What are cognitive biases?
Your brain is powerful, but it isn’t all-powerful. You are not a rational demigod with piercing logic all the time. You have brain farts — you forget where you put your keys, you walk into a room and immediately ask yourself why, you create mental stories that don’t match reality. Your brain has fascinating limits and odd tendencies. One such limit? Your brain loves shortcuts. Understanding these mental terminal points helps you make sharper decisions.
It would be incredibly tiring for the brain to process every bit of information it encounters with precise rationality. So it creates mental shortcuts to help you make sense of things quickly. While this expedited information processing is meant to help you, it sometimes makes mistakes. These systematic errors in your subjective way of thinking are known as cognitive biases.
Side note: Cognitive biases are often caused by the limits of human attention, memory and attribution. They are similar to logical fallacies (i.e. common errors in logic) but they are not quite the same (i.e. cognitive biases are errors in thought-processing). They are also not to be confused with cognitive distortions (i.e. unhelpful thinking habits, often negative).
How do they impact our thinking?
Cognitive biases distort your critical thinking. They make it hard for you to have an accurate map of reality. They are strong preconceptions that hold you back from truths by seeing nonexistent patterns. Since they are shortcuts, they lead to difficulty in exchanging complete information. They can lead you to make decisions that harm you or others.
“If there’s something you really want to believe, that’s what you should question the most.”
— Penn Jillette
It’s hard to make great decisions with cognitive biases muddying the waters and blocking the path. To avoid bad judgments, we must learn to identify cognitive biases in ourselves and others.
Here are 7 common cognitive biases to look out for in your own thinking. There are many more biases you can learn about. But here, I have picked a few examples of the most fascinating and the easiest to trip you up. You may also start noticing these biases in others. However, this is written to help you sharpen your own judgment and decision-making.
1. Confirmation Bias:
We tend to seek and interpret information in ways that line up with our existing beliefs. Our brains don’t want too much of a challenge. We cherrypick information that matches our prior views and ideas, and we tend to ignore information that challenges prior beliefs. This is called confirmation bias. It is one of the most common cognitive biases to examine yourself for.
“People are always clinging to what they want to hear, discarding the evidence that doesn’t fit with their beliefs; giving greater weight to evidence that does.”
— Paula Stokes
Let’s say you’re a person of faith. You will interpret the things that happen to you either as “tests of your faith” during hard times, “blessings” during the good times, and “miracles” during the really good times. A nonbeliever in the same situation would likely not see it that way. In fact, some may see them as proof that they are masters of their own lives, without divine influence.
Self-fulfilling prophecies are a subset of confirmation bias. Let’s say you are worried about flunking a test. You start having trouble studying, then spend the night before the test sleepless and anxious. This leads to you failing which then confirms your prior belief. Or you think a friend has ill intentions that will hurt you. You tend to view most of what they do through that lens. And when they do indeed do something that you may have otherwise found only mildly offensive, you take it to heart, and it proves your original belief. Examples are plenty.
2. Anchoring Bias
The first piece of information you receive about something often heavily influences subsequent judgments, estimates, and opinions on it. Let’s say you want to buy a phone. The first phone you see in your search is of a certain price. Your brain now uses this information to judge phone prices — meaning the phones you see above that price you’ll see as bad deals and those below it as good deals. Marketers use this trick when they cross off an “old” higher price with a seemingly discounted price tag underneath. Your brain anchors on the “original” price and perceives the current price as a deal. The anchoring bias isn’t just to do with prices. Our first impressions of people often form the anchor of our overall impression of that person.
You can use the anchoring bias to your advantage. In a negotiation, for example, the first number that’s voiced often serves as the anchor for the rest of the negotiation. Say you’re trying to sell your car. Set the price, think of a slightly higher number, and be the one who voices it first to the customer. The rest of the negotiation will be based on that number.
3. The Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon
You know how after the first time you hear of something, you start noticing it a heck of a lot more? Let’s say you learn a new word or concept. (Valhalla). You start hearing it a lot more frequently. The same thing happens when you first hear a song. Soon, you start hearing it everywhere. This is called the frequency bias. This also happens when you’re looking for something — say, you are in the market for a not-so-common car, like a weird Nissan Juke — you start seeing Jukes everywhere.
The way this frequency bias got its more badass name, the Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon, was from a newspaper article in the 1960s. A reader wrote in to note that once he had read about the West German terrorist group, Baader-Meinhof, that name started popping up everywhere for him. He saw it in the paper, heard it on the radio, on TV — everywhere.
4. Survivorship Bias:
We tend to remember the most vivid, most outstanding members of a subgroup and think of them as representative of the entire group. For every uber-successful college dropout CEO, there are millions who dropped out and ended up in miserable failure. Yet we remember the standouts. For every person who successfully quit their job, worked hard, stayed focused, and reinvested their earnings to grow their business into an empire, there are a lot more who did the same and failed. 90% of startups fail, and even the remaining 10% aren’t all resounding successes. Yet more and more people enroll in entrepreneurship courses thinking it’s a golden ticket. This is the survivorship bias.
Multilevel marketing scams people using our survivorship bias against us. 99% of the people who take part in MLMs lose money yet the companies behind these show prospects the resounding success of the handful that succeed.
5. The Availability Heuristic
The availability heuristic is a common mental shortcut where your brain prioritizes information you can easily recall. This is when you base your judgment on what quickly comes to mind — despite what’s factual.
To demonstrate the availability heuristic, I’ll ask you three questions:
- Between a lion and a hippo, which is the more dangerous animal? Which one would you rather face if you fell off your safari vehicle in the Serengeti?
- What’s safer — land travel or air travel?
- Imagine a terrorist. What’s the first image that comes to mind?
If you’re like most people, you probably think a lion is more dangerous to humans than a hippo. As predators, lions spring more easily to mind as killers than hippos. But hippos are the world’s most dangerous large land mammals. (They kill more humans than any other mammal).
Air travel is magnitudes safer than land travel. Far fewer people die from airplane accidents in both absolute and relative numbers. But since airplane crashes make global news with shocking images and days of coverage, while most car accidents stay unreported, it is easy to think otherwise.
Finally, if the image you have of a terrorist is of a bearded, olive-skinned Arab male, it’s not your fault. However, this is not borne out in the facts. In the USA, for example, most domestic terrorists are white Christian males. But the media images you recall of terrorists are almost always Arab Muslims.
Whenever you have strong preconceived notions about something you’re evaluating, check yourself for the availability heuristic. Check the facts.
6. Choice Overload
When we are presented with a large number of options to choose from, we get overwhelmed and make worse decisions. I wrote an essay on how to beat this paradox of choice. Here’s a description I’m lifting from there:
We think that maximizing our options maximizes our freedom. We think that the more choice we have, the happier we will be with our decisions. More options, more freedom; more freedom, more happiness — right? Not always. There is indeed such a thing as too much choice. There is a threshold where more choice becomes a burden. After a certain point, more choice equals more confusion and frustration.
Remember this next time you are tempted to widen your range of options before making a decision.
7. Hindsight Bias
We tend to see events as more predictable than they are. Once you learn the outcome of an event, it’s easy for you to think you knew it all along. It is also easy to think differently about how you acted based on new information. The common phrase “hindsight is 20/20” is meant to remind us of this bias. Before something happens, there’s no way of knowing how it pans out — but as soon as it happens, you feel as though you knew it was bound to happen.
At the beginning of 2020, when the coronavirus was announced as a pandemic, many of us thought it would go away in a few months. There were multiple optimistic predictions by experts and nonexperts about the end of the pandemic. We’re now in February 2021 and the pandemic rages on. Many of us now think we knew it all along that the pandemic would last this long. This should make you wary about any current predictions.
You can see this even in your personal life. A friend betrays you, and you feel you knew they would do it all along. You start interpreting all their actions through that lens. Psychologists say this creeping determinism is not all bad, though. It is apparently a mechanism your brain uses to stay clutter-free by discarding inaccurate information.
How do you beat cognitive biases?
Now that you know a few of the tricks your brain can play on you, distorting your thought processes, what can you do to beat them?
A) Be aware.
Now that you know cognitive biases exist — and you know a few common examples — you should be able to notice them in your own thinking a little more easily. You can use critical thinking to defeat them by name. Consider how a pattern you’re seeing, or a preconceived idea you have about a situation, may not match reality. Consider the information you have more carefully, even when your brain would rather take the comfortable shortcut. Take the long, pondered way where you can. Being aware of cognitive biases in the first place is your first step to defeating them. Capisce?
“The question is not what you look at, it’s what you see.”
— Henry David Thoreau
B) Pause. Challenge your thinking.
Ask yourself: What are the factors at play here? What might I be missing? What might be overinfluencing my thinking? What am I ignoring? What are my preconceived notions? Am I allowing my views to be challenged, or relying entirely on old conclusions? Taking the pause to think through your thinking helps you overcome bias.
“Keep your mind open to change all the time. Welcome it. Court it. It is only by examining and reexamining your opinions and ideas that you can progress.”
— Dale Carnegie
C) Eliminate interfering influences.
Once you are aware of your brain’s limiting factors, and have challenged your own thinking, you can remove any unhelpful influencing factors. Researchers often conduct blind studies to eliminate any extenuating influences that would impair their judgment. It is time to put a razor to the factors you now know interfere with clear thinking.
Your brain is brilliant. Your brain also has limits. Identifying cognitive biases is one way to overcome your brain’s limiting shortcuts, make better judgments, and arrive at more helpful conclusions.
Which bias did you find the most fascinating? Which one did you notice in your own life?
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With love, from Tanzania