We Only Hear What We Want to Hear

August 26, 2018

Human beings want to be sure of everything. We tend to believe that our opinions are very well-informed and valid, even though we often don’t know why we think the way we do. It’s not uncommon for these characteristics to outweigh reason itself. This is why they say we only hear what we want to hear.

This is due to selective attention and its functioning. It consists of only focusing on determined aspects leaving the other ones aside, especially when it comes to opinions and beliefs. It might seem logical to act that way because paying attention to everything around us is quite impossible. However, this can turn into a cognitive bias that stops us from perceiving reality adequately.

The information we choose through our attention mechanism doesn’t always have to be the most valid or relevant. We rather try to pay attention only to the things that confirm our beliefs or opinions. That’s why, in the end, we always end up hearing only what we want to hear.

Selective attention and its effects

One way or another, we always pay attention to some realities more than others. Our cognitive system has limitations. It focuses only on some aspects and ignores others in order to function correctly. This is an adaptive response to avoid an overload in the processing of stimuli.

Now, reasonable selective attention can make us become close-minded. If we hear something that questions our beliefs or opinions, we’ll automatically build up a wall of rejection and simply hear what we want to hear and believe what we want to believe, no matter the pieces of evidence.

Selective attention shown through a girl listening to a shell at the beach.

Most of the time, we do this without even realizing it. For example, we surround ourselves with people who think like us (or at least very similarly). We tend to exclude other people because we assume our differences will cause conflicts. For this reason, we look for environments that reinforce our beliefs. Since everyone around us thinks the same way we do, we believe our opinion is the one that’s right.

We also hear what we want to hear through another cognitive bias

The selective attention bias isn’t the only influential one. In fact, there’s another bias through which we only hear what we want to hear: confirmation bias. It refers to the tendency to look for evidence that validates our thoughts and beliefs while ignoring the evidence that questions them.

We do this almost unconsciously. If we come across information or a person who contradicts our beliefs, we tend to reject them. We don’t study the validity of what they’re saying, we just decide not to believe in their arguments. Even if what they say makes sense, we’ll always find a way to turn it around and make it match our own beliefs.

We’re not even interested in knowing the truth most of the time, we just want to prove to ourselves that we’re right. Insecure people can relate to this the most. They’re definitely more stubborn when it comes to their biases.

Illusion of a man on a hand.

The effects of this situation

The first effect of keeping ourselves in a position where we only hear what we want to hear is getting stuck in a possible mistake. We deprive ourselves of learning, expanding our horizons, and getting to know the truth. This might lead to other problems.

Selective attention and confirmation biases could have devastating effects on depressed people. They end up validating everything regarding their suffering and anguish, leading to a significant increase in their discomfort and sadness. They don’t realize what they’re doing, they impose their truth no matter what.

Same goes for those with anxiety. Not only hearing what we want to hear requires effort and hard work, but it’s necessary. It’s good to listen to other people’s opinions without questioning their validity or being defensive and imposing our own. Let’s be open to differences. In the end, that’s what makes the world such a diverse place.