Science of the Spirit


58 Cognitive biases that screw up everything we do

© wikipedia
We like to think we're rational human beings.

In fact, we are prone to hundreds of proven biases that cause us to think and act irrationally, and even thinking we're rational despite evidence of irrationality in others is known as blind spot bias.

The study of how often human beings do irrational things was enough for psychologists Daniel Kahneman to win the Nobel Prize in Economics, and it opened the rapidly expanding field of behavioral economics. Similar insights are also reshaping everything from marketing to criminology

Hoping to clue you - and ourselves - into the biases that frame our decisions, we've collected a long list of the most notable ones.

Comment: What's missing from this list is a description of the normalcy bias which, if left unchecked and unrecognized, could have devastating effects for many in the chaotic times ahead.

Magic Wand

Research shows it is possible to develop real life skills while lucid dreaming

© Unknown
You probably won't gain any IQ points, but you really can learn while you sleep, and in more than one way...

You might recall that years ago that there were "sleep learning products" being sold. The basic idea was that if you listened to recordings of things while you slept you could absorb what you heard and integrate it into your knowledge. Thus you might listen to language recordings to learn a new language as you slept. But did it work?

The research done so far says no, you can't really learn from recordings while sleeping. It is possible that people who had some "success" with this technique learned things as they fell asleep and while waking up, but probably not while actually sleeping. That kind of learning is just too complex and it seems it requires consciousness.

Why being in a group causes some to forget their morals

© A Lads Club Escapette
Three reasons good people do bad things.
When people are in a group they are more disconnected from their moral beliefs, according to new neuroscientific research.

The results come from a study which compared how people's brains work when they are alone compared with when they are in a group (Cikara et al., 2014).

The study was inspired by a trip to Yankee Stadium in New York made by Dr Mina Cikara, now an assistant professor at Carnegie Mellon University.

On the trip her husband was wearing a Red Sox cap (for non-US readers: the Red Sox are a rival team from Boston).

Comment: It is not the first time this phenomenon and others related to it have been analised with detail by those who might not have our best interests at heart. For more information see our forum discussion Gustav Le Bon -The Crowd: Study of the Popular Mind.
The Crowd; study of the popular mind

Although the book was written 116 years ago in 1896, the author, Gustave Le Bon, was obviously a brilliant mind with a mastery of his subject and the ability and dedication needed to produce a concise and systematic study of the psychology and persuasion of the popular mind.


Clinically Dead? The blurred line between life and death

Door to Heaven
© Sensay/Shutterstock
Sometimes, the line between life and death can seem blurred. In one recent case, a woman was erroneously declared dead after having a heart attack and wound up freezing to death in a body bag in the morgue. Another woman gave birth to a baby three months after she technically died. Then, there was a case of a skier who became submerged under freezing water for hours, but was revived and suffered no brain damage.

These and other cases reveal how hard it can be to distinguish the living from the dead. With the advent of mechanical ventilators, the clear-cut definition of death has now given way to other, more clinical definitions.

But these terms, such as "brain death" and "circulatory death," can create ambiguity about who is dead and who isn't, experts say.

Free will may just be the brain's 'background noise,' scientists say

Free Will
© Nemeziya/Shutterstock
It's a question that has plagued philosophers and scientists for thousands of years: Is free will an illusion?

Now, a new study suggests that free will may arise from a hidden signal buried in the "background noise" of chaotic electrical activity in the brain, and that this activity occurs almost a second before people consciously decide to do something.

Though "purposeful intentions, desires and goals drive our decisions in a linear cause-and-effect kind of way, our finding shows that our decisions are also influenced by neural noise within any given moment," study co-author Jesse Bengson, a neuroscientist at the University of California, Davis, wrote in an email to Live Science.

"This random firing, or noise, may even be the carrier upon which our consciousness rides, in the same way that radio static is used to carry a radio station."

This background noise may allow people to respond creatively to novel situations, and it may even give human behavior the "flavor of free will," Bengson said.

"I am a lovable person!": Why positive mantras backfire for some

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The positive mantra has long been a staple of self-help books.
According to many self-help books, the idea is simple and intuitive: repeating "I am lovable," or "I am confident," will move a person towards these states.

According to psychological research, though, these statements don't work for everyone and, for some, may even backfire (Wood et al., 2009).

Canadian psychologist Joanne V. Wood and colleagues decided to test the effects of what they term 'positive self-statements'.

First they wanted to see how many people used these kinds of statements.

A survey of 249 undergraduates showed that the majority used them from time-to-time and even more frequently during stressful period, like before exams.

Next, the researchers wanted to see what kind of effect these self-statements had on people's self-esteem.

Participants were asked to repeat "I am a lovable person," and their self-esteem was measured before and afterwards.

The disconnect of covert depression

Depression is often considered a "female disease," since affected women reportedly outnumber men by four to one. Yet male depression may be more rampant than we realize.

Many men try to hide their condition, thinking it unmanly to act moody. And it works: National studies suggest that doctors miss the diagnosis in men a full 70% of the time. But male depression also stays hidden because men tend to express depression differently than women do.

Research shows that women usually internalize distress, while men externalize it. Depressed women are more likely to talk about their problem and reach out for help; depressed men often have less tolerance for internal pain and turn to some action or substance for relief. Male depression isn't as obvious as the defenses men use to run from it. I call this "covert depression." It has three major symptoms. First, men attempt to escape pain by overusing alcohol or drugs, working excessively or seeking extramarital affairs. They go into isolation, withdrawing from loved ones. And they may lash out, becoming irritable or violent.

Comment: Covert depression hides under different masks - addictive behavior like alcoholism, pornography or substance abuse, obsessive behavior, perfectionism, workaholism etc. Depression may not always be about feeling bad either - in men emotional numbness or alexithymia can be an experience of depression. Coping mechanisms of covert depression is designed to keep overt depression at bay.

In close relationships, even non-psychopathic men who are unable to take ownership of their feelings can act them out in the form of psychological or physical violence. The ones who are emotionally numb and disengaged can also have a different effect on their partners who are more sensitive to feelings. In marital relationships, the female partner often becomes the carrier of the disowned feelings of the male partner. She may even act out those emotions and come across as a bitchy or depressed woman while the man remains more "normal". This is projective identification - where one projects one's feelings unconsciously on another; the receiver of the projection then acts out the projection as if it were her own feelings. Such burdens can be passed on to offspring as well as continuing the cycle of covert depression. Childhood wounds create both the injury and the defense mechanism used to hide the injury which become the foundation of depression in later life.

See the forum thread on the topic: Covert depression


The emotion that boosts self-control and saves you money

© Loving Earth
We have a new ally in the struggle to resist temptation.
The feeling of gratitude can help people resist temptation, according to a new study published in the journal Psychological Science.

While practising gratitude is now well-established as a powerful way to enhance happiness, its links to decision-making are much less clear.

Many people feel that emotions tend to get in the way of decision-making: that we should be 'cold' and 'calculating' to make the right choices.

For example, when we're faced with a tempting choice to spend (or waste) a whole load of money, we usually call on our powers of self-control to resist temptation.

The new research, though, finds that the emotions can also be harnessed to rein in desire.

In the study, conducted by Northeastern University's David DeSteno and colleagues, 75 participants were given a classic test of their financial self-control (DeSteno et al., 2014).

Is there a brain region associated with a belief in social justice?

Social Justice
© io9
Some people believe that we could live in a just world where everybody gets what they deserve. Others believe that's impossible. Now, neuroscientists say they have evidence that the "just world hypothesis" is a cognitive bias that's connected with a specific part of the brain.

This does not mean there is a "social justice center" in your brain. What neurologist Michael Schaefer and colleagues discovered is that there is a slightly different pattern of electrical impulses shooting through the brains of people who believe in a just world.

They asked people whether they believed in a just world, then put them in an fMRI machine and then asked them to ponder scenarios where people broke from social norms or conformed to them.

Previously, other neuroscientists had identified brain areas that become active when people perceive norm violations. So the group knew that if those areas were lit up in the fMRI, all they were seeing was a response to norm violations in general. But what they found was that a few additional brain regions became active in people who believe in a just world. So they now believe there could be some physiological component to a belief in social justice.

How the use of language can reveal the psychopath

For psychopaths, not only a lack of affect but also inappropriate emotion may reveal the extent of their callousness. Recent research suggested that much can be learned about these individuals by close examination of their language. Their highly persuasive nonverbal behavior often distracts the listener from identifying their psychopathic nature.1 For example, on a publically available police interview with murderer and rapist Paul Bernardo, his powerful use of communication via his hand gesturing is easily observable and often distracts from his spoken lies.2 The authors offer their insights into the unique considerations pertaining to psychopaths' communication.


Robert Pickton, convicted of the second-degree murder of six women in December 2007, initially was on trial for 26 counts of first-degree murder. He once bragged to a cellmate that he intended to kill 50 women. Details provided in court revealed brutal and heinous murders that often included torture, degradation, and dismemberment of the victims. The authors opine that Mr. Pickton probably would meet the criteria for psychopathy, a destructive personality disorder that combines a profound lack of conscience with several problematic interpersonal, emotional, and behavioral characteristics.

Comment: This article deals only with criminal psychopaths. But what most people are not aware of is that not all psychopaths are violent. Many of them are aware of the social rules and can control to some extent their behaviour to conform to them. This allows psychopaths to occupy high positions in politics, religion, banking, finance.

If you are interested in what it means for the rest of our society, we recommend to read the excellent work of Dr. Andrzej M. Łobaczewski Political Ponerology: The Scientific Study of Evil Adjusted for Political Purposes which explains the phenomenon of psychopathy and its repercussions on our society. The book can be acquired here.
Political Ponerology