How Your Brain Plays Tricks on You

Your brain is a wondrous thing, but it's certainly not perfect. Sometimes it forgets important details, such as your overdue dentist appointment or a meeting with a client. Or it may fail to notice essential things in your environment, leading you to make mistakes that could cause you to get hurt, put yourself at risk of illness, or be just plain annoying. If you've ever forgotten to note where you parked your car and spent what felt like forever wandering around looking for it, you know how that goes.

You might be inclined to write off these kinds of mistakes as simple errors or to blame them on things like stress or lack of time. The fact is, however, sometimes the brain drain is the problem. And it's inevitable. However, understanding how it can happen can help you to deal with it, so that you can take good care of yourself and your family, stay safe, and feel like you have a grip on your life.


Your Mind Likes to Take Shortcuts

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One of the biggest shortcomings of your brain is that sometimes it's just plain lazy. When trying to solve a problem or make a decision, your mind often falls back on rules of thumb or solutions that have worked well in the past. In many cases, this is a useful and effective approach. Using shortcuts allows you to make decisions quickly without having to laboriously sort through each and every possible solution. But sometimes these mental shortcuts, known as heuristics, can trip you up and cause you to make mistakes.

For example, you might find yourself terrified of flying on a plane because you can immediately think of several tragic, high-profile plane crashes. In reality, traveling by air is actually much safer than traveling by car, but because your brain is using a mental shortcut known as the availability heuristic, you are fooled into believing that flying is much more dangerous than it really is. Knowing this won't keep you safer but it should certainly keep you saner during the flight.


Your Thinking Is Swayed by Hidden Biases

Man thinking next to a chalkboard with a thought bubble written on it
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These are predispositions that can influence how you perceive people (such as the halo effect), how you perceive events (the hindsight bias), and what aspects of a situation you pay attention to when making a decision (the attributional bias).

Another is the confirmation bias, which can lead you to place greater emphasis or even seek out things that confirm what you already believe while at the same time ignoring or discounting anything that opposes your existing ideas.

Such cognitive biases can prevent you from thinking clearly and making accurate decisions—about your finances, your health, and even the ways in which you interact in the world.


Your Brain Likes to Play the Blame Game

Boy pointing at his brother who's covering his eyes
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When something bad happens, it is only natural to look for something to blame. Sometimes, though, we twist reality around to protect our own self-esteem. In other words, we may have screwed up but don't want to take responsibility for that.

For example, after a day out at the beach, you find you've gotten badly sunburned. You may decide the sunscreen you were using was defective, rather than owning up to the fact that you never got around to reapplying it.

Why do we engage in this blame game? Researchers believe that many of our attributional biases function as a way to protect our self-esteem and guard us against the fear of failure. According to this way of thinking, bad things happen to you because of things outside of your control. On the other hand—and there's nothing unhealthy about this as long as it's true)—your successes are the result of your traits, skills, efforts, and other internal characteristics.​


Your Brain Can Be Blind to Change

Woman looking through binoculars
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There's so much going on in the world at any given moment it can be hard for the brain to take in every detail. As a result, it's sometimes tough to completely miss major changes that happen right in front of our eyes. This is called change blindness. In studies, when conversational partners were swapped during a brief interruption, the majority of people didn’t even notice the change.

Researchers think a few things may be going on when this kind of thing happens. If you're busy concentrating on one thing, you simply have to tune out huge amounts of other information that your brain cannot deal with at that time.

Expectations also can play an important role. Would you expect a person to suddenly transform into somebody else while you were talking to them? Of course not—so it's not so surprising you might miss a major shift in your situation or environment. 


Your Memory Isn't as Sharp as You May Think

Model of a human brain with dice marked with question marks on it
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Memory isn't like a video camera, carefully preserving events exactly as they occur. It's much more fragile, inaccurate, and susceptible to influence than you may believe.

For example, research shows it's surprisingly easy to make someone have false memories of events that did not really occur. In one study, scientists found watching a video of other people do something actually led participants to believe that they had performed the task themselves.

We also tend to forget enormous amounts of information, from trivial details we run into every day to important information that we need. Memory expert Elizabeth Loftus suggests that there are a few major reasons behind these memory failures. Failing to retrieve the information from memory, falling victim to competing memories, failing to store information in memory, and purposely forgetting painful memories are just a few of the possible underlying causes of forgetfulness.

A Word From Verywell

Your brain is capable of remarkable things, from remembering a conversation you had with a dear friend to solving complex mathematical problems. But it's far from perfect. So what can you do?

There's no way to avoid all of these potential problems, but being aware of some of the biases, perceptual shortcomings, and memory tricks that your brain is susceptible to can help.

9 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Kendra Cherry, MSEd
Kendra Cherry, MS, is a psychosocial rehabilitation specialist, psychology educator, and author of the "Everything Psychology Book."