Have you ever remembered the lyrics of a song from 20 years ago but lost the sunglasses perched on your head? Forgotten praise but recalled every word of an insult? Predicted the outcome of yesterday’s event with confidence—“I knew it all along”—but had no idea how tomorrow’s event would play out? These are all normal biases created by the inner workings of our brains.
Cognitive illusions occur in all spheres of life—from business to friendship, family interaction to purchasing decisions, medical diagnosis to weed pulling. Horse sports are not immune. In fact, several common illusions can alter your ability to improve your equestrian skills.
The term “self-serving” is apt to be interpreted as a negative personality trait possessed by those who are self-centered and egotistic. But in cognitive science the term refers to the human propensity to protect oneself—a survival bias that’s important to physical life and mental well-being. People without it are often clinically depressed or even psychotic. Self-serving bias is an illusion of the normal brain in which we consider ourselves responsible for our successes but not for our failures.
Suppose you won a riding class last month. Self-serving bias causes your brain to assume that your own effort or skill caused the victory. And indeed, it probably did. But the same human mind attributes failure to bad luck or situational difficulty. I won the class because I’m such a great rider. But I fell off in the next class because some toddler waved a balloon in the stands and spooked my horse. Um, yeah.
Blaming a judge or trainer also shifts responsibility away from ourselves. Let’s say a horse show judge asks you to go from a walk straight to a hand-gallop in the first 30 seconds of an under-saddle class. You and your horse don’t do well. Many of us would complain that our failure occurred because the judge asked for the hand-gallop too soon. Although the timing is unusual, horses and riders who can gallop at any time probably deserve higher placement.
Self-serving bias is powerful. Its size varies depending on the situation, but some studies show that our willingness to take responsibility for success is 300 percent greater than the facts of the event dictate. We accept responsibility for failures at a rate that’s about 50 percent lower than it should be. Add it up from both directions, and that’s a hefty dollop of illusion. We usually recognize that bias when we cast an objective eye on the event and think it through, but we fall into the same trap as everyone else when we assess our own successes and failures on the fly.
Different parts of the brain are activated during the process of attributing success to oneself and failure to external situations. In addition, we pay more attention to stimuli pertaining to ourselves than to others, and we remember those goads more vividly. This aspect of self-serving bias can help memory. If you want to sharpen your recall for the order of dressage letters down the side of an arena, for example, make them into an acronym that pertains to your own life rather than a generic abbreviation that holds no personal meaning.
Why does self-serving bias occur as a natural function of the brain? Well, for one thing, it’s a shortcut in the life of an organ that is bombarded with stimulation. Think of the time and effort it takes to analyze a two-second event thoroughly. You’d have to consider every incoming sight, sound, smell, taste and touch that occurred, plus all the thoughts and feelings that the experience generated. If we analyzed every event to that degree, we’d never have time to eat or sleep … or, more important, ride! We function more quickly—if occasionally on erroneous assumptions—using neurological default modes that don’t require cognitive evaluation.
Joined with its unconscious use as a quick rule of thumb, self-serving bias also builds confidence and self-esteem. These traits are critical for equestrian excellence, but without knowledge and experience, they don’t improve our riding skill. We can feel as confident as we like while bouncing all over a horse at the trot, arms like chicken wings flapping in the breeze, but that doesn’t mean that we’re riding well just yet.
Self-serving bias also holds power because human brains demand explanation. If the reason for an outcome is unclear, your brain supplies one: right or wrong, rational or irrational, the sooner the better. It’s usually easier to explain successes than failures. Most of the time, we plan for an upcoming event and intend to succeed. A lot of thought goes into a successful experience before it occurs. Not so for failures. We don’t intend to fail, so when we do, we aren’t sure how to justify it. Enter the human brain’s quick-draw explanation: This failure must be someone else’s fault! It’s external, therefore uncontrollable, and it means (our brains say to us) that “I didn’t do anything wrong.” So there.
Once you’re aware of self-serving bias, you can manage it to improve horsemanship from both successes and failures. Next time your riding plans come to fruition—whether positively or negatively—hold off on causative conclusions until you’ve had a chance to think about what happened. Look at it from multiple points of view. Give yourself credit where credit is due, but resist the urge to hand off responsibility for failures. There is probably something you could have done differently to prevent that glitch.
Fundamental Attribution Error
Closely linked to self-serving bias is fundamental attribution error. Here, an event—whether a success or failure—is seen differently depending on whether it happened to us or to someone else. When the event happens to us, our brains automatically assume that a situation caused us to act in a particular manner. When the same event happens to someone else, we tend to see it as a feature of that person’s personality or character. Some people even go so far as to assume that their own actions are almost always controlled by a situation and rarely by a fixed personality trait.
Think, for example, of your annoyance when a rider in a busy arena cuts you off. Totally self-absorbed, not paying attention. And she didn’t even apologize. What a jerk! Now, imagine that you cut off a rider in the same arena. Oops! You didn’t see her; your horse is temperamental today. You’re wearing an earband and didn’t hear her say “Heads up!” in the cold wind. You would have apologized, but the rider was already long past. Why, anyone could have made the same mistake under these circumstances….
One of the problems with attributing someone else’s mistake to their personality is that internal traits are considered difficult, if not impossible, to change. If I blame a rider’s personality for cutting me off, there’s nothing much either of us can do about it. I probably won’t bother to ask her to speak a little louder next time she calls “Heads up.” I won’t feel it’s worth the time to start a friendly chat about how my horse needs some extra space. And that means neither of us will have the benefit of learning from the other or creating positive relationships in our sport.
When we attribute someone else’s behavior to their disposition, specific areas of the medial prefrontal cortex, located a couple of inches behind our foreheads, are activated. This activation is automatic and must be suppressed before we can contemplate that person’s situational context. For this reason, quick decisions about why other people behaved as they did are often dicey. Our brains need more time to ponder the options.
Unfortunately, self-serving and attributional biases are not limited to riders. Our trainers, friends and family are prone to the same illusions with respect to our riding. Your trainer’s brain will naturally lead her to attribute your failure to a bad judge or a misbehaving horse rather than to your need for greater skill. Trainers who are aware of brain biases are much more likely to overcome them, as they must to help students learn and improve.
The Bad Horse/Good Horse Fallacy
So far, we’ve focused on the effect of brain biases on human interaction. But one of the most common fundamental attribution errors in equine sports is blaming the horse. I call this the Bad Horse/Good Horse fallacy. A jumper sails over every fence, no matter how high or wide. She rarely hesitates and never fails to try. As if handling a computer mouse, her riders can just “point-and-jump.” What a Good Horse! But suppose one day she gallops down to a big vertical and stops. Dead center and last minute, the kind of stop that turns riders into rockets while trainers slap their foreheads on the sidelines. Bad Horse! Or is she?
Instead, we could apply the salve of context to the horse, just as we would to ourselves. Fly-Girl might have been distracted—maybe that toddler with the balloon again—or tired. Maybe her feet are sore or she tweaked a muscle yesterday. The photographer’s flash could have blinded her at just the wrong moment. Maybe she’s just off for no good reason—people have bad days once in a while; can’t our horses, too? If she receives the training, veterinary care, skilled riding, rest or exercise she needs, she will be able to show us over time who she really is.
In equine sports, the horse is always with us—ever the available scapegoat. Newbies often presume that the horse does all the work; riders just sit up top and look pretty. Many parents blame the horse when a child falls off, and too many trainers allow that erroneous attribution to stand. Falling is part of riding. It’s the rider’s job to learn to control the horse under all sorts of conditions—and it’s the trainer’s job to teach her how. If that horse misbehaves, a good rider doesn’t rush out and buy a new one. Instead, you take a look in the mirror and figure out how to address the problem. Riders who blame the horse are only setting themselves up for more failure in the future.
The Availability Heuristic
Concepts become more readily available in memory when we think about them a lot. This is a physiological feature of the neurons in our brains. When activated by a given thought, neural networks approach a firing threshold that primes them to become activated more easily over the next few seconds. A thought that recurs several times keeps those neurons in a state of exceptional readiness, so they’ll fire with much less stimulation than is usually needed.
The availability heuristic occurs when the thought of an event becomes more available in memory. For that reason, our brains overestimate the chances of that event actually happening. This brain bias is very common in television news, where we see the same disaster again and again until we come to believe it is likely to happen to us. Watch the repeats of a school shooting, and pretty soon you’re afraid to let the kids outside.
Adding a horse to the availability heuristic boosts the effect because equine brains are sensitive enough to mirror and magnify tiny changes in human emotion. Suppose you take Bucky to the trailhead early one morning. The sun’s not strong yet but the wind is blowing, producing unusual noises in low-lit bushes and trees. Bucky becomes nervous, eventually giving you the unpleasant sense that a four-legged explosion is about to occur.
The voice in your head begins to remind you that Bucky is attending to every potential sound, even the imaginary ones. His muscles tighten, and his back begins to rise—doesn’t it? Or is that just your imagination? Soon you are thinking, “He’s about to blow, and I’m going to be bucked off. Yes, bucked off. Bucked off. Bucked off.”
Your brain is now primed to overestimate the likelihood of eating the dirt for real. The more you think about it, the more your availability heuristic tells you it’s going to happen. At the same time, you become less able to calm your thoughts, so you cannot calm your horse. As the vicious circle is reinforced, you become more worried, the horse more nervous; you believe you are more likely to be bucked off, and because of the biased response in your brain, you are. At that point, your body’s sympathetic response heightens illusory danger even further—“I’m going to be bucked off and land on that sharp rock. I’m going to be bucked off and land on that sharp rock and be knocked unconscious and my horse is going to run away and I will be left here bleeding and no one will come to save me….” There’s no end to what a good, strong brain can imagine.
To overcome the availability heuristic, substitute negative mantras with positive phrases before things get out of hand. Verify that the trail is clear, then talk aloud to your horse in a super-serene voice—“We’re fine.” “Take it easy.” Reassuring phrases will relax you with their content, and they will relax your horse with their tone. Take a long easy breath. Sing if you like—fortunately, “The Voice” isn’t televised from trailheads, and your horse won’t care if you’re pitchy. If necessary, dismount and settle your thoughts for five minutes. Show the horse there is nothing to worry about—he needs your leadership to assuage his own fear. When you remount, put your inner voice and availability heuristic to work in your favor: “Calm, calm, calm; breathe, breathe, breathe.”
The Bias Blind Spot
Self-serving bias, fundamental attribution error and availability heuristic are only three of many cognitive illusions that affect horsemanship. So far, cognitive scientists have identified nearly 200 biases in the natural function of human brains. I’ll close by mentioning only one more: the bias blind spot.
As you read this article, you are probably beginning to experience this blind spot for yourself. Quite simply, it is the belief that each of us tends to see ourselves as less biased than other people are. You might imagine yourself having fewer brain biases by virtue of innate intelligence or a good education. Your friend might believe he is less biased than others because he’s a critical thinker or a realist. I could judge myself less biased by my background as a cognitive scientist. But in fact, everyone who is healthy and normal experiences cognitive illusions. If there’s no bias in your brain, please call a doctor right now because something’s very wrong.
This article first appeared in EQUUS issue #455, July 2015.