The Six Powerful Ilusions Of Life

We all believe that we are capable of seeing what is in front of us, of accurately remembering important events from the past, of understanding the limits of our knowledge, of properly determining cause and effect. But the truth is that these are all illusions.


When we are focused on seeing a particular thing we do not see other unexpected things, even when those unexpected objects are salient, potentially important, and appear right where they are looking. We don’t realize that we experience far less of our visual world than we think we do. Looking at something does not mean we will consciously see it. This does not mean that this is always harmful. Rather, this should help us realize that we may not be seeing everything and a conscious act to consider the important things in a situation may help us see things which are important.


The illusion of memory reflects a basic contrast between what we think we remember and what we actually remember. When we recall a memory, we integrate details we remember with our expectations of what we should remember. Rather than remembering the exact things, we make our own meaning of those things and remember that meaning. This meaning that we give can also change with time and circumstance.


The illusion of confidence has two distinct but related concepts. It causes us to overestimate our own qualities, our abilities relative to other people. It causes us to interpret the confidence – or lack thereof – that other people express as valid signal of their own abilities and knowledge, and of the accuracy of their memories.The confidence that people project in a variety of situations, is all too often an illusion. Worse yet, it is the people in the bottom half of an ability range who are more likely to be over-confident. Since they don’t realize that they are below average, they are unlikely to take steps to improve. The more expertise one has, the more likely they are to say “I don’t know” and mean it. If you offer your opinion to a group early and often, people will take your confidence as an indicator of ability, even if you are actually no better than your peers.


Whenever people think that they know more than they do, they are under the influence of the illusion of knowledge. This is not only for common things but also complex projects.Even scientific experts can dramatically overestimate what they know. Until we are asked to produce what we know, we seem blissfully unaware of the shortcomings of our own knowledge. When approaching a project or challenge, one should spend time escaping the illusion of knowledge by finding out what they don’t know. Positive illusions do, however, allow us to take on challenges that we might shrink from if we knew the truth.


Pattern perception is central to our lives. It allows us to draw conclusions in seconds from our surroundings. Unfortunately, at times we perceive patterns where none exist. We readily infer that causes exist when they do not. We have a bias to perceive meaning out of randomness and coincidence. If two events happen together, we infer that one must have caused the other. The only way to test whether an association is causal is to run and experiment where subjects are randomly selected. Many useful experiments, however, cannot be carried out as it would involve unethical treatment of the subjects. Sometimes laws are given credit for changing things when the changes would have happened anyway. News reports contain all sorts of causal attribution not supported by experiment. So the three ways in which the illusion of cause can affect us are:

  • We perceive patterns in randomness, and we interpret these repeating patterns as predictions of future events.
  • We look at events that happen together as having a casual relationship.
  • We tend to interpret events that happened earlier as the cause of events that happened or appeared to happen later.


The illusion of potential leads us to think that vast reservoirs of untapped mental ability exist in our brains, just waiting to be accessed – if only we knew how. The illusion combines two beliefs: first, that beneath the surface, the human mind and brain harbor the potential to perform at much higher levels, in a wide range of situations and contexts, than they typically do; and second, that this potential can be released with simple techniques that are easily and rapidly implemented. Yes, brain potential can be improved but not be Mozart songs, Baby DVDs, subliminal methods or cognitive training. The brain’s potential is vast, but it takes time and effort to tap it. If you want to get better at something your best bet is to practice that thing. Some metal skills transfer to other highly similar skills, but there doesn’t seem to be any single activity that will make you broadly smarter. There is evidence that aerobic physical exercise can lead to improvement in cognitive tasks. Sitting in a chair and doing cognitive puzzles is far less beneficial than walking for as little as a few hours a week.


What we intuitively accept and believe is derived from what we collectively assume and understand, and intuition influences our decisions automatically and without reflection. Intuition tells us that we pay attention to more than we do, that our memories are more detailed and robust than they are, that confident people are competent people, that we know more than we really do, that coincidences and correlations demonstrate causation, and that our brains have vast reserves of power that are easy to unlock. But in all these cases, our intuitions are wrong, and they can cost us our fortunes, our health, and even our lives if we follow them blindly.

Intuition has its uses but should not be exalted above analysis. The key to good decision making, we believe is knowing when to trust your intuition and when to be wary of it and do the hard work of thinking things through. In some cases, intuition is better, like judging taste, judging appearance, etc.


Three broad approaches might lessen the impact of these illusions in our lives:

1. Learning how these illusions work may help us notice them.
2. Technology innovations may sometime help us get rid of some illusions.( like calculators)
3. Changing environment may help eliminate the deleterious effect of some illusions.( like keeping your phone out of reach in a car)

Be wary of your intuitions. Remember to use rational analysis, especially in important matters. Look around for these illusions: the illusion that you have great attention, the illusion of very good memory, confidence and knowledge, the illusion that you know the cause of why a thing happens, and the illusion that your potential can be untapped very easily.

We often act in ways that are not good for ourselves and others because of these illusions. Think about the world with the awareness of these illusions and you will be able to make better decisions.

Don’t assume you see everything there is to see. You probably think you remember things better than you do. Confident people don’t necessarily have better memories, knowledge, or abilities. Don’t assume you know the cause of something. Be skeptical of claims that simple tricks can improve your thinking. You can develop high levels of expertise if you study and practice the right way. Try to slow down, relax, and examine your assumptions before you jump to conclusions.

– notes from the book, The Invisble Gorilla by Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons


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