Leadership Mind Traps

Your brain is lazy and deceptive. Leaders need to keep an eye on it.

We talked a little in Attention that where we are focusing is our lives, but what’s up with the other stuff? See you’re brain is making all kinds of decisions affecting where your attention is. The problem is these filters are habituated. They are based on generalities, prejudices, and just “the way we’ve always done it.”

Today I’m going to quickly talk about three tricks your mind uses to make your life easier, but that can get you into trouble.

Proximity == Importance.

Your brain assumes that things closer to you are more important than things far away. A bear you are looking at through a pair of binoculars isn’t much of a threat, but one in arms reach is very important and needs 100% of your attention.

Visually proximity equates with size. That bear in the binoculars is pretty small with the naked eye, but fills your field of view at arms reach. This isn’t just about visuals either. Loud noises are more important. Feelings all over your body seem more important that ones in just one part.

Put all these together and they are your attention. Things that fill your attention seem are more important than things that only take up a little mindspace.

This means if you are spending a lot of time thinking about something, good or bad, your mind attaches more and more importance to it. If you interact with something often, it takes on more importance.

The challenge is sometimes, even often, just because something is taking up a lot of your time and thought, that doesn’t mean it is actually that important.

There are a lot of applications for this understanding, but let me give you one example. The other day I was listening to a discussion on the Joe Rogan Podcast about how Twitter has ruined journalism. The point the guest was making was reporters are all on Twitter and following each other. Then when they see a story tweeted, they just report it as true without doing any real investigation.

That main point is a case of this Proximity == Importance mind trap. To these reporters that are on Twitter all day watching a small group of people, what those people say seems really important. Their Twitter feed occupies a lot of their mindspace because they are spending a lot of time watching it.

But that wasn’t what caught my attention.

“Does Twitter even matter?” I thought.

I could go on a rant about Twitter and the sense of importance people give it, but that is for another day.

To Joe’s guest Twitter is important because he spends a lot of time on it. I get that because I used to spend a lot of time on Twitter. I too felt it was important.

Then I got out of the habit of watching it. Now I think the only reason to pay attention to Twitter at all is because the President of the United States uses it as his main means of talking directly to the public. Oh and Elon Musk occasionally says something cool.

After you experience this, you begin to understand that maybe we have a perception problem here. Just like TV News, talk radio, and other media, they have the importance you give them by filling your attention with them.

Now I know to ask, “Is it actually as important as it seems?”

Maybe Joe and his guest are right. Maybe Twitter is important, and my willful ignorance about what is going on is dumb. That’s possible, but it is going to take more than just going with my gut to figure out what is true.

Once we start trying to decide what is true or right we run into our second mind trap.

Cognitive Bias

Cognitive Bias means you are more likely to believe what you already believe. Which seems a little obvious and strange to even say.

Put another way you are more likely to accept ideas that agree with what you already believe to be true.

This spreads into all kinds of things. You see it in political discourse all the time. People on both the right and the left are willing to accept the craziest reports about those on the other side without challenge because it confirms what they already believe.

Let me give you a more personal example. Suppose you have two employees. Jill you consider to be a hardworking, dedicated worker. Jack you think is a slacker, looking to do the least they can do.

One more they are both late to work. Stuck in the same traffic jam.

If someone says “Looks like Jack overslept again. Probably out on a bender last night and hung over.” You are more likely to believe it because it confirms your previous belief about Jack.

If someone told you the same thing about Jill, you be like, “No Jill isn’t that kind of person. She’s probably just stuck in traffic.”

This is a subtle and devious mind trap and we all need to be on the lookout for it in our lives.

But even if we are aware of our biases and try to mitigate them, we still can fall into the last mind trap.

Correlation vs Causality

Did you know that murder rates go up when ice cream sales increase? Places where they sell more ice cream have higher murder rates.

Obviously ice cream causes murder.

Now I love me some rocky road, and eating it can change my mood, but not in a murdery sort of way.

Just because something follows something else, doesn’t mean one caused the other to happen. The following is called Correlation, and it is different from having caused something to happen, called Causality.

This mind trap is fairly well known among the kind of people who are looking for Distinctions For Life. The distinction here is a way to deal with the trap.

Ask “Is there another factor that might be influencing both of these things?” This can give you important insights into things.

For instance, both murder rates and ice cream sales go up when temperatures do. I’ve spent many a summer in hot, humid Houston and believe me it can cause you to feel murdery. And to develop a hankering for mint chocolate chip.

No matter how many ice cream pictures you see, it is not the cause of murder, even though you may want to believe it is.

See what I did there? Brought together all three mind traps Attention Size Equals Importance, Cognitive Bias, and Correlation vs Causality. Now you have these concepts in your brain they can start being part of your filter process, or at least you can use them to examine things you need to seriously think about.

Photo by Francis MacDonald on Unsplash

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