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How To Avoid Bad Decisions, Vol. 5: Errors of Egocentrism


In this series, we’ve spent a lot of time discussing how the human brain’s programming can trip up rational thinking. The biggest explanatory theme has been evolution; certain “shortcuts in thinking” endure because they’ve helped us survive for eons, even if they occasionally make us seem (or just feel) crazy.

Volume 5 isn’t necessarily exception but, this week, we’re focusing on a specific quirk of psychology that we can’t escape no matter how hard we fight it: egocentrism, or each person being stuck at the center of their own world.

David Foster Wallace explains this concept well in “This Is Water” by saying:

“Everything in my own immediate experience supports my deep belief that I am the absolute center of the universe—that I am the realest, most vivid, and most important person in existence. We rarely admit this sort of natural, basic self-centeredness, because it’s so socially repulsive, but it’s pretty much the same for all of us deep down. It is our default setting, hard-wired into our boards at birth. Think about it: there is no experience you have had that you were not at the absolute center of. Other people’s thoughts and feelings have to be communicated to you somehow, but your own are so immediate, urgent, real—you get the idea.”

Egocentrism has very little to do with morality because, as Wallace says, it’s the same for all of us. Still, when it comes to these cognitive biases, that’s another way of saying we’re all susceptible (not that it magically “evens out”).

The Spotlight Effect

This first Error of Egocentrism is probably the best-known: the spotlight effect, which is the tendency to overestimate how much others notice, watch, or otherwise scrutinize you. The effect gets its name from the feeling that you have an unwanted “spotlight” on you… even when you don’t.

Ironically, the spotlight effect is only possible because, despite our natural self-centeredness, we presume that other people think like us—and they do in many ways. However, just because we all think in many of the same ways does not mean that we automatically think all of the same thoughts. To the extent that other people share your thoughts, they’re egocentric thoughts to begin with; they’re too busy worrying about themselves to worry about you.

The antidote is fairly simple. The next time you’re having a bad hair day, don’t try to figure out how many people notice. Instead, ask yourself: how many bad hair days do YOU notice in other people? Probably not many. Even if you do notice, do you really care or remember? Probably not. Well, that’s how other people feel about you, too! (And if you were contrarian on these answers, check yourself… you might be part of your own problem.)

A word for business owners: remember that one customer is one customer. If that customer is happy, great—and if not, that’s one customer. It’s easy to feel like one unhappy customer can burn down your business by screaming loud enough, but in reality, most people most of the time aren’t paying attention and don’t care (including, eventually, that one unhappy customer).

The Curse of Knowledge

The word “curse” is an appropriate choice, because this cognitive bias can be cruel—and even if you’re aware of it, it can be difficult to counteract.

What has been seen cannot be unseen.
What has been heard cannot be unheard.
What has been learned cannot be unlearned.

The curse of knowledge (sometimes called the curse of expertise) is our inability to “extract ourselves” from the things we already know and understand. This causes us to unknowingly assume that other people understand the same things—even when that’s not true and we know it on some level.

The phrase “curse of knowledge” was coined in 1989 and drew on previous research into hindsight bias, which is our tendency to believe the outcome we witnessed was more predictable than it actually was—for example, thinking the Cold War was always destined to blow over (when, in reality, we were inches from armageddon on multiple occasions).

The scary thing about hindsight bias is that we can’t undo it no matter how hard we try. Researchers eventually found out that study participants didn’t realize that knowing an outcome would stilt their estimation of its likelihood—and even when researchers went to great lengths to make participants aware of hindsight bias, the participants still couldn’t undo or correct for its effects.

There’s a difference between remembering your past self (which you can do) and returning to your past self (which you cannot do). We can remember that we were ignorant of things, but we can never return to our previous ignorance. After all, knowledge replaces ignorance.

Here’s the closest we can get to practical advice on the matter:

№ 1: You can’t undo the curse of knowledge, but you can be aware of it—and the nice thing about human universals is that they’re safe assumptions. So go ahead and assume, as often as possible, that each person’s “book of knowledge” has a totally different set of pages.

№ 2: Establish a “no stupid questions” policy. Obviously newbies should be asking questions, but the supervising experts should be asking questions too. That’s the only way to identify and fix certain gaps in understanding.

№ 3: Make a habit of using simple, casual vocabulary (just not in a patronizing way). Jargon can be useful, but it’s often a crutch; it saves you the trouble of phrasing things yourself. You’d be amazed what you can do with small words if you bother to try.

The IKEA Effect

This cognitive bias is very American—not because it’s unique to America, but because (we like to think) America does it uniquely well.

This Error of Egocentrism is called the IKEA Effect. Before you say “but IKEA is Swedish and not American,” remember that few things are more American than (1) building your own furniture and (2) claiming that something is American once there’s a lot of it in America. We’re weird like that.

Simply stated, the IKEA Effect is the tendency to value something more highly once you’ve invested your effort in it—even if your effort does not objectively increase the thing’s value.

We’re only half-joking when we say this bias is uniquely American. There is something about our culture which makes us susceptible to this bias…

Anyone can recite the three “inalienable rights” in Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Fewer people know that this was lifted from philosopher John Locke, whose three natural rights were life, liberty, and property (Jefferson’s substitution avoided giving slaveowners a blank check).

Skipping straight to the essential detail: “property” was one of Locke’s rights on the logic that (A) you own your body and its ability to work and (B) you naturally own more and more of something as you “mix yourself” into it through your work. This idea is very kindred to American values (picture a homestead farmer), even if Jefferson didn’t place the word “property” where Locke had it.

They didn’t have IKEA in Locke’s time, but he nailed this nonetheless: when you mix your time and effort and frustration into an IKEA cabinet (by building it), you feel that you have added something to it—or at least, that it’s “more yours” for what you’ve given up, like a tiny piece of your sanity.

The reason this is a cognitive bias is maybe more obvious than it seems: nobody else will experience (much less value) the effort YOU invested to meet basic expectations. In the end, your labor is only a trade you made with yourself; you shopped at IKEA because furniture is cheaper if you build it yourself (and how else would you fit an entire bedroom set into a hatchback?). In other words, some types of work don’t add value so much as explain why something was worth less in the first place; we just don’t feel that way once we’ve spent all afternoon building it.

This is similar to choice-supportive bias and the sunk-cost fallacy, which we covered in Volume 1. But this particular bias is filed under Errors of Egocentrism because this is yet another way that our own experiences (inaccurately) feel more “urgent” or “real” than the experiences of others. A simple acid test is to flip things around: if you were buying IKEA furniture secondhand, would you assign any value to the effort of the stranger who built it? We’d say Nope because they built it for themselves, not for you.

The natural advice for professionals: be kind when you’re critiquing the work of others (because some of them is “mixed into” the work). By the same token, try not to take constructive criticism of your work too personally—because they don’t see that you’ve mixed yourself into yours, too.

Naïve Realism

To wrap up Volume 5, we’re going to talk about something uncomfortable. (Please don’t shoot the messengers. We’re only trying to help.)

As we explained earlier, egocentrism is a weird thing because we all understand that there are other people, and that other people are (in many ways) just like us—but you can’t escape your own brain and neither can anyone else, no matter how hard you try and no matter how good your intentions. Again: this is universal, so don’t panic.

You’re with us so far. We’re just acknowledging shared realities.

But here’s where this gets weird and uncomfortable. There’s no such thing as a shared reality.

Egocentrism, by definition, means that each person is experiencing their own self-contained version of the world. By most epistemological* accounts, there’s still an objective Reality apart from each of us, but it can matter only so much when nobody (while living) can experience it.

We’re not trying to throw you into existential limbo. There’s a point here—and that point is that it will always be hard to argue with your own experience, even when you know your experience is limited. Naïve realism is the idea that your own experience will always “feel” more like the Reality of Things because it’s the only experience you feel at all.

To repeat part of David Foster Wallace’s explanation of egocentrism: “Other people’s thoughts and feelings have to be communicated to you somehow, but your own are so immediate, urgent, real.” The essential thing to notice is the disconnect between Your Information and Any Other Information; you can employ the former to any degree at lightning speed, and effortlessly, but it takes enormous effort for the latter to have any degree of relevance. And yet, if you were a computer, all of it would be equally relevant to you.

Of course people don’t think they’re biased. They can’t argue with their own experience from the outside—because nobody can ever get outside of their own experience. No matter how hard you try to adjust the pieces on your mental chessboard, the table underneath it will always be tilted.

As we’ve said, we can’t uproot these problems ourselves, much less in a few paragraphs. Most of what we can do here is define the problem. So as our advice in closing, we’ll highlight the three assumptions common to every person’s naïve realism (where it exists), according to Lee Ross and the experts:

  1. People believe they see the world objectively, i.e. without bias.
  2. People expect that other people will come to the same conclusions if given the same information.
  3. People assume that other people who don’t share their views are mad, bad, blind, or stupid.

* That’s a mouthful, isn’t it? Epistemology is basically the study of where knowledge comes from.


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