In the ever-evolving field of human psychology, more and more is becoming understood about the cognitive biases that affect our decision-making processes. Cognitive biases are essentially computing errors that influence the way we make decisions about the world around us, and ultimately lead us to flawed conclusions.
Everyone has been wrong at least once or twice in their lives (although some of us would like to believe otherwise), but understanding why we arrived at a false conclusion is the first step to improving our decision-making abilities. Factors such as emotion, social influences, personal motivations, and limits on the brain’s computing power can all lead people to come to flawed conclusions.
This article will discuss what cognitive biases are, some of the most common cognitive biases that affect people’s thinking, and ways in which we might be able to overcome certain cognitive biases in pursuit of more complete logical processes.
What Are Cognitive Biases?
A cognitive bias is a type of computing error that occurs when people perceive information from the world around them and then interpret that information in a flawed or incomplete way, affecting the way they make decisions or judgments about the world around them. All human beings experience cognitive biases, as we are subjective and inherently imperfect beings with tendencies to view our own decision-making processes as objective and flawless.
On a day-to-day basis, our brains take in a massive amount of information, while only a small percentage of this information is translated to conscious thought. The process through which your brain filters out only the information that seems pertinent to a given situation is called heuristics. This is meant to ease the load of information that your brain must consider at a certain time. The heuristic process, however, inevitably leaves out pieces of the puzzle, and this can often lead to flawed conclusions.
Additionally, all of the information that one uses for the purpose of decision-making is filtered through your subjective and emotional mind. Therefore, it can be very difficult (and some would argue impossible) to process any information in an entirely objective and rational way. In other words, every piece of information you receive is affected by your emotions, the past events of your life, what you had for breakfast, and an innumerable amount of other factors.
Both heuristics and our inherent subjectivity affect the ways in which we come to conclusions in many ways. Psychologists have undertaken the task of defining and categorizing these cognitive biases with the hopes of understanding why human beings tend to think the way they do.
Types of Cognitive Biases
This list of cognitive biases is by no means exhaustive, as psychologists have identified hundreds of types of cognitive biases and are discovering new ones all the time. Here are just some of the most common types of cognitive biases as well as examples of how they might look in the real world:
- Affect heuristic – This is a mental shortcut that involves making a decision based on how you feel about something. If you have a “gut feeling” that a decision is going to yield good results, you’re more likely to make that decision.
- Confirmation bias – This involves favoring information that confirms an opinion that you already hold while dismissing information that is contrary to your opinion. For instance, you’re more likely to believe a scandal about a celebrity that you dislike, while if you like a certain celebrity, you’d be more likely to dismiss a scandal as being untruthful.
- Anchoring bias – This is the tendency to place too much weight on the first piece of information you receive, and to favor it over subsequent pieces of information. This is often used in negotiations, as the initial price offer can often “define the ballpark” of a certain asset’s value.
- The Dunning-Kruger effect – This is when people assume that something is simple just because they’re lacking knowledge or information about it. Essentially, this is when people assume that they understand a concept perfectly when they really don’t.
- Self-serving bias – This is when we assume that good things happen because of our own skill or competency while assuming that bad things happen because of external forces outside of our control. For example, if you win a game of football, it was because you outplayed the other team. If you lose, it’s because the referees screwed you.
- Optimism/pessimism bias – This is when we are more likely to predict a positive outcome when we are in a good mood, but more likely to predict a negative outcome when we are in a bad mood.
- Hindsight bias – Essentially, this is when someone says, “Oh, I knew that would happen,” after something happens. In reality, there is no way they could have predicted that particular outcome before it happened. This can lead to overconfidence in making predictions about the future.
- In-group bias – This is the tendency to believe information from people who are part of your own social group more than people who are outside of your social group. For instance, members of a political party are far more likely to believe information they receive from members of their own party rather than from members of the opposing party.
- The halo effect – This is the tendency to allow our impression of someone or something in one area affect our overall judgment of them or it. This often applies to people’s assumptions about others based on their level of perceived physical attractiveness. As applied to companies, if you were to buy a Ford truck that was extremely reliable, you might assume that all Ford vehicles are reliable.
- Recency bias – This is when we favor information that we learned more recently due to the limited capacity of short-term memory. For example, you might start to think someone is nice if the last thing they said to you was nice, even if they’ve said far more mean things to you in the past.
- The framing effect – This is the way in which our opinions are affected by the way something is presented to us. For example, we might be more likely to buy “90% fat-free” milk than “10% fat” milk since the first option seems healthier when in reality, they’re exactly the same.
- Frequency illusion – Also known as the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon, this is when we notice something for the first time, and there is a tendency to notice it more often afterward, leading us to believe that it is suddenly appearing in high frequency. If you’ve ever learned a new word, and then that word seems to pop up everywhere in the next few days, you’ve experienced the frequency illusion.
Tips for Overcoming Cognitive Biases
While cognitive biases are inherent to the human decision-making process and, in all likelihood, can never be completely eliminated, there are some ways to reduce the effects of cognitive biases on our thinking. Here are some ways that you can train your mind to reduce the effects of cognitive biases:
- Stay aware of your biases. Now that you’re aware of some of the most common cognitive biases, be conscious of them while you’re in the process of making a decision. Ask yourself why you’re coming to a certain conclusion, and if any of these cognitive biases may be influencing you.
- Actively challenge your biases. Rather than staying fixed in your own beliefs, seek out information that contradicts you and try to view it in the most objective way possible. For example, if you hold a certain set of political beliefs, try reading publications from the opposing party in an unemotional, unbiased way. This exercise will help build awareness of your own cognitive biases.
- Try to observe cognitive biases in others. Learning to identify when another person’s decision-making process is being influenced by cognitive biases will eventually help you recognize when cognitive biases come into play in your own thinking.
For a more complete understanding of the spectrum of cognitive biases, check out the Cognitive Bias Codex conceptualized by Buster Benson.