This, Too, Shall Pass: The Improbable Lessons of Our Biases

David Krueger, MD

The King summoned the wisest man of his court and commanded him to present one statement that would apply for everything, for all of mankind, for all of time. And to not come back until he had such a statement.

After a substantial time, the wise man returned with this statement for the King: “This, too, shall pass.”

Yet our brain wiring and mind programs are constructed to not recognize this simple fact. Here are some biases to recognize in order to outsmart our brains and revise our software:

  • Durability Bias: Assuming an intense emotional experience – either really good or really bad – will continue at the same level of intensity for the foreseeable future. The brain is not wired to imagine a gradual dissipation of emotion over time. The fact is that emotions, good or bad, gradually gravitate back toward a pre-set emotional baseline.
  • Extrapolation Bias: Projecting the past, as well as the present, onto the future. We are wired to project the past, the present, and the context of each into the future, and not to project change going forward. This distortion is compounded by the cognitive tendency to view events within their context and to assume the same context in the future.
  • Cause and Effect Bias: Seeing patterns in random data and assigning causality; this brings closure in our minds and ends dissonance in our brains. Harry Houdini, the magician, commented on this phenomenon: Just because something is unexplained does not mean it’s supernatural. We are also more likely to see an outcome that was unpredictable going forward as inevitable once it has occurred (the mortgage crisis of 2008, Japan’s trio of tsunami, earthquake, and nuclear disaster).
  • The Gamblers Fallacy: When there are five outcomes of “red” in roulette, the expectation is that “black” is now due. We expect rapid reversion to the mean. Studies also show that gamblers, given more information on the horses and jockeys they bet on, become biased based on this greater information, and assume they should do better. Those with more information systematically gamble more, with the result that they lose more money.
  • The Hot Hand Fallacy: When observing an unusual streak of events, people continue to predict that the streak will continue.
  • Status Quo Bias: People continue doing the same thing, even when it is compromised or limiting, expecting somehow that the same thing will result in a different outcome. The three areas that people know exactly what they need to do to change, yet don’t: money, weight, and relationships. In each area, people have tried and failed. They repeat patterns that don’t work, become frustrated, and often come to believe the cause is due to issues beyond their control: the economy, genes, and a partner’s stubbornness. They fail to recognize how strong and how unconscious their stories are.
  • My Perpetual, Hopeful Bias: People can change; they can write new stories.

Jung reminds us, “We can not live the afternoon of life according to the program of life’s morning, for what was great in the morning will be little at evening, and what in the morning was true, at evening will have become a lie.”