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Critical Thinking

Cognitive Bias: The Halo/Horns Effect

The halo effect shows how your impression of a person will influence your overall view of a character. This is most obvious when a person is physically attractive. It’s been known for a long time and proven in multiple studies that we rate intelligence and positive qualities of a person who we find attractive as higher than a person whom we are not attracted to.

This is based on the warped assumption that attractive equals good and ugly equal bad. Why do you think you never really see beautiful monsters or demons, but angels always seem to look like models?

The halo effect can be seen regularly with teachers. When their favourite students make a mistake on an exam, they might just assume that the student just had a bad day and not let it affect the rest of the questions as they assume the student knows the answer and just made a small mistake. However if a troublesome student makes the same mistake, they will tend to treat that students paper more harshly when grading. Exam papers and coursework in UK universities are often marked by 2 separate people to protect from this kind of bias.

However, this principle does work both ways and if we don’t see a person as attractive, we’re far more likely to perceive them as having negative qualities, even if their behaviour and actions are identical to those of the attractive person. This is termed the horns effect.

I like to describe the halo/horns effect as a filter. If you attach a blue filter to sunglasses, all objects, no matter what colour, appear blue.

So, if you form the opinion that a person is lazy, then everything they do will be passed through a “lazy” filter and just reinforce your belief.

While under the influence of the halo or horns effect, we are also far more likely to fall into the trap of correspondence bias.

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Critical Thinking

Cognitive Bias: Anchoring

Anchoring: According to the principles of anchoring, our brains tend to latch on the first piece of information we receive and then use this as a benchmark to measure everything else against.

Even when you know about anchoring, it’s still very difficult to avoid its effects. Some studies have shown that even arbitrary numbers and completely unrelated numbers can have a huge effect on our judgements. The prime example being Dan Ariely’s study where has asked his audience to write down the last two digits of their social security number and then separately they were asked to bid on a number of items the value of which was unknown. What the study found was that people with higher digits would submit bids that were 60-120 % higher than those with low numbered digits.

In negotiations, whatever is mentioned as the first figure, is the anchor and the negotiators will unconsciously measure every other number in comparison to this. You’ll often hear people say that in a negotiation whoever speaks first loses, but to take advantage of the anchoring effect make sure YOU set the anchor. If you want to sell a product for £200, don’t mention £300 as your starting price, say £400. If you then bring the price down to £200, while intellectually we probably understand what’s going on, our brains can’t really ignore that first figure and you’ll see the new price as a bargain.

It’s also the reason sales work so well, Was £500, Now £150 – wow. Compared to £500, what is £150? The majority of the time, that £150 is what the retailer was planning on charging anyway and the higher Was price is just there to provide an anchor.

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Critical Thinking

Cognitive Bias: Confirmation Bias

Until your experience develops enough to know when you can trust your instincts and challenge you assumptions, you need to learn how to manage it and reduce how often you jump to conclusions.

Our thoughts are tainted by our experiences and our minds are influenced by a myriad of biases and heuristics. By understanding these biases and through deliberate practice, we’re going to learn how to limit their effects on our judgements.

Confirmation Bias


For aspiring superthinkers, the most damaging fallacy is confirmation bias; when gathering and analysing evidence, it’s important to stay objective. If you’ve got absolutely no idea about the situation, then this can be a little easier, but if you’ve already formed a hypothesis, chances are you’ll fall into the trap.

Confirmation bias is when you ignore evidence that proves your hypothesis wrong and only seek or pay attention to evidence that supports your hypothesis.

University students are particularly susceptible to this when writing essays. They often tend to form an argument and then hunt for theories to back up their claims – I know this because I’ve done it myself.

Being aware of confirmation bias and reminding yourself of its existence can on its own make you take a step back, but in the next section, we’ll explore some tools which help you to avoid a blinkered approach.


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Mind Control and Behaviour Engineering

Books on body language aren’t nothing new and there are some great resources available from experts such as Desmond Morriss, Paul Ekman and Allan Pease. The information in these books is great for learning to read people and gain an understanding of what’s going through someone’s head based on the involuntary visual cues they give.

The Ellipsis Manual: Analysis and Engineering of Human Behaviour, goes so much deeper.

The book is written by Chase Hughes, who is an expert behaviour profiler who works with government agencies teaching behaviour engineering, interrogation techniques and other psychological techniques which would fit into a James Bond film.

It covers body language and behaviour profiling using Hughes’ Behavioural Table of Elements, a wonderful tool for analysing body language, particularly taking into account climate and other situations which could affect certain cues.

The latter half of the book has been refereed to as “Cialdini on steroids” and I’d say this is an accurate evaluation. Practical persuasion and influence techniques are shown, which wouldn’t feel out of place in a James Bond film. Bestselling author David Barron (aka Dantalion Jones) said “It shows how to make a real life Manchurian Candidate.”

The overarching themes are:

  • Behaviour Analysis (Body Language and Verbal Cues)
  • Human Needs and Profiling
  • Building Rapport
  • Asserting Authority
  • Developing Control and Influence
  • CIA Methods
  • Corrugation Programming (inspired by now destroyed MKUltra documents)

I haven’t even made it half-way through the book yet, but it’s already quite difficult to summarise just how much it covers.  I find the techniques covered in it are just as profound and useful as the knowledge gained from the work of Robert Cialdin, Desmond Morris and other behaviour experts. If you have even a passing interest in body language and human behaviour – read this book. The price is a little higher than for most books, but it’s 100% worth it.

Chase’s website is also a great resource on behaviour profiling with loads of useful info.

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The Cognitive Revolution

In Sapiens A Brief History of Humankind, Yuval Noah Harari explores the development of humankind.

Harari starts by outlining that humans first evolved in Africa about 2.5 million years ago and we were completely unremarkable until around 70,000 years ago, when human culture began to form.

Most people are aware than Neanderthals co-existed with Homo Sapiens (meaning “wise man”) for a time, but Homo Sapiens and Homo Neadnerthalensis were just two of multiple “human” species that roamed the earth at the same time. The book explores two opposing theories; Interbreeding and Replacement (ethnic cleansing) which outline how homo sapiens evolved and the other human species died out. Replacement dictates that over time we out-competed our human cousins for food and regularly killed off many members of these species.

The Interbreeding theory suggests that we interbred with the other human species until only modern homo sapiens were left. It’s important to note that the average European shares 1-4% of their DNA with Neanderthals, adding further evidence to the theory of interbreeding.

Harari goes on to say that the reality is likely to have come about from a combination of replacement and interbreeding.

So why did Homo Sapiens survive and prosper, while the other human species died out?

Harari explains that human history has gone through 3 large revolutions that other species didn’t:

  • The Cognitive Revolution
  • The Agricultural Revolution
  • The Scientific Revolution

The Cognitive Revolution occurred 70,000 – 30,000 years ago and was prompted by the discovery of fire.

Fire enabled us to cook food, which reduced the amount of energy our bodies need to digest it. This paved the way for a smaller intestinal tract and also meant we had more energy to spare, leading the development of a larger brain, which used 25% of the body’s energy.

Larger brains led to increased intelligence, which resulted in improved, more complex communication, allowing us to organise, collaborate and form relationships that other human species at the time couldn’t match. We were able to hunt more effectively, quickly (in evolutionary terms) taking us from the middle of the food chain (400,00 years ago) right to the top.

Humans began telling stories and share ideas and myths. As far as we understand, we are the only species that can comprehend ideas and events that we’ve never personally experienced. These stories and myths (religions, ideologies) facilitated cooperation and led to the creation of ideas such as fairness and justice, which were essential for cooperation between larger groups.

Unlike other animals, we didn’t have to didn’t have to wait for another few million years of evolution to take place for our behaviour to change. The way we behaved and cooperated could be changed by adapting the stories and ideas that we shared. Our brains and bodies have remained relatively unchanged since we passed through the cognitive revolution.

So, while we like to think that we are smarter now, than our ancestors, there is no evidence that we’re more intelligent than humans 30,000 years ago. As a collective, we possess more knowledge and understanding of the world, but at the individual level, ancient hunters and foragers were for more skillful and varied in their knowledge of the world than modern humans. As society has developed, we’ve relied less on survival skills and more on economical skills. Due to this, we are actually more likely to pass on undesirable or unremarkable genes nowadays. Undesirable traits have a negative impact on a person’s ability to survive. 30,000 years ago, people possessing these disadvantageous traits often wouldn’t survive long enough to pass them on. Nowadays however, finding food is as easy as walking into a supermarket and modern cities put a huge buffer between us and wild animals; most people never come face to face with an apex predator outside of a zoo.

Once we passed the cognitive revolution, homo sapiens quickly spread throughout the world, travelling across the sea to Australia. 16,000 years ago, humans first made their way across the Siberian peninsular to America and right down to the South America – to our knowledge, the quickest expansion of a species to ever occur.

Even given these remarkable achievements, physically and mentally, we are essentially the same animals that we were 30,0000 years ago. This lack of biological change is partially to blame for many of the stresses we feel in our modern lives. Many of our daily habits and experiences are unnatural to us:

  • Gorging on high calorie foods makes sense in the wild, but not when there is an abundance of food.
  • Humans naturally fall into a bi-phasic sleep cycle where our sleep is broken into 3 parts (2 cycles at night and 1 in the afternoon) not a single 7-8 hour block.
  • A single city contains more people than the average human might meet in 100 lifetimes.
  • The concept of privacy is very new, but so is loneliness; we were always surrounded by a group of trusted friends and family.

The cognitive revolution ended around 10,000 years ago as humans began to built permanent settlements and so began the agricultural revolution. Impressively, this revolution happened independently in many areas of the world. The Agricultural Revolution is responsible for the huge growth of the human population and the creation of towns and cities. I’ll explore the Agricultural Revolution in another post.

If you’re interested in learning more, I’d implore you to pick up Harari’s book Sapiens A Brief History of Humankind – it’s a great read and incredibly informative.

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