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Biases or heuristics: Shakespeare, Kahneman and us – the difference between appearance and reality

Shakespeare’s play A midsummer night’s dream incorporates various narratives that create its dreamlike qualities. For example, it frequently shows characters waking up to a different reality after having dreamed or presents them in a dreamlike state after having had magic worked upon them, which has changed their own reality. The majority of the play’s action also develops overnight, with references to moonlight, which changes the appearance of the objects on which it sheds light. Thus, it alters what is visible and open to interpretation, and what is not. In doing this, Shakespeare succeeds in touching on a key theme with his play – that things are not necessarily what they seem to be.

We can often experience for ourselves this difference between appearance and reality in our everyday life. A number of so called heuristics or biases play a significant role in this. Many of these have been researched thoroughly by Kahneman and his colleagues, including the following:

  • We are inclined to prefer information that confirms our preconceptions or hypotheses (confirmation bias) rather than considering all information relevant to a particular matter, e.g., “I must have a threatening disease because I experience repeated episodes of fast palpitations, despite all medical exams coming back clean”.
  • We overestimate the length or intensity of how we might feel in the future (impact bias) about a certain situation we see as threatening, such as giving a presentation or being in a social situation.
  • We are likely to “trust our gut” and thus make decisions based on how someone makes us feel (affect heuristic), while ignoring other relevant information on the subject, such as that we hardly know each other.
  • We engage with certain activities (e.g., smoking, gambling, drinking or eating excessively) and then decide to keep going since we have already gone this far (commitment heuristic), while giving up our choice to stop now.


The role of heuristics

These heuristics are the filters through which we experience certain situations and determine our perspective on the subject. Yet, if these filters are biased, it is likely that our unhelpful thoughts process information in a way that will lead us to have unpleasant feelings, such as stress, fear or low mood.

However, something is only stressful, scary or depressing as long as we choose to look at it in that way. The moment we shift our attention to something else, the feeling will often disappear, in the same way that feelings just after we wake up from a dream soon fade. If we choose to go back to and dwell on this dream, we would relive those feelings. Similarly, if we choose to look back at certain situations from our original perspective, it can bring back to us the same feelings we experienced previously.

Consequently, our perspective can make us feel good or bad. It’s been said that this may well be the secret of happiness. So before you decide how you feel about something, just ask yourself: “Is there another way to look at this?”

After all, to allow a play, a dream or any situation to have an effect on us depends on us attending to it and taking it at face value. If we choose how we look at them, they simply have no power over us.


Dr Patapia Tzotzoli

Dr Patapia Tzotzoli founded My Psychology Clinic where she gained her reputation working as Clinical Psychologist with clients on one to one basis in London and worldwide via online therapy. She specialises in adult mental health and couples therapy. Studied at the universities of East London, Oxford and Cambridge and trained at the Institute of Psychiatry where she worked across world-renowned NHS Trusts.

Dr Patapia TzotzoliMedical LiveWire Award Winner

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