For years, scientists believed that our brain functioned in a rational, logical way. However, as the world of cognitive heuristics began to be explored by scientists, we quickly learned that the brain is anything but rational. A cognitive heuristic is any shortcut used by the brain to help up solve a problem. Although these shortcuts can be helpful in a moment when we need a quick solution (think life-or-death zombie situation), it's not so great when we need the best solution, which often requires a lot of thought.
We are more likely to take these shortcuts when under stress because the emotional part of our brain (the limbic system) is not so great at thinking things through. The more of these shortcuts our brain takes, the more likely our brain is to make mistakes. Too many of these mistakes can lead to a whole range of problems, such as negativity and depression.
Common brain mistakes include:
1. The Fundamental Attribution Error (aka FAE)
The fundamental attribution error is the tendency for us to attribute someone's behavior to internal factors rather than external factors. For example, you more likely to think "that person cut me off because they are an idiot" rather than "that person cut me off because they are rushing someone to the hospital" even if the latter is true. In this mistake, you are less likely to consider multiple causes of an event. So when you think "that person cut me off because they are an idiot" you are also likely to believe that this is the only possible reason for this situation.
Takeaway: When you think about why someone is doing something, consider his or her circumstances first.
2. The Primacy Effect
The primacy effect is our tendency to remember things that happen at the beginning of an event better than things that happen later. This mistake is why it's important to start with something positive when giving feedback to someone (e.g., college/employee/bf). If you start with a negative, the receiver of your message may only remember this negative element, leading to negativity and loss of productivity.
Takeaway: If you're ever in the position to give feedback, start with something positive.
3. The Black-or-White Error
This one is exactly what it sounds like, our inability to see something other than polar extremes: good/ bad, smart/stupid, right/wrong, all/nothing. Our brains easily switch to this mode of thinking when we are under stress. This style of thinking is common in people who report mental health concerns such as depression and anxiety. When our brains are in this mode, we fail to see complexities in situations. For example, you may have a thought that "I am a terrible person" after a specific failure such as a job interview and fail to think of all the things you are, in fact, awesome at.
Takeaway: Don't be too quick to jump to conclusions, and be open to seeing the complexity of a situation.
How do we get our of our way?
Catching our brain when it makes these errors can help us lead healthier and happier lifestyles. Although this can be difficult at first, practicing regular mindfulness meditation can help you develop the skill of monitoring your thoughts. Regular journaling can also help to pick up on these mistakes. If you already journal, reflect on some of your previous entries and see if you can spot any evidence of cognitive heuristics.
Given that these errors are more likely to occur during times of stress, reduction of stress is also key. Regular relaxation strategies such as progressive muscle relaxation, mindfulness activities, and visualization exercises can help, along with a healthy lifestyle and diet.
A mental health professional can also help you pick up on these mistakes. Speak to your GP about making a referral to a psychologist if you feel that your brain is making a lot of these errors and leading to mental health concerns.