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Five Faults in Human Thought

by Guy McCardle

July 28, 2011

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Donate The human brain is absolutely amazing. No invention of mankind even comes close to the raw computing power of this 1.5 kg glistening, convoluted mass of tissue. Every thought, emotion, idea and memory that ever was, spawned from there. Some might argue that everything in the universe is a product of our mind, but I digress. Incredible as it is, our thought processes are far from perfect. What follows is a list of five common faults with human thought.

1. The Halo Effect - This is the tendency for one's positive (or negative) traits to "spill over" to other areas of their personality and directly affect others perception of them. A good example of the halo effect is when interpretations of current behaviors carry over to an employee performance evaluation. Let's say I'm late to work three days in a row. My employer might think it is because I am lazy when actually I was saving a baby from a burning building one day, was carjacked on day two and raptured to heaven on day three.

2. Pareidolia - Pareidolia is when random images or sounds are perceived as significant. For example, seeing the image of the Virgin Mary in a water stain or hearing "Paul is dead" when you play a Beatles album backwards are both examples of the phenomenon. See this piece I wrote for more on the subject.

3. The Gambler's Fallacy - This is the tendency of one to think that future probabilities are altered by past events. They are not. When you flip a coin you will always have a 50/50 chance of getting heads (or tails). It doesn't matter if it landed on heads for the last 30 flips, the next one still only has a 50% chance of landing on tails. You are not "due" a tails flip. The same is true with a roulette wheel. For any spin of the wheel the probability of landing on red is 47.37% even if the ball landed on black the previous four times. Again, you are not "due" a win, the probabilities have not changed.

4. Reactivity - This is the tendency of people to act or appear differently when they know that they are being observed. It is also know as the Hawthorne Effect. Back in the 1920's a study was conducted at a manufacturing facility called the Hawthorne Works. The goal was to see if different levels of light affected worker productivity. They soon found that changing the level of light caused productivity to soar. Unfortunately, when the study was over, productivity sank back down to normal levels. This is because the increase was not due to the level of light, it was due to the fact that the workers were being watched. Reactivity generally results in motivating people who are being observed to alter their behavior to make them look better. It can be a real problem in research studies.

5. The Placebo Effect - We’ve probably all heard of this one. Belief is powerful medicine, even if the treatment itself is a sham. The placebo effect is the measurable, observable, or felt improvement in health not attributable to an actual treatment. An inert substance, such as a sugar pill, pure water or saline, is substituted for an effective medical treatment without the knowledge of the patient. The substance has no real medical value, however a patient may still improve merely because their expectation to do so is so strong.

by Guy McCardle

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