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How to free your brain

Did our tendency to make common judgments give us an edge of Neanderthals? (Getty)

Prejudice rather than thought-out and researched views may be guiding us

Why is the first paragraph of this column so important? That is easy to answer: if the first paragraph sounds sufficiently interesting you are more likely to read on. And, providing that your interest continues as we get into the thick of it, you will read to the end. But we may not be aware that this could be a simple instance of how evolution frequently leads us into error. You might like to consider the most typical ways, according to psychologists, that we tend to go wrong.

My first example is known as “fight or flight”. For our pre-human ancestors, the safest response to any threat was either to prepare immediate defence or to escape from the situation. So our brains learnt to respond instantly, and, even before our conscious thinking, our bodies reacted. A possible danger would trigger the adrenalin needed for swift action.

Fortunately we don’t meet such threats too often, but an ability to digest our first reactions, and our tendency to maintain them, is still with us. For example, the initial impression of a candidate applying for a position can influence the final decision, even in the light of contradictory evidence. Physical appearance can alter the verdict of a jury or the size of damages. The friendships and the relationships we develop can be affected for better or worse.

Another common source of potential error is confirmation bias. When we have taken a definite view on some issue or another we are liable to maximise the evidence which supports our belief and to minimise the evidence against it. A classic example is climate change. That there were opposing sides to the debate was easy to understand initially but, given the mounting evidence, it is no longer so. Yet there are still those who believe that the claim of likely climate change is some sort of international conspiracy. Their patron saint appears to be President Trump. We may often meet confirmation bias in religious discussions, and we are more likely to be aware of the evidence that supports our beliefs than the evidence that opposes them.

I have personal experience of what are called fixation errors. I may well get stuck when I am drafting a column: what should the next paragraph be? How is the whole thing going to end? Why did I ever start it? When this occurs I take the advice of the clinical psychologist Linda Blair. She demonstrated, in a Telegraph article, the value of deliberately switching from one task to another on a regular basis. Studies showed that this regime produced better results than sticking to the first task until completion. It has often saved my life. Since then I have reinforced this through deliberate methods of freeing my brain, allowing it to present me with a range of entirely new ideas.

In theory the broader and wider our experience the better our decisions should be. But there is a danger that our memories become selective. For instance, following a disappointing holiday in a foreign country, we might carry a general idea about that country for ever afterwards. We may do the same with staff. Men versus women? Graduates versus non-graduates? A single instance in our experience may have given us long-term firm opinions. Prejudice rather than thought-out and researched views may well be guiding us.

Which? magazine recently published some excellent material about our purchasing habits, online and in store. The vendors make good use of comparisons – a common source of buyer error. For example, an expensive television might be deliberately placed next to a cheaper one – and by comparison the cheaper one seems a bargain. This is reinforced by suggesting that a quick purchase is essential. Our fear of loss (twice as powerful in its influence as the attraction of gain) may rush us into error. It seems odd that respectable businesses should use such ingenious traps to deceive us.

Married or female priests, adultery in second marriages, contraception, homosexuality and clericalism are all topical issues. Have your views on any of these been modified in the past 20 years? If so, what has altered your mind? It may be rigorous logic or further information. But it is also likely to have been influenced by the views of others. It is hard to be an outlier; it’s more comfortable, and consistent with evolution, to be in line with “people like us”.

It has been suggested that our tendency to make common judgments is unique to us as a race and is a reason for our success, compared, for instance, with the Neanderthals. But if your views have not changed over 20 years you will then have to consider whether your brain has been active at all.

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