Keto or vegan? HIIT or body building? Study now or study later? Despite how logical and rational we think we are, humans tend to be impressively irrational and prone to making mental errors. The first step is acceptance – you, yes you, make mental errors and poor decisions on the regular. We all do, myself included. The good news is that once we educate ourselves and become aware of these biases, they are much easier to control for. Here’s how to get past the mental errors that are holding you back as a student.
1 | Confirmation Bias
We’re going to start off with the big one. The bias that wreaks havoc on all aspects of our lives – the confirmation bias.
Our tendency is to first take a stance or have a position on an issue. Then, we seek information that further confirms our beliefs, and we deprioritize or ignore information that contradicts our beliefs. And the stronger you believe that you know something, the more you will filter and ignore information that contradicts your firmly held belief.
You may be thinking, “That’s dumb, why would people do that?” The truth is, new information that contradicts our current beliefs is energy intensive. It’s not easy to reassess beliefs, correct misunderstandings, and reformulate a new mental framework. Human thinking doesn’t follow the scientific method – we don’t naturally formulate a falsifiable hypothesis and put it to the test. Instead, we first form a hypothesis, and then unscientifically seek out validating information without truly testing it.
As a student, chances are that you experience this in multiple aspects of your life – from gym routines, to what it means to eat healthy, to even your study strategies. You may believe a certain way of studying is working for you, even if it lacks scientific evidence. You may even cite a couple blog articles, or point to some classmates who do the same thing with good results. The truth is, we are terribly ineffective at actually being objective with our own self-assessments. And no, whether you think you’re a visual or kinesthetic or auditory learner doesn’t actually change the way you should study, as demonstrated by the scientific literature. Follow the evidence-based study principles that I push on this blog, and you too will find yourself excelling not only in your classes, but also on the MCAT and USMLE Step 1 and Step 2. If you have found any of the information on this blog useful, smash that like button.
2 | Loss Aversion
If you were to win $50 today, you’d experience a boost in satisfaction. But if you were to lose the same $50 amount, you’d experience a dramatically greater decrease in satisfaction. This is loss aversion – our tendency to strongly prefer avoiding losses over acquiring gains.
You can use this to your advantage. In two simple and similar studies, McEvoy and Smith and colleagues demonstrated that changing the framing of class grades, by utilizing loss aversion, could motivate students to perform better. If points were earned and added to one’s total, they were less motivating than students starting out with points that were deducted for errors and incorrect answers. The fear of losing points was more motivating than gaining them.
Loss aversion can be exploited to increase the effectiveness of behavior change, like with Stickk, the website that has you put money on the line. If you don’t follow through with your goal, you lose the money. As a student, you could experiment with this yourself, using loss aversion to motivate you in sticking to exercise habits, or sleeping by a certain time, or even doing better in class. I’m not recommending you necessarily make a betting pool with your friends to see who gets the highest grade, but experiment with the powers of loss aversion in motivating you to adopt those hard-to-stick habits.
In a broader sense, loss aversion can prevent us from taking risks. And if you’re a pre-med student, you’re more likely than the average person to be risk-averse. After all, the field of medicine tends to attract those who like to play it safe. More often than not, the big scary decisions seem far more daunting in our minds than in reality. If you’re facing a difficult decision, like I did when deciding between plastic surgery versus medical entrepreneurship, I recommend you try the Fear Setting exercise. It’s a structured approach to assessing, weighing, and preventing fears while analyzing the opportunity cost and potential upside of difficult decisions. I walk you through how I used it in a video on my YouTube channel titled “Why I Quit Plastic Surgery“.
3 | Survivorship Bias
Lastly, one of our favorites – the survivorship bias, referring to our tendency to focus on the few winners in a selection process and overlooking those who didn’t make it.
We often hear survivorship bias as it applies to college drop outs. Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, and Mark Zuckerberg all dropped out of college to follow their entrepreneurial dreams, and each became wildly successful in their respective arenas. Does that mean dropping out of college is a good idea and is more likely to result in massive success? Absolutely not. When you crunch the numbers looking at all of the people who dropped out of college, you’ll find that the overwhelming majority were not better off than those who finished and earned their degree. It’s just that the winners are remembered and the losers are forgotten, which makes it more difficult to asses whether a particular strategy leads to success.
Students often ask me about the specifics of my path, because they believe that by replicating the details, like which major I chose, or which schools I went to, that they could emulate similar results. I’d argue that those specifics are far less relevant than cultivating the right mindset, study strategies, and resilience to overcome the inevitable obstacles. I had familial and health challenges in college – does that mean that you should seek out similar challenges for yourself? Obviously not. Then why replicate the other details of my life? There are multiple facets to anyone’s story, and it’s silly to think we can cherry pick just the details that count, while omitting the ones that we don’t want to replicate. The truth is, both the good and bad are part of a person’s story, and they work together in unison in that individual’s ultimate path.
Focus on principles that you can learn and adapt to your own specific life, not obsess over the minor nuances and specifics of someone else’s. The best thing you can do is do is to be the best version of you.
How to Overcome These Biases
Understanding and being aware of these fallacies is the first step in overcoming them. But our job isn’t done yet. So where should you go from here? First of all, let me start by saying that I’m far from perfect, and I’m still subject to these fallacies, but here are a few things that worked for me:
Let Go of the Ego
It’s not uncommon for much conflict and resistance to arise from the protection of one’s ego. If you feel yourself, or see someone else, reflexively getting defensive and closing off another way of thinking, the odds are reasonably high that their ego is getting involved.
Getting someone else to let go of their ego is a challenging ordeal, so focus on your own. You don’t always have to be right, and you don’t always have to make sure you look good to others or make sure you don’t look bad. I’m no buddhist monk, but I have found mindfulness meditation and journaling daily to help me be more aware of my own thought processes. Certain books have been helpful too, including the Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck by Mark Manson and How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie.
Seek Value, Don’t Add Value
Have you ever been in a situation where two people keep trying to one up the other? I know, it’s cringeworthy, and it’s because both people are too focused on trying to add value and seem important in the situation, rather than sitting back and letting the other person shine.
As they say, if you want to be interesting, be interested. A curious and open mindset will take you much farther than running around beating your chest saying how awesome you are. I like to look at each situation and ask myself a simple question – “What can I learn here?” When someone is highly intolerant of a certain political stance or way of thinking, doesn’t follow evidence based medicine and believes in naturopathy, or does something else that may initially be off-putting, I always seek to extract value. There’s always something I can learn from them or from the situation.
Constantly Question Your Assumptions
The sneaky things about these fallacies is that they apply to the supposed “facts” that we believe. While they’re easy to spot when we get into a disagreement with another person, they’re harder to see in our day to day lives. For that reason, structuring some self-reflection into your daily, weekly, or monthly schedule will serve you well.
Tim Ferriss, for example, does the Fear Setting exercise at least once per quarter, if not more often, as it’s remarkably effective at identifying and moving past self-limiting beliefs and fears. I have also found a daily journaling habit beneficial in training me to be more aware of my emotional states and thoughts, rather than being a passenger to them. I personally use the Day One journal app on my iPhone, which syncs to my iPad and computer. Every morning, it reminds me to journal at 7AM and automatically populates a custom template to reduce friction and make me more likely to follow through on this habit.
The point isn’t to eliminate all biases from your way of thinking – that’s an unattainable goal. We want to simply want to minimize their influence so we can think more clearly. What are some other common biases or fallacies that you see students making? Let me know with a comment below!