Four Fallacies or Biases to Beware of

NOTE: Because of the length of this article, you may want to read and think about just one fallacy (bias) per day for the next four days.

1. The Clustering Illusion

How much of what is going on around us do we understand? Surprisingly little. If not completely blind, our vision is obscured by the cobwebs of our mind, which include false assumptions, beliefs, and expectations. How can we think straight and make intelligent decisions if our mind can easily lead us astray? The answer is awareness. We must be conscious of the problem and alert to the conclusions we make. We need to question them. Are they based on facts or our imagination? Often, rather than seeing what is there, we see what we hope to see, want to see, and expect to see.

Just because we have children it doesn’t necessarily follow that we know how to raise them. So, intelligent parents study parenting, and their new skills bring many rewards. Similarly, just because we can think, it doesn’t mean we know how to think properly. You wouldn’t drive a car without first learning how to drive, would you? So, why are we so comfortable thinking without first studying how to draw proper conclusions and avoid faulty thinking?

Awareness of some of the thinking pitfalls will help us make better decisions and gain a greater understanding of reality. There are many fallacies and “mind traps” to beware of, but here I will focus on one called, The Clustering Illusion. For example, let’s say you and a bunch of friends are flipping coins to see how many heads you can get in a row. A few friends tried with unimpressive results. Now it’s Tom’s turn. He flips and gets four heads in a row. What would you think? Would you be impressed? Surprised? Many people would conclude Tom is ‘lucky’.

In this example we had a group or cluster of four coin tosses that led to an unexpected result. The ‘surprising’ result is called The Clustering Illusion. Tom’s ability to get four heads in a row led some to suspect he was lucky, has eerie occult or magical powers, or that he cheated. After all, when we flip coins, we should get random results, some heads, some tails, but not a streak of heads or tails. Isn’t that correct? Yes, it’s true over the long term. For instance, if we flip the coins 10,000 times, we should come up with an average of heads and tails 50% of the time. But that average also includes streaks or runs of heads and tails. In fact, even in a series of 20 flips, there is a 50% chance of getting four heads in a row!

So, Tom’s friends were surprised because they did not have the facts. Without them, the illusion was created that Tom was lucky or had a special gift. His friends mistakenly believed four heads in a row was against the laws of probability. But it wasn’t. Now, let’s take another look at an example of The Clustering Illusion that you may have heard about.

The death of Amy Winehouse on July 23, 2011 came as a double shock for the singer-songwriter’s fans. First, this promising talent died so young. Second, she died at age 27, the same age that six other famous musicians died. Here is the group or cluster of rock stars who died at the same age:

Amy Winehouse has been added to the list of what some music aficionados call The 27 Club, The Forever 27 Club, Club 27 or The Curse of 27. Fans find it spooky that seven of the biggest names in rock music have all died at age 27. And if we expand the list to include lesser known musical artists who died at the same age, we can add 41 more names!

Doesn’t it seem mystical that ‘so many’ of the top musicians have died at the same age? But that’s why it’s called The Clustering Illusion. What are the facts? Simply this: if you get a large enough sample you will find examples of any combination you are looking for. It’s just coincidence, nothing mystical. At first glance, the deaths of 48 musicians at age 27 may seem like a large number, but remember, the first member of “The 27 Club”, Robert Johnson, died 79 years ago. When compared to the number of musicians who have died since then, 48 is a small number.

To get a better sense of what is likely or unlikely, let’s look at three more examples. First, imagine walking into a room full of people; what are the chances that at least two people in the room share the same birthday? Of course it depends on how many are in the room, but does it surprise you to learn that all it takes is a group of 23 people to have a better than 50% chance that two members of the group will have the same birthday?

Second, suppose you dream of a friend’s death and later learn that he died on the same day of your dream. How likely is that to happen? If it does happen, is it evidence of ESP, precognition, or some other paranormal ability? Well, British statistician Christopher Scott who considered the population of his country, the death rate, and other factors concluded there would be about one accurate death dream in England every two weeks. From the point of view of an expert on probability, such dreams are insignificant and prove nothing. However, can you see how those who have such dreams would feel otherwise?

Third, a highly unlikely golf story made the British press… Richard and Mark Evans (unrelated) both got a hole in one in successive shots. The likelihood of this occurring? According to William Hartston, International Chess Master and expert on odds, the odds are 1.85 billion to one. Doesn’t that make this feat impossible? Surely synchronicity or some unearthly force must be at work here, right?

Wrong says Hartston, “There are about two million golfers in the country (England) who play an average of two rounds of golf a week each. That’s more than 200 million rounds of golf a year, amounting to a total of 3.6 billion holes. That 1.85 billion to one shot doesn’t look so unlikely any more, does it?”

As a senior citizen, I have many elderly friends. One of the worries I often hear is that they may be getting Alzheimer’s disease. “I often forget things. I’m afraid I may be getting Alzheimer’s.” they say. “You often forgot things when you were young,” I explain, “and if forgetting things while you are young is not a sign of Alzheimer’s, why do you think it is a sign now?”

This, too, is an example of The Clustering Illusion. You see, our brain does not like randomness. It always tries to connect, link, and relate random data in order to find meaning. But like it or not, the world is filled with randomness or chaos, and the sooner we come to terms with it, the better. My elderly friends were connecting isolated, random moments of forgetfulness and imagining that they may be on the verge of getting Alzheimer’s disease. The result? Unnecessary anxiety and fear.

The consequences of not considering The Clustering Illusion can have much more dire results. It can, for example, lead to innocent people going to prison, or worse. Take the case of Sally Clark, for instance. In 1999 this British woman was sentenced to life imprisonment for the ‘murder’ of her two baby sons. At first, the death of her first son was considered to be a crib (cot) death or sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). Fortunately, SIDS is a fairly rare occurrence, and two incidents of SIDS in the same family are even rarer. The prosecution’s expert witness, who was a pediatrician and not a statistician, was swayed by The Clustering Illusion (“If there’s one crib death in a family, it’s suspicious; if there are two, it must be murder.”) The ‘expert’ witness incorrectly calculated the odds of two consecutive crib deaths occurring in the same family as 73 million to one. This ‘evidence’, which was wildly off the mark, was enough to convince the jury of Sally’s guilt. Happily, Sally was freed and exonerated after serving three years in prison. However, her suffering took its toll and she died during her sleep at age 42. You can read her heart-breaking story here.

Today, we are subject to The Clustering Illusion more than ever before. Because of the Internet, Facebook, and Twitter, for example, we are exposed to such a large volume of information that we can easily find coincidences to support our favorite theories. The vast amount of web sites devoted to conspiracy theories, UFOs, psychics, synchronicity, and other paranormal phenomena attest to the widespread influence of The Clustering Illusion. By the way, finding meaningful patterns or connections in random or meaningless data is called apophenia.

2. The Actor-Observer Bias

We often wonder why people do the things they do. In our attempt to understand, we frequently arrive at false conclusions. Our failures to understand others can lead to lost opportunities or needless trouble. Some of our misunderstandings become habitual, forming a part of the way we view life. Although we don’t like to admit it, we all have biases. You see, our brain loves biases because it likes to arrive at conclusions as quickly as possible. Figuring out why people act as they do can be tedious. After all, there can be countless explanations. So, it’s far easier, and quicker, to stereotype people.

When driving, were you ever cut off by a jerk? When shopping, did you ever have to deal with a rude sales person? At work, were you ever told what to do by an incompetent supervisor? If so, chances are you are suffering from a bias! Words like jerk, rude, and incompetent are labels or shortcuts that allow us to ‘understand’ others without taking the time to investigate the cause of their actions. Did you ever stop to think how strange it is that when you cut off someone on the highway, you always have a good reason for doing so, but when someone cuts you off, he or she is a jerk! This is an example of the Actor-Observer Bias.

In a word, when we do something undesirable, we blame our environment for causing us to act that way, but when someone else does something we don’t approve of, we blame them, their character, their personality, or their nature. For example, Tom angrily snaps at Larry in the office. And when confronted by Larry and asked to explain, Tom answers, “Sorry about that. I’m having a bad day. I’m under a lot of stress today.”

In other words, Tom sees himself as a nice guy who occasionally acts rudely, not because he is rude, but because he is under a great deal of stress. But when someone upsets him, Tom never thinks, “Oh, he must be having a bad day.” Rather, Tom thinks, “What an idiot! What a jerk! He has some nerve! Who does he think he is?” So, we are soft on ourselves when we are the Actor and harsh on others when we are the Observer (watching others).

Why It’s Important to understand The Actor-Observer Bias

1. We cannot solve problems unless we know their cause, and if we’re not careful, The Actor-Observer Bias can obscure the cause. Suppose, for example, the government wants to improve the educational system and asks teachers and students why the students are getting poor grades. The teachers are apt to blame the students (“They don’t study or do their homework. They can’t concentrate. They are restless. They don’t take their curriculum seriously.”). And the students are apt to blame teachers and the educational system (“We have poor teachers. The material is boring. Subjects aren’t explained clearly enough. We have poor text books.”).The Actor-Observer Bias reminds us to avoid falling into the trap of studying just one side of the issue. We need to step back and objectively study all sides of the problem.

2. If we are unaware of the AOB (Actor-Observer Bias) and how we unfairly judge others, we are apt to have fewer friends, less success, and little happiness.

3. When we allow ourselves to fall prey to the AOB, we drift away from human compassion and find it easy to demonize others. What is a man who steals a loaf of bread to feed his starving family? Is he a thief or a loving father and husband?

One of the most powerful countries in the world is one of the weakest. Despite its incredible potential, the U.S. government can’t get anything done because of partisan bickering. The AOB is rampant in the halls of congress.

4. Life itself can be at stake. On September 21, 2011, Troy Davis was executed in Georgia for killing a police officer 20 years earlier. The execution took place despite new evidence that created reasonable doubt and the appeals for clemency from Pope Benedict XVI, former President Jimmy Carter, former FBI Director William Sessions, former Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Norman Fletcher, Rev. Al Sharpton, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and former U.S. presidential candidate Bob Barr.

Why Are We Susceptible to The Actor-Observer Bias?

1. We are especially susceptible to the AOB, and other biases, when we are in a state of stress because we lack the energy to make exhaustive examinations and want to make quick decisions.

2. When we observe someone else perform an action, we focus on the actor, but when we perform an action, we focus on the situation. This is because we are aware of our thoughts and the situation we are in, but unaware of the thoughts and circumstances of others. Also, when people catch our attention, we focus on them, but the situation merely fades into the background.

This is particularly true with our interactions with strangers. Since we know a great deal more about our friends and family members, we are less likely to succumb to the AOB with them.

3. Since we strive to maintain a positive image of ourselves, we are apt to credit ourselves when we succeed and blame circumstances when we fail.

4. We tend to see ourselves as more complex and multi-faceted than others. So, we believe there are many factors influencing our behavior. But since strangers are ‘less complicated’ than us, their behavior is simple to explain. (They’re stupid!)

5. We are inclined to believe that people get what they deserve and deserve what they get. (This is called the Just-World Phenomenon/Hypothesis). So when others fail, it is because they are lazy, stupid, or incompetent. But when we fail, it is because life is unfair!

The Just-World Phenomenon can have horrible repercussions, such as when rape victims are blamed instead of helped and perpetrators are set free instead of brought to justice.

6. The AOB is prevalent in cultures that promote individualism, such as in the United States and Western Europe. But in interdependent cultures, such as those in Asia and Latin America, the importance of the group and getting along with others is stressed. So, when members misbehave, more weight is given to the circumstances that influenced their errant behavior than to the individual’s character or personality.

How Can We Eliminate The Actor-Observer Bias?

1. Become aware of the extenuating circumstances. The cure for the AOB is empathy, but how can we walk in the shoes of another if we do not have their shoes (understanding of their circumstances)?

2. Compassion. It is not always possible to learn the circumstances that others are in, but if we always remember that we all make mistakes and everyone is doing the best they can under the circumstances, it becomes easier to be tolerant and live in fellowship instead of friction.


1. He is stupid is not a fact; it is an interpretation. Remind yourself that all your conclusions, experiences, and beliefs are merely interpretations and subject to error. Although your brain loves to make decisions as quickly as possible, learn to stop and think things through before acting.

2. Sadly, some religions thrive on the AOB, demonizing those of other faiths. Novelist Anne Lamott expressed it well when she wrote, “You can safely assume that you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.”

Yet, religion can be a beautiful thing, for as Indian Saint Mata Amritanandamayi Devi (“Amma”) said, “There is no harm in having many religions and faiths, but it is harmful to think that they are different and that one faith is higher and the other one is lower. Children, do not see the differences. See the unity in them and the great ideals that they teach.”

3. Good advice is also offered by Victor Daniels, Professor Emeritus of Psychology at Sonoma State University, California, “We must learn to tailor our concepts to fit reality, instead of trying to stuff reality into our concepts.”

4. We need to remember that we see the world not as it is, but as we are. Troubled people see a troubling world; angry people see a hostile world, and loving people see a loving world.

5. “We should be lenient in our judgment, because often the mistakes of others would have been ours had we had the opportunity to make them.” (Dr. Rasmus Larssen Alsaker)

6. “For all right judgment of any man or things it is useful, nay, essential, to see his good qualities before pronouncing on his bad.” (Thomas Carlyle)

7. Remember that when we judge another, we do not define them, but define ourselves.

8. “A man is not good or bad for one action.” (Thomas Fuller)

9. Double Olympic Men’s Sailing Gold Medal champion, Ian Percy, reminds us that “We judge others by their behavior. We judge ourselves by our intentions.”

10. If we must judge others, let’s do so as we judge stained-glass windows: only in their best light.

3. The Overconfidence Bias

The Overconfidence Bias is the most common and dangerous thinking error.

On August 29, 2011, the renowned National Taiwan University Hospital announced HIV-infected organs were mistakenly transplanted into five patients. How can this happen? The organs were not double-checked as required by standard procedures, all because of staffers’ overconfidence. Meanwhile, five patients must now take anti-AIDS drugs, and live in fear of an early death.

The severity of the consequences of the above mistake pale into insignificance when compared to the death toll, human suffering, and wasted government resources that resulted from the Vietnam War. America’s overconfidence in its ability to defeat a small Asian nation led to untold suffering in both countries.

What has the U.S. government learned about the dangers of overconfidence? Apparently not much. Here is Donald Rumsfeld commenting on the Iraq War, “The war… will last… six days, six weeks… I doubt six months.”

But this is not about the U.S. It is about US and how overconfidence can lead US astray, create havoc, and ruin our lives. It does its dirty work in many ways. Consider the large number of divorces, broken homes, children torn apart from their parents. A spouse, who was once madly in love, may become complacent as time passes. Overconfident, they stop working on the relationship, and neglect or abuse their spouse until their marriage eventually explodes in their face.

In the workplace, because of their overconfidence, employees overestimate their ability to do a project and underestimate the time required to complete it. The result? Procrastination, sloppy work, stress and fatigue. And if these bad habits aren’t corrected, the employee may lose his or her job.

In everyday life we find people destroying their lives with drugs, alcohol, and gambling. Overconfidence in their ability to control themselves destroys them. For example, staggering out of a bar, and before driving away, a man tells his friends, “Oh, I’m okay. I can handle booze; I’ll get home safely.” But he never arrives home. Instead, his name is added to the list of highway fatalities.

People die in swimming, boating, and mountain climbing accidents because they overestimate their abilities and take irrational risks. Even the Bible cautions against overconfidence: “Let him that standeth take heed lest he fall.” (Corinthians 10:12) Overconfidence is a killer. Here’s another example. The last words of General John Sedgwick as he looked out over the parapet at enemy lines during the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House in 1864 were, “They couldn’t hit an elephant at this distance…” (He didn’t finish the sentence because he was shot dead.)

I walked on the edge of an outdoor path that was 116 stories high. It is called Edge Walk and is one of the attractions of Toronto’s CN Tower. It was perfectly safe as I was strapped in a double harness. However, a friend asked, “Isn’t it possible for the straps to come apart, causing you to fall to your death?”

I answered, “Well, in the sense that anything is possible, I suppose an accident could happen. But our decisions should be based on what’s probable, not on what’s (remotely) possible.” My confidence was rational because engineers worked very hard to create the exciting, but safe experience called Edge Walk.

Don’t confuse high confidence with overconfidence. High confidence is helpful; overconfidence is harmful. I had high confidence in the Edge Walk because I completely trusted the equipment and our guide. If I were overconfident, I might have said, “I don’t need the harness; I can do the Edge Walk without it.” Although we don’t want to be overconfident, we shouldn’t stop living courageously. After all, we need confidence, for without it, nothing will be accomplished. In a word, confidence moves us forward, but overconfidence leads to getting stuck in a rut, moving backward, or crashing!

If even experts can suffer from overconfidence, we have all the more reason to be careful. Here are examples of comments made by experts. What do you think; do they sound overconfident?

Lord Kelvin, mathematician and physicist, former president of the British Royal Society:

“X-rays will prove to be a hoax.” (1883)
“Heavier-than-air flying machines are impossible.” (1895)
“Radio has no future.” (1897)

And when speaking to the British Association for the Advancement of Science, he said, “There is nothing new to be discovered in physics now; all that remains is more and more precise measurement.” (1900)

Michigan Savings Bank president advising Henry Ford’s lawyer not to invest in the Ford Motor Co.“The horse is here to stay but the automobile is only a novelty, a fad.” (1903)

Scientific American, January 2, 1909 “That the automobile has practically reached the limit of its development is suggested by the fact that during the past year no improvements of a radical nature have been introduced.”

Lee DeForest, American radio innovator and inventor of the vacuum tube “To place a man in a multi-stage rocket and project him into the controlling gravitational field of the moon where the passengers can make scientific observations, perhaps land alive, and then return to earth − all that constitutes a wild dream worthy of Jules Verne. I am bold enough to say that such a man-made voyage will never occur regardless of all future advances.” (1926)

Admiral William Leahy, U.S. Atomic Bomb Project, advising President Truman on atomic weaponry “That is the biggest fool thing we have ever done [research on]… The bomb will never go off, and I speak as an expert in explosives.” (1944)

Yale University management professor commenting on a college assignment by Fred Smith who suggested a dependable overnight delivery service. (Smith later established Federal Express Corp.) “The concept is interesting and well-formed, but in order to earn better than a ‘C’, the idea must be feasible.” (1966)

Business Week, August 2, 1968 “With over fifteen types of foreign cars already on sale here, the Japanese auto industry isn’t likely to carve out a big share of the market for itself.”

If experts can be so terribly wrong, so can we. But if we remain aware of the problem and question our beliefs, we can improve our chances for successful outcomes.


1. As we grow older and more experienced, we overrate the accuracy of our judgments. Just because we’re older, it doesn’t mean we’re more knowledgeable or wiser. Or as Oscar Wilde said, “Experience is the name everyone gives to their mistakes.”

2. The more we know, the more we realize how little we know, and the less we know, the more we think we know.

3. We question the statements of others, but not our own. Get in the habit of challenging your own beliefs. Are they based on facts or just hunches or hearsay?

4. Ironically, we are more likely to get overconfident in areas outside of our expertise. So, think twice before commenting on matters you are unfamiliar with.

5. In your discussions with others, if you find that you’re always right, you’re wrong! In other words, you’re overconfident. So, beware because it will prevent you from learning new things. Remember, we don’t know what we don’t know. Generally, we are unaware of our ignorance until we ask ourselves questions out of curiosity and find that we can’t answer them. The way to become more aware of what you do not know is to stop and think every time you disagree with someone. Because if you disagree with what was said, it may be because the person you disagree with knows more about the issue than you do. So, disagreements may be signals of learning opportunities.

6. Overconfident people can easily get stuck in a rut because whenever they fail at something, rather than ask themselves what they were doing wrong, they just keep repeating what they think is right.

7. Don’t try to predict the present or future by the past. Example: “We have always overcome problems in the past, so don’t worry about global warming; when the time comes, I’m sure we will have the technology or knowhow to solve the problem.” This type of thinking doesn’t solve problems; it merely postpones them to a time when it may be too late to correct the problem.

8. Part of the problem is that we all think we are above average. What is the truth? Well, we are better in some areas, but not in areas outside our expertise. Here is an example of how we can be led astray. People who want to lose weight may see an ad in which their favorite celebrities claim to have lost 30+ pounds. The ad may also have a disclaimer “Results not typical.” But overconfident people believe that they are not typical, so the disclaimer does not apply to them. So, overconfident people make excellent targets for sales people. Here’s another example. An office worker joins a gym and signs up for the year to save money. But instead of going to gym two or three times a week, he ends up hardly going at all. Rather than saving money, he winds up losing money. That’s because the overconfident office worker overestimated his self-discipline and willingness to work out. He also confused what he should do with what he will do.

9. To avoid the above problems, know your limitations. You can learn them by monitoring your decisions and their consequences.

10. The more information we are exposed to the more we think we know. In today’s information society we are inundated with facts that come from everywhere: newspapers, magazines, mobile devices, computers, cable TV. As they swirl around us we come to believe we know a great deal more than we really do. There is a big difference between being aware of information and knowing it. It is like the difference between hearing and listening.

4. The Reframing Bias

Why would someone whose main interest is positive thinking write about erroneous thinking? Well, positive thinkers are thinkers, aren’t they? And if their thinking is muddled, unclear, or confused, they may be manipulated or led astray by others. Learning to think straight sets us straight, preparing us for success.

So, after that brief introduction, let’s jump right to a definition of The Reframing Bias. It is the tendency to draw conclusions based on how information is presented. Now for a quick example: meat sales are higher when advertised as “85% lean beef” and lower when advertised as “beef with 15% fat.” Although “85% lean” and “15% fat” have exactly the same meaning, we can influence sales by how we present the information. For in one case we emphasize the absence of fat (lean), and in the other case we call attention to its presence (15% fat). A common term for reframing is spinning, which is one of the favorite pastimes of politicians. For example, an American politician may call his trip to Europe a fact finding mission while his opponents call it a junket.

According to experts, there are two types of Reframing Bias: external and internal. External is when others manipulate us by framing information in a way that leads us to act to their advantage, such as by voting for them. When we ourselves distort, twist, and spin facts, it is an illustration of Internal Reframing. Here’s an example: a psychology student stops a stranger and says, “Excuse me, Sir; I will pay you $10 if you answer three simple questions…” But the man he spoke to pushes him aside and shouts, “Get out of my way! I hate scam artists!”

Why did the stranger believe the innocent student was a scam artist? It’s because we do not see things as they are, but as we are. You see, the stranger is mistrusting; he believed the student had a hidden agenda. But why is the stranger mistrusting? Well, as a child he was taught to beware of strangers and told we live in a dangerous world. So, the stranger sees the world as a hostile place.

When we look at the big picture, we will realize that there really is just one type of Reframing Bias: external. After all, how did the stranger in my example get his beliefs? Wasn’t it from his parents (external)? Also, our mind doesn’t like to get involved in deep thought. Rather, it likes to take shortcuts, arriving at conclusions as quickly as possible. So, it welcomes our biases, which allow it to act quickly, without wasting time on analyzing all the facts.

But let’s move away from theory and get more practical. Let’s learn to recognize The Reframing Bias so we won’t be duped so often. I’ll start off by introducing short examples and move on to longer ones.

“This service costs $1,095 dollars a year.”
“Now you can enjoy this service for just 3 dollars a day.”
(Which plan are you more likely to respond to?)

“Pay $10,959 for this furniture.”
“Save $2,000 today. Sale ends at midnight.”

After a $2,000 discount, the furniture costs $10,959. Which would you rather do: pay $10,959 or save $2,000? The salespeople have skillfully shifted your focus from the cost to the savings. Moreover, the sale ending at midnight creates more pressure to act because we hate losses, and if we don’t act quickly we will lose $2,000. (Doesn’t that mean spend $10,959?)

“Buy this house.” versus “Buy this villa.”
(It’s the same property, but by using a more elegant term, we increase its perceived value.)

If you were a millionaire, would you consider yourself successful? That depends on how you look at it (how you frame it). Author Richard Denny gives a good example:

Nicholas Darvas, 60 years of age, had been a partner in a dancing pair who had been incredibly successful throughout the world. He had amassed a personal fortune in excess of £1 million. He then invested astutely on the American stock exchange and made a further million pounds. He then wrote a book, How to Make a Million on the Stock Exchange, and added a few more millions to his ever-increasing wealth.

“When I met him, he was single, living between the Dorchester Hotel in London, the George V in Paris and the Waldorf Hotel in New York. Through a series of discussions we had together, I found him to be a very bitter, sad and tragically lonely man. I pointed out to him his enormous financial wealth and what in those days I called success. He pointed out to me that in comparison to Bill Gates, the Barclay brothers, the Sultan of Brunei and the Duke of Westminster, he was not a success. He was worth but a pittance compared to the billions of dollars that they were worth. This may appear to be a rather negative example, but I use it as it has been of tremendous help and guidance to me in understanding how different people perceive success.”

Can you see how we frame things makes all the difference in the world? After all, those who focus on what they lack are unhappy while those who focus on what they have are happy.

I frequently use quotations in my articles. Why is that? Well, they help to frame the points I wish to make by adding authority, persuasion, and strength to my argument. Moreover, some elegantly written quotations add impact and make the point more memorable. As you can see, we can apply reframing to everything we do.

Some interesting results were obtained by researchers who had an audience watch a video of an auto accident and asked them to guess how fast the cars were going. They all saw the same thing; yet, their answers were based not on what they saw, but how the question was framed. Here are the questions and average answers:


Q. “About how fast were the cars going when they contacted each other?”
A. 31 mph

Q. “About how fast were the cars going when they hit each other?”
A. 34 mph

Q. “About how fast were the cars going when they bumped each other?”
A. 38 mph

Q. “About how fast were the cars going when they collided with each other?”
A. 39 mph

Q. “About how fast were the cars going when they smashed into each
A. 41 mph

What’s more, a week later they were asked if they saw any broken glass at the accident scene. (There wasn’t any.) But 32% of the participants who were asked how fast the cars were going when they smashed into each other said they saw broken glass. So, how we frame questions can even affect how people remember the incident.

Can you see how important it is to understand the Reframing Bias? Before continuing, let me ask you some questions. Is your job difficult or easy? Is it pleasant or laborious? Are your coworkers fun to be around or a real pain? Is your life wonderful or tedious? Be very careful how you frame your life, job, and relationships, for every statement you make to yourself or others is the same as self-programming. In other words, how you frame your statements is how you frame your subconscious. Which do you imagine would be more helpful, to put a positive ‘spin’ on your statements and beliefs or a negative one?

An understanding of reframing can also make you an effective persuader and help you develop strong relationships. Here’s an excellent example contributed by a reader, Stu, to Parent Hacks:

“When I have a problem that concerns one of my kids (meaning: When I want them to do something that they refuse to do), I see that I have a choice. I could visualize my child standing on the other side of a line, next to The Problem, with me yelling across the line, ‘Hey, you better solve The Problem.’

Instead, I get myself to stand next to my child, with The Problem alone on the other side of the line, with me putting an arm around my child, saying ‘Hey, you and me, we’re gonna defeat The Problem together.’ I find that this attitude seems to make my kids feel better about themselves. It minimizes and eliminates shame.”

The Consequences of How We Frame Relative Risk and Absolute Risk

I’ll start with an explanation of relative and absolute risks and follow that with an example of why it is important how we frame them.

Let’s say that a pharmaceutical company is trying to develop a drug to reduce the likelihood of getting diabetes. They give a newly developed pill to 100 subjects and a placebo (dummy pill) to another 100 (the control group). Four years later they find four of the volunteers who took the placebo got diabetes and only two of the subjects who took the drug got it. Based on these facts, which is correct to say?

“Latest Wonder Drug Cuts Diabetes Risk by 50%!”

“Latest Wonder Drug Causes 2% Decline in Diabetes Risk!”

You guessed it; they are both correct. The first statement describes the relative risk reduction. The two subjects who took the drug and got diabetes equal half the number (50%) of the four volunteers who took the placebo and got diabetes.

The second statement describes the absolute risk reduction. That is, 2% of the subjects (2 out of 100) who took the drug got diabetes and 4% of the volunteers (4 out of 100) who took the placebo got diabetes, which is an absolute difference of 2% (4% minus 2%).

Why is this important? Because when you are faced with an important medical decision, doctors may give you a relative risk assessment, which can be misleading and influence you to make a decision that you later regret.

For instance, according to the research of three oncologists in Australia and the US, chemotherapy contributes just over two percent to improved survival in cancer patients. Yet, oncologists often describe the benefits of chemotherapy in terms of relative risk, creating the illusion of a much higher benefit of treatment. If you knew chemotherapy would merely increase your survival chances by two percent, would you want to undergo the pain and huge expense (if you are uninsured)?

By the way, the pharmaceutical industry sometimes describes the benefits of the drug they are advertising in terms of relative risk and describes the side effects in absolute terms. In a word, their ads can be doubly misleading.