Traps of the Mind (Part 1)

Mario Sikora
Jan 22, 2012

“The first principle is that you must not fool yourself and you are the easiest person to fool.”

Richard Feynman (American theoretical physicist, 19181988)

We like to think we see the world clearly, that our perceptions are reliable, that our thinking is logical.

When we take a moment to step back and look at ourselves, however, we realize that this is not always the case. In fact, we often see the world through a variety of filters, our perceptions can be unreliable, and our thinking can be logically flawed.

This is not a new observation, of course; many ancient wisdom traditions are rooted in the idea that we are hindered by illusions and must learn to see clearly in order to become enlightened. The modern scientific literature on the inaccuracy and dysfunction of the brain is vast, and a list of useful books on the topic appears at the end of this post.

In the last post, “Thinking Like a Leader,” I wrote about why effective thinking was important. In this and future posts, I’ll discuss how some of the structures and processes of the brain can work to fool us. Then subsequent blogs will discuss tools for improving rigor, as well has how to cultivate the curiosity and creativity I wrote about previously.

In order to understand how our brains fools us, we have to understand one fundamental fact about the evolution of the brain: the brain evolved to help us survive, not to help us accurately comprehend the world around us. For the latter, we need help and future articles will focus on the tools that help us see the world clearly.

Those familiar with the science of biological evolution may have heard statements such as “evolution only cares about survival and reproduction.” This statement is only partially correct, but its implications usually do not fully register on people. This is a shame, because the implications are profound. (If anyone really wants to understand the nuances of the human psyche, they have to understand the science of evolution, and a short list of good introductory books is listed at the end.)

Before I talk about the implications, however, let me clarify what is meant by the statement.

Evolution by random mutation and natural selection is a blind, unintelligent, and indifferent process. It doesn’t “care” about anything because there is no intelligence or consciousness involved in the process to care. Evolution is also purposeless and without intention. Anthropomorphized evolution is a convenient shorthand, however, and almost impossible to avoid but it is important to understand that evolution is not deliberately working toward an end result. It progresses through a simple, blind algorithm.

That algorithm goes something like this:

·       Any act of replication of DNA (through, say, sexual or asexual reproduction) introduces random variations called mutations.

·       If these mutations increase the chances that the organism will reproduce (by, say, increasing chances of survival so that the organism lives long enough to reproduce or by increasing its reproductive fitness), there is an increased chance that the organism will pass on these genes to offspring.

·       Through simple statistical likelihood, those mutations that increase reproductive fitness will influence the evolution of the successive generations of the species (even as it morphs, over time, into completely different species).

This very simple, but very elegant, algorithm, constantly repeated over unimaginably vast amounts of time, accounts for all the characteristics of all the species on our planet.    

Figure 1
Our brain has evolved over eons and natural selection has “equipped” it with characteristics to help us survive and reproduce. Sometimes, those very same characteristics actually inhibit our ability to see the world around us accurately. Natural selection has saddled us with intuitions that keep us safe or make our lives easier, and has wired us so that we will be certain of the accuracy of these intuitions, even when the intuitions are not accurate. Thus, Feynman was correct, we each are the easiest person for us to fool.

Take one very simple illustration of this phenomenon—the tendency to see patterns whether they exist or not. Look at the first photo accompanying this article. What do you see? Yes, you see two dots and a curved line on a piece of paper, but you also see a face. Why? Because your brain is wired to see important patterns, especially patterns related to things that can help us or harm us. We see faces all the time—religious figures on burned toast or a cinnamon role, a man on the moon. We humans are pattern-spotting marvels, and we are constantly spotting patterns whether they exist or not. When we intuit a pattern, our brain disinclines us to doubt ourselves because it is generally more advantageous to stubbornly believe we see a pattern where it doesn’t exist than it is to doubt ourselves.

Figure 2
Take a look at the second photo (Figure 2). Because of our heightened ability to see patterns, it is relatively easy for us to see the tiger amongst the bushes. Let’s go back in time. Four of our distant relatives, let’s call them Fred, Barney, Wilma, and Betty are walking along and hear a rustle in the bushes. They turn to look and Fred and Wilma perceive the pattern of a tiger in the bushes, and they run away. Barney thinks he sees something too, but says to himself, “It could be a tiger, but I’m not sure.” He trots a small distance, but stops to wait and see if he was right in his assumption. Betty doesn’t even see the pattern and wonders why everyone is running.

It turns out that the rustling in the bushes was just the wind, and Betty later has a good laugh at the expense of Fred and Wilma when telling the story to others.

The next day, the four are out for another walk. Again, there is a rustle. Fred and Wilma see the pattern of a tiger, and despite Betty’s mocking of them the previous day, they run off again. Barney takes a few steps but stops, again, not implicitly trusting his intuitions. Once again, Betty doesn’t see the pattern and stays in place.

This time, however, the rustling is not the wind; it is a tiger. Fred and Wilma get away and survive to have many babies, most of whom share their brains’ traits. Betty, on the other hand, becomes the tiger’s lunch. Barney survives this time but, lacking an implicit faith in his pattern-recognizing intuition, is not long for this world and leaves few or no offspring.

We have these accuracy-inhibiting characteristics “engineered” into our brain because false positives, such as those that Fred and Wilma had a tendency toward, cost us very little. However, false negatives, such as that to which Betty was prone, can be fatal. Doubting our intuitions, such as Barney did, can do more harm than good. The simple algorithm determines that those with a bias toward seeing patterns that did not exist and were overly certain about their intuitions had a better chance of reproducing. We are their offspring. We share their traits–we sometimes see things that aren’t there and we are overly sure of our naive intuitions. 

So here we are, thinking of ourselves as holders of the truth, knowers of our reality, rational and clear-eyed beings with memories like digital recordings. We know that the mind is prone to illusion, but we believe that is mainly the problem of the deceived or foolish “others” and we believe that we see though maya and hold truths unknown to the masses. In truth, we are loaded down with more cognitive biases than we could ever imagine (for an interesting list go to:

I don’t want to paint too bleak a picture of the situation. In general, the brain does a pretty good job at accurately assessing and interpreting our environment. We are right most of the time. But we are wrong enough that we need help, and this is why the tools related to good, rigorous thinking are critical. They help us get from being “pretty good” in our assessments to “very good.”    

Some of the challenges of the brain are purely structural. For example, we don’t see well in the dark so we do perceive objects very well at night. We also have not evolved to comprehend the things that are either much smaller or much larger than we tend to deal with in the normal course of life. We can follow and comprehend the evasive pattern of an antelope, for example, but we can’t truly comprehend the workings of quanta or the vastness of space.

I will focus less on structural issues than on cognitive biases, which according to the Science Daily website are “any of a wide range of observer effects identified in cognitive science and social psychology including very basic statistical, social attribution, and memory errors that are common to all human beings.” There is an extensive list of cognitive biases listed at, and for a great overview of the topic I recommend Daniel Kahneman’s new book, “Thinking, Fast and Slow.”
In upcoming posts I will address the following cognitive biases, because I think they are the ones most critical for leaders and those who advise them to understand.

·       Cognitive Dissonance

·       Confirmation Bias 

·       The Unreliability of Memory

·       Motivated Reasoning

·       Belief Polarization

·       Correspondence Bias

·       Agenticity

·       Essentialism

·       Self-serving distortion

For Further Reading:

On cognitive biases:

“Thinking, Fast and Slow” by Daniel Kahneman

“Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts” by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson

“On Being Certain: Believing You are Right Even When You Are Not” by Robert Burton

“The Invisible Gorilla: How Our Intuitions Deceive Us” by Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons  

On evolution:
“Why Darwin Matters” by Michael Shermer
“Why Evolution is True” by Jerry Coyne
“Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why It Matters” by Donald Prothero and Carl Buell
“The Greatest Show on Earth” by Richard Dawkins

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