21 Mind Traps: The Ultimate Guide To Your Most Common Thinking Errors

21 Mind Traps: The Ultimate Guide To Your Most Common Thinking Errors

What is a Negative Mental Model (Mind Trap)?

Mental models are frameworks of understanding that help us make sense of the world around us. They are simplified representations of complex concepts, processes, and systems that allow us to process information and make decisions more efficiently. A negative mental model can become a mind trap, limiting our perspective and the ability to process new information without bias. Mind traps are blind spots in our logic, reason, and problem-solving. If our thoughts are filtered first through our cognitive biases instead of logic and reason, then our mind is trapped inside our perspective of false filters.

Why Mental Models are Important for Decision-Making and Problem-Solving

Positive mental models are critical tools for decision-making and problem-solving because they help us to break down complex problems into smaller, more manageable parts. By using positive mental models, we can quickly evaluate different options, anticipate the outcomes of our decisions, and make more informed choices. Understanding mental models can also help us identify and address potential biases and blind spots in our thinking, leading to more objective and effective decision-making. Each model below provides a definition, an example of the model, how it can negatively affect thinking and decision-making, and strategies for overcoming the effects of each model infected with a bias.

The 21 Mind Traps

1. Cognitive Dissonance

  • Cognitive Dissonance is a psychological term used to describe the mental discomfort or anxiety that occurs when an individual holds two or more conflicting beliefs, values, or ideas.
  • Examples: A smoker who knows that smoking is harmful to their health but continues to smoke, or someone who values honesty but lies to their partner, are examples of cognitive dissonance.
  • Cognitive dissonance can lead to confusion, decreased self-esteem, and poor decision-making.
  • To overcome the effects of cognitive dissonance, individuals can reflect on their beliefs and values, seek out information that supports their beliefs, or find ways to reconcile their conflicting beliefs. It can also be helpful to change one’s behavior, as this can change one’s attitudes and beliefs.
  • It’s crucial to align behavior with beliefs to avoid internal cognitive dissonance.

2. The Spotlight Effect

  • The Spotlight Effect refers to the tendency of individuals to overestimate the amount of attention others pay to their appearance, behavior, and actions.
  • A common example of the Spotlight Effect is the belief that others are constantly observing and judging one’s appearance in public, such as when wearing a new outfit.
  • The Spotlight Effect can lead to negative self-esteem and self-conscious behavior, as individuals feel that others scrutinize their actions more closely than is the case.
  • To overcome the effects of the Spotlight Effect, individuals can try to shift their focus to the task at hand rather than worrying about the opinions of others. They can also remind themselves that other people are likely focused on their own lives and are not paying close attention to every little thing they do.

3. The Anchoring Effect

  • The Anchoring Effect is a cognitive bias that occurs when people rely heavily on the first piece of information they receive when making decisions.
  • Examples of the anchoring effect include using sale prices to anchor the perceived value of a product or using an initial offer as a starting point in negotiations.
  • The Anchoring Effect can impact decision-making by leading individuals to accept or reject an option based on initial information rather than fully considering other options and their preferences.
  • To overcome the Anchoring Effect, individuals can practice being aware of the influence of initial information and actively seeking out additional information and alternatives before making a decision.

4. The Halo Effect

  • The Halo Effect refers to the tendency of individuals to make global judgments based on their first impression of someone or something.
  • Examples: In real-life situations, the Halo Effect can be seen in hiring processes, where the first impression of a candidate can influence the interviewer’s entire evaluation of their skills and qualifications.
  • The Halo Effect can impact decision-making by leading to biases and prejudices in judgments about people, objects, and situations.
  • To overcome the effects of the Halo Effect, it’s recommended to actively strive for objectivity and gather more information before making decisions. It’s also helpful to consider alternative perspectives and to seek diverse opinions.

5. Gambler’s Fallacy

  • The Gambler’s Fallacy refers to the belief that past events can influence future outcomes, leading to a false sense of control over random events.
  • Thinking that because a coin has landed on heads several times in a row, it is now more likely to land on tails in the next flip. Believing that a hot streak in a casino game means that you’re more likely to win in the future.
  • The Gambler’s Fallacy can lead to poor decision-making and impulsive behavior, such as making bets despite losing streaks.
  • Awareness of the fallacious nature of the belief and understanding that each event is independent and has a fixed probability can help overcome the Gambler’s Fallacy. Additionally, setting limits on one’s betting and tracking the outcomes can provide a better understanding of the randomness of events.

6. The Contrast Effect

  • The Contrast Effect refers to the phenomenon where the comparison to other objects or events influences a person’s perception of an object or an event. It refers to how an item’s perceived value or characteristics can change based on the context in which it’s presented.
  • For example, when evaluating a job candidate, the interviewee interviewed after an exceptionally talented candidate may appear less competent, even if they are highly qualified. Similarly, a product may seem less attractive compared to another, more luxurious product.
  • The contrast effect can impact how people perceive and make decisions about objects and events. It can lead to an underestimation or overestimation of the actual value or worth of something based on the context in which it is presented.
  • To overcome the contrast effect, it’s essential to consider the context in which information or objects are presented. People can also try to evaluate things on their own merits and not compare them to other objects or events, which can help provide a more accurate perception of value and worth.

7. Confirmation Bias

  • Confirmation bias refers to the tendency of individuals to seek and interpret information in a way that confirms their pre-existing beliefs, opinions, or hypotheses.
  • Confirmation bias can be seen in individuals who only read news sources that align with their political views, ignore counterarguments to their opinions, and dismiss information that contradicts their beliefs.
  • Confirmation bias can limit an individual’s exposure to new information and perspectives, leading to poor decision-making, limited creativity, and a closed-minded perspective.
  • To overcome confirmation bias, individuals can actively seek out information and perspectives that challenge their beliefs, seek out diverse sources of information, and critically evaluate their biases and assumptions.

8. Baader Meinhof Phenomenon

  • The Baader Meinhof Phenomenon is a psychological phenomenon where a person experiences the sudden repetition of a previously learned word, phrase, or concept.
  • A person reads about a specific topic and suddenly notices that it’s mentioned in multiple conversations and media.
  • The phenomenon can cause a person to believe that a particular idea or concept is more prevalent or important than it is.
  • To overcome its effects, a person should be aware of the phenomenon and critically evaluate information and occurrences in their environment.

9. Zeigarnik Effect

  • The Zeigarnik Effect refers to the phenomenon where uncompleted or interrupted tasks tend to stick in our memory, often occupying our thoughts until they are completed or resolved.
  • For example, if you start a task and get interrupted before completing it, you may find that the task remains on your mind, and you feel the urge to return and finish it.
  • The Zeigarnik Effect can significantly impact memory and behavior, as it can lead to feelings of stress, anxiety, and distraction until the uncompleted task is resolved.
  • Some strategies to overcome the effects of the Zeigarnik Effect include setting aside specific times for completing tasks, breaking larger tasks into smaller and manageable pieces, and practicing stress-management techniques.

10. The Paradox of Choice

  • The Paradox of Choice refers to the idea that having too many options can lead to decreased satisfaction and increased anxiety in decision-making.
  • This can be seen in everyday experiences like grocery shopping, where a person might feel overwhelmed by the multitude of options for a single product category, such as cereal or shampoo.
  • The paradox of choice can result in decision paralysis, procrastination, and decreased overall satisfaction with the chosen option.
  • To overcome the paradox of choice, it’s helpful to set clear criteria for decision-making, limit the number of options, and seek out the opinions of trusted others. Additionally, practicing mindfulness and gratitude can help shift focus away from the pressure of making the “perfect” decision.

11. Survivorship Bias

  • Survivorship bias refers to the tendency to focus on the success stories of individuals or organizations while ignoring those who failed or were never in the running.
  • A typical example is the bias towards successful startups while ignoring a large number of failed ones. This can lead to unrealistic expectations and poor decision-making in investing or entrepreneurship.
  • Survivorship bias can lead to a skewed perception of reality and cause individuals to overlook important information and make poor decisions.
  • To overcome survivorship bias, it’s essential to look at successes and failures and consider a broader range of information and perspectives.

12. Self-Serving Bias

  • Self-serving bias is a cognitive bias in which individuals attribute their successes to their abilities and efforts but attribute their failures to external factors beyond their control.
  • A student who receives a good grade on an exam might attribute the success to their hard work and intelligence while attributing a low grade on another exam to the teacher being unfair or the test being too tricky.
  • This bias can lead individuals to have an overly positive self-image and make them resistant to feedback and self-improvement, ultimately hindering their personal and professional growth.
  • To overcome self-serving bias, it’s essential to objectively reflect on both positive and negative outcomes, considering both internal and external factors. Additionally, seeking feedback from others and practicing humility can help reduce the effects of self-serving bias.

13. Hindsight Bias

  • The Hindsight Bias refers to the tendency to believe after an event has occurred that, one would have predicted or expected its outcome.
  • A person may believe that they would have been able to predict the outcome of a sporting event, political election, or stock market trend after the fact, despite not having any prior knowledge or evidence to support their claim.
  • The Hindsight Bias can lead to overconfidence in decision-making and problem-solving, as individuals may believe they have a better understanding of past events than they do.
  • Recognizing the influence of the Hindsight Bias and being aware of it, as well as seeking out additional information and perspectives, can help to overcome its effects.

14. Availability Bias

  • Availability bias refers to the tendency to rely on readily available information or examples to make a decision or form an opinion rather than conducting a thorough analysis of all relevant information.
  • An example is a person who has recently read a news article about a crime in a particular area and might have an exaggerated perception of crime in that area, despite overall low crime rates.
  • Availability bias can lead to inaccurate decision-making and skewed perception of reality. It can also cause individuals to overlook important information and make decisions based on incomplete or irrelevant data.
  • To overcome this bias, seek out multiple sources of information to form a balanced perspective, avoid making decisions based on recent events or most easily accessible information, consider the sample size and representativeness of information being used, and consider potential biases in the sources of information being used.

15. Availability Cascade

  • The Availability Cascade refers to a self-reinforcing process of collective belief formation by which a phenomenon, once perceived as plausible, attracts increasing support and attention, creating a vicious cycle of further reinforcement and increased influence.
  • The formation of urban legends, the popularity of conspiracy theories, and the spread of misinformation on social media.
  • The Availability Cascade can result in distorted beliefs and decisions based on incomplete or unreliable information.
  • Strategies: To overcome the effects of an Availability Cascade, it’s vital to seek out diverse sources of information, critically evaluate the evidence, and be mindful of one’s biases.

16. Sunk Cost Fallacy

  • The Sunk Cost Fallacy is a cognitive bias where individuals continue to invest resources (time, money, effort, etc.) into a decision or investment due to the resources they have already invested, even though the investment may not be rational or profitable.
  • A typical example of the sunk cost fallacy is continuing to invest in a failing business due to the time and money already spent instead of cutting losses and moving on.
  • The sunk cost fallacy can lead to individuals making poor decisions and persisting in a losing course of action, resulting in wasted resources and potential losses.
  • To overcome the sunk cost fallacy, individuals should focus on the future potential of an investment rather than the resources already invested and consider the opportunity cost of continuing to invest in a losing proposition.

17. The Framing Effect

  • The Framing Effect is a psychological phenomenon that refers to how people perceive and make decisions based on how information is presented or framed.
  • In real-life situations, the Framing Effect can be seen in advertisements and news reports that present information in a biased way to influence people’s opinions. For example, a news report may present a statistic that makes it seem more alarming or less concerning, depending on the desired outcome.
  • The Framing Effect significantly impacts decision-making and behavior, as it can influence people to make decisions that are not in their best interests. For example, people may make decisions based on incomplete or misleading information or be swayed by persuasive framing techniques used by marketers and politicians.
  • To overcome the effects of the Framing Effect, it’s important to be aware of it and actively seek balanced, impartial information. It can also be helpful to critically analyze the framing of information, question its motives, and seek out multiple perspectives on a topic to form a well-rounded opinion.

18. Clustering Illusion

  • The Clustering Illusion is the tendency for people to perceive patterns in random or unpredictable events, leading them to see meaning or significance where there is none. This is often because of a desire to make sense of the world and a human inclination to see order and structure in seemingly chaotic or random events.
  • For example, a person might see a pattern of heads and tails in a series of coin flips when each flip is entirely random and independent of the others. Another example is seeing random patterns in the stock market or perceiving a “hot hand” in basketball when a player makes several consecutive shots.
  • The Clustering Illusion can lead to overconfidence in decision-making, as people may act based on perceived patterns that do not exist. It can also cause people to engage in superstitious or irrational behavior, such as trying to influence a random event with specific actions.
  • To overcome the Clustering Illusion, it’s crucial to understand randomness and recognize that patterns in random events are often an illusion. It can also help to gather data and perform statistical analysis to assess the significance of any apparent patterns. Finally, seeking out the opinions of others with different perspectives can help provide a more nuanced and balanced view of a situation.

19. Exponential Growth

  • Exponential growth is a type of growth where the rate of increase is proportional to the current value. It is characterized by small growth that compounds over time, leading to rapid and substantial increases.
  • One of the most common examples of exponential growth is the famous “Rule of 70,” which states that to find the number of years it takes for a quantity to double, divide 70 by the annual growth rate. Another example is the compound interest on a savings account. A small amount of interest can quickly grow over time when it is compounded repeatedly, leading to substantial returns on the original investment.
  • Many people have a difficult time understanding the concept of exponential growth and tend to underestimate its effects. This can lead to poor financial decisions, such as not saving enough for retirement or investing in the wrong stocks.
  • Understanding exponential growth is essential for making informed decisions. To overcome its effects, individuals can educate themselves on the concept, seek advice from financial experts, and use mental models, such as compounding and exponential growth, to think about complex issues. Additionally, keeping track of one’s investments and regularly reevaluating investment strategies can help ensure that decisions are aligned with long-term goals.

20. Barnum Effect

  • The Barnum Effect refers to the tendency of people to accept vague or general statements as specifically relevant to them. This effect is named after the famous showman P.T. Barnum, who is known for his skill in promoting his shows with ambiguous and misleading advertisements.
  • An example is a horoscope that gives a generic prediction such as “you will face challenges this month,” which can be perceived as highly accurate by an individual, even though the statement could apply to almost anyone. Another example is a personality test that gives a vague description, such as “you are a creative person who is independent and adaptable,” which could apply to many individuals.
  • The Barnum Effect can lead people to have an inflated sense of self-awareness and can impact decision-making by leading people to believe that false or misleading information applies to them specifically.
  • To overcome the Barnum Effect, it is crucial to be critical and analytical of the information presented to you, especially when it’s vague or general. It can also be helpful to seek out specific and factual information to support your beliefs and decisions. Additionally, seeking out multiple perspectives and opinions can help to provide a more balanced view of any situation.

21. Bias from Envy and Jealousy

  • This cognitive bias refers to the tendency for individuals to be influenced by feelings of envy and jealousy, leading to distorted decision-making and behavior.
  • In the workplace, a co-worker envious of someone else’s success may spread rumors or undermine their accomplishments. In personal relationships, feelings of jealousy can lead to irrational behavior and poor decision-making.
  • Envy and jealousy can lead to negative attitudes, behavior, and decision-making. It can also cause individuals to undermine their success and the success of others.
  • Recognizing and acknowledging one’s feelings of envy and jealousy is the first step to overcoming this bias. Practicing gratitude, shifting one’s focus to personal goals and achievements, and seeking positive role models can also help mitigate its effects. Additionally, seeking professional help to manage these emotions may be necessary for some individuals.


By becoming aware of these mental models of cognitive bias and incorporating solutions to them into our decision-making process, we can make better choices and lead more fulfilling lives. It’s essential to constantly evaluate and refine our understanding of why we think the way we do and make sure our judgment isn’t clouded by our errors in thinking that create mind traps.