The Easiest Trick to Breaking Out of Wrong Ideas

Written by Max Harms
Image credits: Randall Munroe

Right now you have something within your reach with an almost magical ability to break out of wrong ideas. You can use it to process data and identify patterns and trends. What do you think it is? Take a guess before reading onward.

Did you guess your computer or your phone? Then you’re wrong! What I'm talking about is much, much more powerful than that. It's more powerful than the fastest supercomputer on the planet.

I'm talking about your brain.

Humans didn't spread out to rule the entire planet because of bigger muscles or sharper claws. Intelligence, the kind of intelligence that all humans have, is our superpower. It's what separates us from other animals, and it is your greatest resource.

But most people don't really use their brain to its full potential. Do you?

You certainly weren’t taught to use its real potential in school. Children are taught facts that will pass tests, but the skills that are most important in life usually don’t involve stuff that’s on an exam. How do I make plans? How should I decide between places to live? What’s the best way to negotiate for higher pay? All of these questions involve thinking about and modeling the future. Imagine how many fewer poor decisions you will make and how much better off your life will be if you learn how to unlock your brain’s true potential and gain agency over your life!

Want to know a secret? It's actually pretty easy to make big improvements to how you think. A few quick tricks can make a world of difference and boost your future-predicting power. I'll share one of them right now.

Have you ever heard of Confirmation Bias? It's one of the known problems that scientists have discovered about how we naturally think. Imagine a friend suggests that people who drive red cars are bad drivers. At first you don't think that's true, but after hearing a few stories of bad drivers in red cars from your friend, you think he might be onto something. The next time you're on the road you notice a red car swerving around like a maniac... proof! You're a believer now. You start seeing reckless drivers in red cars all the time.

If you don’t believe me, I challenge you to try it out. Drive for a month looking for reckless drivers in red cars. You'll see them everywhere. Or you can save yourself the time and trouble. This perception would only be in your head!

If you actually use science you'll find this is false. What happens is that if you look for something you'll find it, but you'll also end up ignoring things that don't fit the pattern. If a blue car does something dangerous you won't think about it. If a red car drives safely then maybe it's just a fluke or maybe you'll interpret it as reckless anyway.

Confirmation Bias affects all sorts of things, from racial prejudices to conspiracy theories to personal relationships. If you expect someone you know to act sad, you'll notice their sadness and ignore their happiness. And importantly, it can hurt your ability to predict the future.

Imagine a gambler who loses five games of poker in a row. She thinks “I’ve been getting bad luck for a long time… surely my next hand will have to be good to balance it out!” Have you ever thought something like that? I have. After two more bad hands she finally gets a good hand and thinks to herself “I knew it!” But she was wrong twice before being right! With that sort of sloppy thinking it would’ve been smarter just to walk away.

There are several tricks to avoiding this bias and being a better thinker. The one I'm going to share today is to visualize alternate universes regularly. An alternate universe is just a world exactly like this one but where one or two things are different.

Let's use the example of drivers of red cars being reckless. There are two alternate universes here. One alternate universe is where drivers of red cars are *safer* than normal. The other is where red car-drivers are just as good at driving as anyone else. Take a moment to visualize these alternatives and imagine what they look like. Can you see how that would help? Just like focusing on red cars being dangerous causes you notice examples that fit the story, focusing on the opposite lets you catch examples you might otherwise miss. It’s all about controlling where you put your attention.

Let me give an example from my personal life. I once met someone who I had heard was “obnoxious.” Indeed, when I first met him I could immediately see why: the man had almost no social skills. With the seed of “obnoxious” sown in my mind I began to get annoyed when around him. I noticed every time he said the wrong thing or didn’t seem to understand what the topic of conversation was. But then I remembered what I had learned from my research into psychology and I flipped my thinking: I imagined the alternate universe where this guy was cool and easy to be around.

Did my visualization of the alternate universe mean my friend suddenly became suave and charming? Not at all. But it did make him not obnoxious! Specifically, I realized that having weak social skills did not mean I had to find spending time with him unpleasant, and I began to enjoy my time with him much more. I also noticed that his social skills weren’t as bad as I had initially thought. There were a few times when, not trapped by “small talk” or the pressure of meeting someone new, I noticed him acting much more like his alternate-universe counterpart than I would have otherwise expected.

I don’t invite this friend to parties very often (I doubt he’d even enjoy the experience), but we still talk fairly regularly and he’s someone I know that I can turn to if I have a difficult problem in his field. Without the technique of visualizing alternate universes I would have worse social interactions, fewer friends, and be generally less wise. This simple trick has brought many, many people success in their relationships, their work, and elsewhere!

This is just one step on the path to being a better thinker about the future, and as we move forward I think you'll see how the technique of visualizing alternate universes can be used for becoming more intelligent, effective, and happy!

What do you think?

  • Have you had success in improving your life through visualizations before?
  • Do you know anyone in your personal life that seems just convinced about something that isn't true?
  • Can you think of any areas of your life where you might have an incorrect perception of the world?
  • What are specific steps you can take to apply the techniques in this article to improve your perception of the world?


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