You learn from your mistakes. At least, most of us have been told so. But science shows that we often fail to learn from past errors. Instead, we are likely to keep repeating the same mistakes.
What do I mean by mistakes here? I think we would all agree that we quickly learn that if we put our hand on a hot stove, for instance, we get burned, and so are unlikely to repeat this mistake again. That’s because our brains create a threat-response to the physically painful stimuli based on past experiences. But when it comes to thinking, behavioural patterns and decision making, we often repeat mistakes – such as being late for appointments, leaving tasks until the last moment or judging people based on first impressions.
The reason can be found in the way our brain processes information and creates templates that we refer to again and again. These templates are essentially shortcuts, which help us make decisions in the real world. But these shortcuts, known as heuristics, can also make us repeat our errors.
As I discuss in my book Sway: Unravelling Unconscious Bias, humans are not naturally rational, even though we would like to believe that we are. Information overload is exhausting and confusing, so we filter out the noise.
We only see parts of the world. We tend to notice things that are repeating, whether there are any patterns or not, and we tend to preserve memory by generalising and resorting to type. We also draw conclusions from sparse data and use cognitive shortcuts to create a version of reality that we implicitly want to believe in. This creates a reduced stream of incoming information, which helps us connect dots and fill in gaps with stuff we already know.
Ultimately, our brains are lazy and it takes a lot of cognitive effort to change the script and these shortcuts that we have already built up. And so we are more likely to fall back on the same patterns of behaviours and actions, even when we are conscious of repeating our mistakes. This is called confirmation bias – our tendency to confirm what we already believe in, rather than shift our mindset to incorporate new information and ideas.
We also often deploy “gut instinct” - an automatic, subconscious type of thinking that draws on our accumulation of past experiences while making judgements and decisions in new situations.
Sometimes we stick with certain behaviour patterns, and repeat our mistakes because of an “ego effect” that compels us to stick with our existing beliefs. We are likely to selectively choose the information structures and feedback that help us protect our egos.
For the full article by Professor Pragya Agarwal visit the Conversation.