8 surprising ways your mind plays tricks on you, according to psychology

If you’ve ever been fooled by an optical illusion or misremembered an event, you’ve experienced firsthand how your mind can sometimes play tricks on you.

These aren’t just random occurrences, though. They’re actually rooted in psychology.

You see, our brains are complex and they don’t always interpret information the way we expect them to. Sometimes they take shortcuts, leading to fascinating yet surprising mental illusions.

I’m about to dive into eight of these mind-bending phenomena. So buckle up and prepare to have your perception of reality rattled a little bit.

This isn’t just about the odd mental hiccup here and there. It’s a journey into the intriguing world of cognitive distortions and psychological quirks.

And who knows? You might even learn something about yourself along the way.

1. Confirmation bias

Ever noticed how once you form an opinion, you tend to find evidence supporting it everywhere? That’s your mind playing a trick on you known as confirmation bias.

This psychological phenomenon happens when we search for or interpret information in a way that confirms our preconceptions, while ignoring or dismissing evidence that contradicts them. For instance, if you believe that all cats are aloof, you’re more likely to notice when a cat is acting distant and overlook when they’re being friendly.

Confirmation bias can make us stick to our beliefs even when they’re wrong, making it harder for us to learn and grow. It’s a sneaky way our minds can keep us trapped in our own echo chambers.

But the first step to overcoming this mental trick is recognizing it. Once you’re aware of confirmation bias, you can make a conscious effort to consider all sides of an argument, not just the one that aligns with your viewpoint.

This can help you make more balanced decisions and open up your mind to new perspectives.

2. False memories

We like to think that our memories are like video recordings, capturing every detail of our lives with perfect accuracy. But the truth is, our memories can be surprisingly unreliable.

False memory is a psychological phenomenon where we recall something that didn’t actually happen, or remember it differently from how it occurred. It’s not about consciously lying or making things up. It’s an unconscious process where our brains fill in the gaps in our memory with information that may or may not be accurate.

For example, you might remember a family vacation from your childhood as being absolutely perfect, when in reality, it rained every day and you all got sick. But over time, your mind has replaced those negative details with more positive ones.

This doesn’t mean your memory is faulty or that you’re going crazy. It’s just one of the ways your mind simplifies complex information. But it does mean that it’s worth questioning your recollections every now and then, especially when they seem too good – or too bad – to be true.

3. The Halo Effect

We all like to believe we’re objective and fair in our judgments of others, right? Well, there’s an interesting trick our minds play on us called the Halo Effect that might challenge this.

Here’s how it works: when we perceive someone positively in one aspect, we’re likely to view them positively in other aspects too, even without concrete evidence. For example, if we find someone attractive, we’re more likely to also view them as kind, intelligent, or talented.

This automatic and often unconscious bias can impact every area of our lives, from our personal relationships to professional decisions. It can lead us to make assumptions and judgments about people that aren’t necessarily based on fact or firsthand knowledge.

So next time you find yourself immediately drawn to or impressed by someone, take a moment to ask yourself why. Is it because of their actual qualities and actions? Or could the Halo Effect be clouding your judgment?

Being aware of this mental trick can help you make more balanced and fair evaluations of others.

4. Negativity bias

It’s human nature to want to avoid pain and seek pleasure. But sometimes, our minds skew this instinct in a way that can make us feel more upset than we need to be. This is all due to something called negativity bias.

Negativity bias is the tendency to give more weight to negative experiences than positive ones. It’s why you might dwell on a single negative comment, even if you’ve received lots of positive feedback. Or why a small mistake can feel like the end of the world, even if you’ve done a hundred things right.

Remember, it’s perfectly normal to feel upset by negative experiences. But if you find yourself focusing excessively on the negative and overlooking the positive, that might be negativity bias at work.

You’re not alone in this. It’s something that we all experience to some extent. So be gentle with yourself and remember that it’s okay to acknowledge your wins and positive experiences, no matter how small they may seem.

It’s not about ignoring the negative but about giving equal attention to the positive.

5. The Spotlight Effect

Ever walked into a room and felt like all eyes were on you? Or have you obsessed over a small mistake, convinced that everyone noticed and is silently judging? This is known as the Spotlight Effect.

The Spotlight Effect is our tendency to believe that we’re being noticed more than we really are. It’s why that tiny stain on your shirt feels like a beacon of attention, or why you’re sure everyone noticed when you tripped up the stairs.

In reality, people are usually too focused on their own lives to notice our minor mishaps or imperfections. Everyone has their own worries, insecurities, and thoughts to deal with. Your small missteps are likely not as noticeable to others as they seem to you.

So next time you feel like the center of attention for the wrong reasons, take a deep breath and remind yourself of the Spotlight Effect. Chances are, you’re doing just fine and no one noticed that tiny mistake as much as you think.

6. The Illusion of Control

We all like to feel in control. It’s comforting to think we have a handle on our lives, that we’re the masters of our fate. But sometimes, our mind creates an illusion of control where there is none.

The Illusion of Control is a cognitive bias where we overestimate our ability to control events. For example, you might think that carrying your lucky charm can influence the outcome of a football game or that you can ‘will’ the traffic lights to turn green when you’re running late.

I remember once trying to ‘control’ the weather during a planned outdoor event. I checked the forecast obsessively and even tried some old wives’ tales to ward off rain, convinced I could somehow sway mother nature. Unsurprisingly, it rained anyway.

While it’s natural to seek control in uncertain situations, recognizing this mental trick can help us manage our expectations and cope better with things beyond our control. It’s okay not to have control over everything and sometimes, embracing uncertainty can lead to unexpected joys.

7. The Sunk Cost Fallacy

Life is filled with decisions, big and small. And when we make these decisions, we expect to see a return on our investment. But what happens when things don’t pan out as planned? Enter the Sunk Cost Fallacy.

The Sunk Cost Fallacy is the tendency to continue investing in a losing proposition because of what’s already been invested. It’s why you might sit through a boring movie because you’ve already paid for the ticket, or continue eating even when you’re full because you don’t want to waste food.

But here’s the thing: time, money, or effort that’s already been spent is gone. It’s sunk. And no amount of further investment is going to bring it back.

So next time you’re faced with a decision, take a step back and think: Are you making your choice based on future benefits, or are you too focused on what you’ve already lost? Don’t let past investments cloud your judgement. It’s never too late to cut your losses and move on.

8. The Anchoring Bias

When making decisions, the first piece of information you encounter matters more than you might think. This is due to a cognitive bias known as the Anchoring Bias.

The Anchoring Bias is our tendency to rely too heavily on the first piece of information we receive (the “anchor”) when making decisions.

For example, if you’re buying a car and the salesperson tells you the price is $20,000, you might negotiate down to $18,000 and feel like you’ve got a great deal.

But what if the car was actually worth only $15,000? That initial price ‘anchor’ skewed your perception of what was a good deal.

In an information-heavy world, it’s crucial to remember this bias. Don’t just accept the first piece of information you come across.

Do your research, consider alternative sources and remember – the first information isn’t always the most accurate or valuable. Always question your anchors and aim to make informed decisions.

Final thoughts

Understanding the ways our mind can trick us is not just a fascinating journey into psychology—it’s also a powerful tool for personal growth.

This article has shed light on some surprising mental phenomena, but the real work begins with you. It’s about being mindful of these mental tricks, questioning your perceptions, and making conscious choices.

Remember, every step you take towards understanding your mind better is a step towards self-improvement. It’s not about being perfect or never falling for these mental tricks. It’s about learning, growing, and becoming more aware.

And most importantly, don’t forget to be kind to yourself on this journey. Recognizing these mind tricks is not about blaming or judging yourself—it’s about understanding and empathy for your own mind.

Here’s to a more self-aware, understanding, and enlightened you!

Picture of Eliza Hartley

Eliza Hartley

Eliza Hartley, a London-based writer, is passionate about helping others discover the power of self-improvement. Her approach combines everyday wisdom with practical strategies, shaped by her own journey overcoming personal challenges. Eliza's articles resonate with those seeking to navigate life's complexities with grace and strength.

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