You’ve mentioned that it’s important to talk to the alcoholic in a way that she or she can understand. Isn’t that true for all of us?”

Good point. The thinking of an active addict is distorted in particular ways by addiction. But we all have quirks and biases. Some that have been identified by research:

  • We tend to believe we have more control over the future than we actually have.
  • Once we’ve made an important decision, we’ll probably distort our memory to support it.
  • Given the choice, most of us instinctively avoid change in favor of what’s worked for us in the past — even when it’s clearly no longer working as well as it once did.
  • We screen out information we don’t like.
  • We like to attribute success to our own efforts and our failures to something or somebody else.
  • As a rule, we’re wishful thinkers. We prefer to see events in a positive light.
  • We naturally prefer evidence that supports our beliefs, and tend to avoid that which contradicts those beliefs (sometimes called confirmation bias).
  • Most of us jump at the first choice that seems reasonable. We’re not given to long and hard thought prior to making a decision.
  • We pay far more attention to recent events than the remote past.
  • Repetition works. Simply repeating things a lot, from a variety of sources, makes it seem true. Ask any political campaign manager.
  • We’re more likely to accept as true something presented by someone we like. And reject a source we dislike.

All in all, we’re a pretty biased audience, particularly to new information that contradicts our previous experience. That’s probably why it’s so hard for us to achieve the goal of objectivity. The more emotional the topic, the more subjective we tend to be. And when something threatens us, it can be a real struggle to detach enough to come to a rational decision.

Nonetheless it can be done. And practice helps.

Another excellent article on io9 about cognitive biases and how they work to subvert rational thinking: The 12 cognitive biases that prevent you from being rational