusions created by thought and they are called cognitive illusions. “Cognitive illusions can be more stubborn than visual illusions” says Nobel Laureate, Daniel Kahneman in his best-seller “Thinking, fast and slow”. In this article, we will look at three powerful cognitive illusions – illusion of understanding, illusion of experience and illusion of truth.

Illusion of understanding1: In the movie Queen, the protagonist Rani tells her friend, “I listened to my parents and teachers all my life. Anyone you can think of, I have listened to that person. I never wore a mini-skirt. I never misbehaved. Still I got dumped (by my fiancé).” As we make sense of the world around us, we form certain cause-and-effect relationships in our mind. For example, “listen to parents” and “things will be good in future”. “Study well” and “you will be successful” etc. They get reinforced by the success stories we are told in school, at home and in media. One thing we tend to ignore is the role of luck or chance. We study the personality traits of successful people such as Steve Jobs or Ratan Tata and conclude that if I imbibe these traits, I will be successful. At work is a rule called WYSIATI – What You See Is All There Is. We treat the available information as all there is and derive our inferences. I like the way Kahneman puts it: Our comforting conviction that the world makes sense rests on a secure foundation: our almost unlimited ability to ignore our ignorance2.

Illusion of experience3: Shopping online? I am sure you have your favourite shopping site – perhaps Amazon or Flipkart or Snapdeal etc. Grocery shopping? You know where to go – your local shop or the Mall. One factor that is influencing your decision is your past experience. Perhaps you trust your experience more than anything else. And yet the memory of the experience may be fooling you. I heard following story from a workshop participant, “I and my wife visited China recently. The whole trip was great except on the last day I forgot to wish my wife on her birthday. Now nobody talks about the China trip at home.” Kahneman mentions that the memory of an experience follows the Peak-End rule and duration neglect. We remember only the peak events and the ending and we ignore the total duration of the experience. If the end is bad then the memory of the experience is bad like the China trip even if most of the trip was fun. This is an illusion of experience. Kahneman calls this the ‘tyranny of the remembering self’4Whenever you shop or make any decision, you believe you are trying to ensure a better future experience. However, what you are doing is trying to ensure better anticipated memories. 

Illusion of truth5: This is the most subtle and perhaps the most dangerous form of cognitive illusion. A few years back I and my wife, who teaches Physics, were discussing psychology. And she said, “Psychology is not a science.” To which I said, “Have you studied psychology?” She said, “No. But I know it is all fluffy stuff. You don’t have rigor in Psychology.” Then I asked, “How can you be so confident about something you haven’t even studied?” This caused some emotional outburst and we stopped the discussion6. We are constantly trading beliefs for non-negotiable truths and we are not even aware of it. For example, when one of the jurors in “Twelve angry men” says, “You can’t believe a word they say. They are born liars.”, he is not even aware that he has treated a belief as an absolute truth. I remember when Aarushi Talwar murder story came out, my mom instantly knew that Arushi’s parents had committed the murder. Unfortunately, our beliefs are largely based on “how the thought-created story makes sense” or what Kahneman calls “associative and emotional coherence” rather than logical reasoning based on facts7. Due to our tendency of treating “belief-is-the-truth” we go to war, break relationships and commit all kinds of atrocities.

OK, you might say, so what is one to do? Well, the first step is similar to what we do when we encounter a picture with two arrows (optical illusion).  We tell ourselves, “This could be a trick. I need to be careful here.” Every time we draw a cause-and-effect relationship, judge a past experience or treat a belief as truth, we should treat the situation as if we are entering a cognitive minefield8.

Watch your step.

Image sources: Snapshots from the movies: Queen (2014), Tweleve angry men (1997), Behind enemy lines (2001).


1.  Kahneman explains “Illusion of understanding” in chapter 19 (Thinking, fast and slow) which has the same title.
2.    WYSIATI rule and the quote on “unlimited ability to ignore our ignorance” are from chapter 19 page 201.
3.   “Illusion of experience” is explained in chapter 35 titled “Two selves”
4.   “Tyranny of the remembering self” is mentioned in chapter 35 page 381. Kahneman presents this topic in the TED talk “The riddle of experience vs. memory
5.   “Illusion of truth” is a section in chapter 5 titled “Cognitive ease” and is on page 61.
6.   While we stopped our discussion, my wife (Gauri) ended up auditing a 20 lecture “Introduction to Psychology” course (available free on YouTube) the same year during the summer holidays. Last year we took a courser course titled “Buddhism and modern psychology” together. And she is now using “Thinking, fast and slow” for teaching cognitive biases to grade 11 & 12 students in Theory of Knowledge (TOK) class. Last year she became Head of the Dept for TOK. She continues to teach Physics.
7.   Associative coherence is mentioned on page 64.
8.   Kahneman uses the term “cognitive minefield” on page 417.