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Three thinking errors you can unlearn

Train your brain to avoid these mental mistakes


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Picture this: You're in the car with your friend, and he's frustrated and complaining about the slow driver in front of him. But wait, you say to yourself, didn't this same friend recently complain about how crazy-fast freeway traffic is? How likely is it that your friend is the only one maintaining a reasonable speed? Can we really trust that everybody who drives slower than he does is a dawdler and everybody who drives faster than he does is a maniac? Let's consider that the correct answer is: nope.

Your friend's engaged in a classic thinking error known as the double standard, as in one standard for you, and another for everybody else. Examples? Okay, consider a boss who thinks an assertive female is pushy whereas an assertive male is, well, assertive. Or a person who likes to flirt getting very upset if his or her boyfriend or girlfriend flirts. We've all done some version of this, and the point in recognizing it is that noticing the thinking error might have some curative powers. It's a good habit of mind to examine our automatic reactions to things. In fact, learning critical thinking skills can be one of the most life-improving aspects of your education.

For example, consider confirmation bias. This is our tendency to pay more attention to evidence that confirms our ideas than to evidence that might nudge us to rethink something. If I think Fred is cheap, I might really notice that he didn't tip very well at a restaurant while somehow skating right over the fact that he treated me to lunch!

Another example of a thinking habit you can unlearn is called sampling error. This occurs when you try to generalize from a too-small data set. If I've known two Canadians and they were both really smart, it doesn't mean that Canada is peopled by geniuses! Nothing against the folks to our north, but it's more likely that Canadians exhibit a range of intellectual ability levels, just like every other population of humans. There's so much stuff about which we know so little, that generalizing from narrow experience is not a great idea.

Whether it's your history paper, your oral presentation in English class, or just living your daily life, unlearning these thinking errors is a great way to improve your mental habits. With this kind of exercise, you can strengthen your mental muscles — and that's a workout we all can use.