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Slicing through our Distorted Cognition

Updated: Aug 19, 2021

You Don’t Know What You Know

Truth is relational, relative. Truth is where all reality meets- fixed and consistent. Truth loves contradicting itself. It’s necessarily coherent yet definitively incoherent. Truth is absolute; can only exist in degrees. It doesn’t exist. Logic is often structured on truth for the purpose of attaining truth. Truth is factual. Facts are rarely true. Truth is objective. Truth is simply semantics.

Alright, so the problems of truth are quite abstract and best left to the philosophers. We, at least, know where our lines are drawn in a more tangible sense. Besides, the word ‘truth’ incorporates a fairly wide range of concepts and definitions so those opening statements aren’t really playing fair.

Reality is similar. Scientific findings reliably contradict our most fundamental intuitions about the nature of it. Understandably, your mind filters everything in a myriad of ways. It has created an organised system of mental models and interfaces for you to work with, within itself, distorting your experiences of reality.

Psychosis disorders expose this human vulnerability with ‘truth’ and reality in an interesting way. They are partly characterised by exaggerated black-and-white thinking. Functionality and accuracy often compromise each other when we think about things. Binaries, like good and evil, are just abstract ideas. If you use concepts like this in an absolute or mutually exclusive way, you retreat from your messy, dynamic reality; but you create a simpler, cleaner template for your line of thought. On the other end, if you try to factor in every shade-of-grey facet of what you can identify and understand, you won’t be able to think past the immense details. Simplified unreality is unavoidable and very useful but taking this method too far is a cognitive bias closely linked with psychosis. Even comprehension and memory trip and trick into wildly inaccurate line, to fit in with the black-and-white narrative. However, outside of the dramatics of psychosis, our reasoning is none-the-less wrought with fallacies from our pretty limited capacity.

To top that, we hold the most confidence in our thinking when we’ve taken a limited, simplified approach. That sure conviction you sometimes have in a memory or fact that you “just know” performs as the best cognitive indicator that you actually don’t know or remember what you think you do. Quick conviction is usually the result of a mental shortcut. Consider that memories are just recreated representations at the best of times. Sometimes your brain throws something out that has been made up on the spot to help you think quickly and broadly. Often it’s the convenience of a bias or emotion that directs the shortcut. Daniel Kahneman, 2002 Nobel Prize winner in economics, explains it quite well if you don’t want to take my word for it.

The Hardest Thing for a Fish to see is Water

Consider the corrupting effects of cultural narratives? -The beliefs and stereotypes that are created to maintain various systems in society. They’re not true. They’re not even designed for your benefit. And yet, our cultural narratives are so ingrained in us that most of us aren’t even aware of them. Similarly, we like to hold to our innate beliefs. We carry so much of what we pick up in childhood with us, throughout our lives, without ever thinking to question most of it. Our innate beliefs are woven into our very identities; part of and beyond cultural narratives. They are in the seeds and the details of all those many, many myths and mental constructions you function on. Factors like cultural narratives and innate beliefs corrupt our perceptions, assessments and decisions tremendously. They are the slippery, insubstantial wisps of ideology that infect almost everything that goes into and comes out of our minds.

“It is only by breaking the chains — that is, our own prejudices, preconceptions, baseless ideas — that we can turn around and see what's really real.” –Plato

Our intellectual trickery doesn’t even stop there! Conditioning typically trumps reason –to state the obvious. Further, we do not easily pick this up. Throw in our easy comfort with logical fallacies, organised narrative, a penchant for bias’, defence mechanisms, the way our reasoning is usually reverse engineered from our impulsive emotional reactions or the overwhelming, overriding influence our emotions have over our rational abilities in general; and all you’re really clinging to at this point is that nifty Dunning-Kruger effect which also has everyone else convinced that they’re especially smart, right when they think they’re right and uniquely special in whatever ways they’ve written themselves as uniquely special.

Quick Indicators to look out for:

  • Rigidity- inflexible thinking is a sign that you’re not in touch with reality. What is being pandered or conformed to, to require the rigidity?

  • Ego gains- Is it possible that your thinking is building, confirming or protecting your ego?

  • Emotional impulses and/or motivations-What are you feeling? What kind of reactions are you displaying? Can you identify any fears that you’re running from, or desires that you’re running to, with your line of reasoning?

  • Coherence & Narrative- If it fits too well together or makes a little story, what are you ignoring or emphasizing to achieve this?

  • Abstractions & Reductions- You may be omitting pertinent or influential factors; creating unrealistic prototypes or losing the scope/ meaning of the whole. Remember that models enrich conceptual understanding. They don’t reliably replace whole concepts.

Is it reasonable to even trust your thoughts then?

Well, first of all, as you scroll through this you are revising nasty revelations that are well known. That is hopeful. You also have some knowledge and awareness to work with now. As your understanding and experience of consciously engaging and monitoring your cognition deepens, so will your skill. The tricks and illusions that your mind plays with you tend to be quite advantageous. Balancing the purpose behind them and maintaining some integrity of reason is really about being conscious. A lot of theory and methodology aimed at countering our faulty thought processes has been developed as well. You’ll find some of these further down.

"I think one of the things we can do is construct a good epistemic character." "It's like a good moral character. What does a good person do? They're kind; they're good to other people… A truth-seeker, too, has a particular set of traits. "Open-mindedness is a good epistemic virtue," ... "Thoroughness. The willingness to look at the facts. A willingness to entertain multiple points of view. The opposite of that is someone who is dogmatic. Careless in their search for information. Someone who is gullible."

Tips from what we’ve covered:

  • Question anything you ‘just know’

  • Observe your mind’s reasoning processes

  • Pick out and interrogate assumptions

  • Bonus Tip: Mutual exclusivity, along with “black-and-white” thinking, is often a sign of laziness. Consider the phrases: “If he cheated on her then he doesn’t love her” or “You don’t like coffee because you like tea”. Mutual exclusivity is often the result of a convenient assumption your brain slipped in to avoid labour (or satisfy a prejudice, or justify an emotional response). Your brain doesn’t like slowing down for labour

Some leading theories around handling these distortions

First Principles:

The idea is to break down complicated problems into basic elements and then reassemble them from the ground up. Keeping to the stringent accuracies as closely as possible, questioning and exposing every other premise or assumption mixed in. You have to learn to think for yourself, get creative, and move from linear to non-linear results.

Meta cognition:

Directs three activities that are critical to the execution of critical thinking: Monitoring, Controlling, and Knowing. Consider your thoughts, triggers and motivations. Meta cognition is known to improve skills in problem solving, pattern breaking and idea generation

The findings on experts’ predictions are that they are no more accurate than random guesses. To illustrate this, a U.S. General found that the “common wisdom” about the future at the beginning of every decade for the past century was absolutely wrong. To those who understand nonlinear systems the reason is obvious, the interaction of so many variables causes countless unexpected and surprising events.”

Integrative Complexity:

This is a psychometric measure of how broad and multi faceted a person’s thought processes are. High Integrative Complexity directly relates to reduced bias and correlates with better judgement, reasoning and decision outcomes. It also correlates with improved interpretation and prediction of events and other people. It has proven a useful measurement of the Quality of Deliberate Thinking. And it is a very accurate prediction tool (made famous by its use, and eerie accuracy, in politics). Further, there are successful methods that aid in increasing integrative complexity. Meta cognition and first principles are both strongly associated with this measure and are typically taught in the intervention methods.

“IC assesses the constitution of individuals’ thought processes and belief systems, especially when dealing with information containing inconsistent, competing views. The IC measure is used to reflect two major components of cognition: differentiation and integration. These dimensions are building blocks, which means that differentiation must be in place before integration can emerge. Differentiation denotes the ability to recognise more than one legitimate point of view and/or relevant dimension of the topic of debate. Integration refers to the ability to identify and make sense of conceptual links, trade‐offs and similarities among perspectives, and the ability to reconcile or incorporate the information within a higher‐level system.”


This acronym, from military strategy, was quite popular during the initial covid unrest of 2020. It is a practical framework for orientation which describes an environment of volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity. VUCA deals with learning models for preparedness, anticipation, evolution and intervention. It can be a helpful tool for moving toward better assessment and reasoning because it demands a broader paradigm, greater critical thinking and quicker innovation.

Typically, the same assumptions that created the problem continue to frame any potential approaches to solving it. As assumptions are the personal or organizational perceptual bedrock used to develop and sustain views of reality, the strategic thinking competency, creative thinking, is needed to overcome this flawed perception. Creative thinking forces joint strategic leaders to challenge underlying assumptions, look for system patterns, view relationships and actors in new ways, take more risks, and leverage opportunities. Creative thinking uses the critical thinking tools of systems thinking and visual thinking to expose pre existing paradigms and develop new paradigms for developing and integrating new perspectives.”

Cognitive Behavioural Advice:

  • Acceptance- Accept the idea that there are bugs in your brain’s engineering. Maintain your flexibility and be weary of being too confident, so that you can gracefully accept your faults when they surface. Because they will

  • Reflect and Learn- Meditate on the experiences, shifts and novelties you experience, honestly. This will improve your cognitive skill and enrich you with greater choice and depth in future. Live consciously

  • Be Open- To all the nuance in your environment, unpredictable changes and multiple outcomes. It keeps your critical thinking in shape

  • Think Slow- Put in the labour. Consider each principle and assumption when you’re dealing with a concept that’s worthy of it. Weigh all the variables

  • Framing- Find different dimensions to work with, and from. Try detaching yourself if possible. Remove emotions, preconceived notions or anchors if you are able. Pivot your perspective to alternative motivations and varied expectations

Try Farnam Street for further reading on these kinds of methodologies

Who are we to decide what is real or rational or preferable anyway?

Perhaps it’s brazen human arrogance to argue with millennia of complex, trial and error development. Our brains have been intricately fashioned this way by the numinous hands of nature. There is no singular, fully embraced model of logic or rationality out there. We all hold a similar sense of these things while the academics debate the details. Our mind’s faulty shortcuts and simple recreations optimise our ability to function in the world. It’s possible that living in bias and binary is an infinitely better, more ethical option but we haven’t yet gotten our framing or ‘reasoning’ to face this direction. I don’t have enough integrative complexity to give that possibility much weight but the ‘truth’ is that we don’t know what we don’t know and we don’t know what we think we know, a good deal of the time, either.

Williamson Murray, a historian reporting on advances in science wrote:

“…the world as a whole does not work in a mechanistic, deterministic fashion…complex social interactions… do not reduce to simple, linear processes and…the study of human affairs, the interplay of literally hundreds, if not thousands of independent variables, is more of an art than a science.”

It is probably unwise to approach the integrity of your thinking too prescriptively. Work on what you can and do your best to keep it clean. Be kind to those around you. Let a deeper understanding guide your intellectual character with the humility and compassion deserving of it.Strengthening your awareness and your skills with handling these cognitive processes provides a useful toolkit for when you don’t want to be compromised. It deepens the choice and control you can exercise over your mind.

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