What Are Cognitive Biases and 6 Ways to Minimize Them
Have you ever, with your best intentions, made a decision that turned out to be a poor or detrimental one? You probably have. We all have made choices at different points in our lives that, at the moment, seemed right but, in retrospect, were completely short of logic and accurate reasoning. The primary reason behind these cases of poor judgments and errors in decision-making is what is known as cognitive biases.
The term ‘Cognitive Biases’ was first coined by Israeli psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky in the 1970s after researching the factors that influence thoughts and decision-making.
Cognitive biases come from two words — cognition and biases. Cognition refers to the mental process involved in acquiring knowledge, learning, and generally all that has to do with thinking. And bias is defined as a partiality that prevents objective consideration of an issue or situation. Therefore cognitive biases are flaws in one’s reasoning and thinking process that can lead to the misrepresentation of information, leading to inaccurate or erroneous conclusions.
We like to believe that we are always rational and logical, but the truth is that we have certain cognitive biases that directly influence our thought processes. These biases are caused by our past experiences and our perceptions. They are often just results of how our brains are wired to process information and navigate the world around us.
Psychologists believe that many of the biases that affect our thinking allow us to reach decisions quickly and can help us efficiently navigate everyday situations in life. But beyond these adaptive purposes that cognitive biases serve, they can distort our critical thinking, cause us to see connections between ideas that aren’t really there, and ultimately lead to unpalatable outcomes and hinder our personal and collective growth.
Sometimes, these cognitive biases are easily recognizable in yourself and others, while in other cases, they are so subtle that it will take considerable effort to notice them. Whatever the case may be, taking conscious steps to recognize and minimize your cognitive biases is very important for expanding your thinking and making more beneficial decisions in the many areas of your life and that of others.
I will be taking you through the major types of cognitive biases that exist, their effects on your thought process, and how you can minimize them so that you can make better day-to-day decisions. Pay close attention as I delve into this vital topic, beginning with the question of why cognitive biases exist.
Why do cognitive biases exist?
According to a report from NPR, the human brain can process 11 million bits of information every second. Still, our conscious minds can only handle only 40 to 50 bits of this information per second. So to speed up decision-making and make judgments more quickly, our brains sometimes take mental shortcuts. This mental shortcut is what is termed Heuristic.
Nobel-prize-winning economist and cognitive psychologist Herbert Simon introduced this concept of heuristics in psychology. He suggested that while we strive to make rational decisions, our judgment is subject to cognitive limitations. His findings showed that while heuristics are helpful in many situations, they can also lead to cognitive biases, which pose severe problems for how we perceive and act toward other people and in some instances.
Researcher and Social psychologist at Stanford University, Jennifer Eberhardt, writes in her book Biased — where she attempts to uncover the neurological roots of bias — that “Bias is a natural byproduct of the way our brains work.” This is because the brain has evolved to develop a ranking system to decide which information gets your attention and which is important enough to get stored in memory.
It then subtly makes use of the assumptions based on your belief — which themselves have been influenced by socio-cultural and environmental factors beyond your conscious awareness or control — to influence your thoughts in new situations. In doing this, the brain creates some sort of shortcut when reaching conclusions and thereby ignores some other important information or misperceives them.
Understanding that biases exist as an inherent part of our brain’s thinking process, we now know that it is almost impossible to eliminate them altogether. However, we can reduce them to the barest minimum and keep them from negatively influencing our thoughts and behavior.
Impacts of cognitive biases
In general, cognitive biases can significantly hinder your capacity to make correct decisions, restrict your problem-solving skills, inhibit your career performance, compromise the accuracy of your recollections, hinder your ability to react to emergencies, heighten anxiety and despair, and harm your relationships.
Beyond the personal effects of cognitive biases, they have been noted to have had some real-world effects. These disaster-level cases include; the loss of lives during an expedition on Mount Everest, the influence of the global financial crisis that began in 2007, the loss of the Mars Climate Orbiter, the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, the loss of the Space Shuttle Challenger, and so many more.
Another significant effect of cognitive biases that needs mentioning is how it contributes to wrongful convictions. People who fit into particular descriptions and stereotypes — based on gender, race, background, etc. — that have been labeled as more prone to crime are usually the first suspects and, at times, the only suspects when the investigation into a committed crime is ongoing.
An example is the case of Levon “Bo” Jones, an innocent African American man who was wrongfully convicted of the 1987 murder of a white man named Leamon Grady. Jones spent 14 years on death row before his case was reexamined and set free. His initial sentence happened because the case built against him was riddled with errors, oversights, and biases concerning his race and societal class.
Jones’ case is just one out of the many cases of people who have been wrongfully convicted of crimes they did not commit because of the biases of their prosecutors, and not all of them have been as lucky as Levon Jones.
All these examples illustrate just how critical the topic of cognitive biases is and how much impact it has on our lives as both individuals and collectively as citizens of the world.
The twelve major types of cognitive biases
If you look up “list of cognitive biases” on the internet, you will find well over 150 listed types and forms. However, many of them are mainly repetitions, and some are entirely unfounded. With further cognitive science research on human judgment and decision-making, this list continues to evolve, but currently, 12 major cognitive biases have the most pronounced effects. They are as follows:
This bias occurs when people over-rely on the first piece of information or action they hear or see and anchor their thoughts and decisions on that information. Let’s take, for example, a car dealer who places the most expensive and attractive cars at the front of the showroom. They do this to draw the customers in, but also so that they see the highest price points first. This is essential!
When customers enter the dealership, they may see a luxury car priced at $70,000. Way out of their price range, but the anchor is set in place. Every other vehicle on the lot is going to seem cheaper in comparison.
In turn, placing the anchor at a higher price point will tend to increase the willingness to pay. This is because this is set as the anchor by which all other cars are compared to.
This bias may limit your ability to see a situation’s broader scope and available options.
This happens when people overestimate the importance of information that is immediately available to them. For example, a person might be convinced that smoking is not harmful to them because they know someone who lived up to ninety and smoked two packs a day, forgetting that that person’s case is just an exception.
This bias causes a person to rely too much on a particular point of view while ignoring others, and this ignorance of other relevant information can be very costly.
This is the tendency to believe or do the things that others believe and do. Essentially, it is simply going along with what is popular and not having your own unique thoughts about a situation.
This bias is a major reason why a person is likely to vote for the candidate they think is winning in elections. Another example occurs when more people begin listening to a particular song or musical group; it becomes more probable that other individuals will also listen.
This is the tendency to pay attention only to information that backs up your preconceptions and previously held beliefs while rejecting the ones that go against them. It is one major reason why some don’t believe in a critical issue like climate change, despite the existing facts and proof.
This bias causes a person to be highly prone to delusion and become distant from reality.
This bias directly influences your perception and causes you to respond to information based on how it is framed, beyond its factual content. For example, if you are told by a doctor that surgery has a 90% success rate, you are more likely to opt for it than if you were told it had a 10% failure rate, even though both statements connote the same meaning.
The framing effect can make you oblivious of the positives of a particular situation while magnifying the risks.
Hindsight bias is driven by the fact that events are perceived to be more predictable after they happen. For example, in a betting game, you might pick a particular team over another, and your chosen team could have won. Because of this, you might feel like you knew all along that team was going to win all along and forget that factors beyond you were at play in your chosen team winning — factors that could have also caused them to lose.
This idea that you knew what happened or was going to happen can cause overconfidence and prevent you from taking a critical look into the past and being careful enough when making future decisions to prevent unpalatable outcomes.
This bias happens when your impression of one aspect of a person or thing affects your overall impression of that person or thing. It causes one to attribute unverified qualities in a person based on an observed quality. For example, believing that a tall and handsome young man in a well-tailored three-piece suit is kind, intelligent, and a great leader, whereas his appearance might just be a facade and he might, in fact, be a criminal kingpin.
This bias causes one to be easily deceived and can cause you to make critical choices based on mere outlooks.
Due to our disposition as humans to favor those we personally know or like, this bias causes us to be less objective during the process of selecting, hiring, or choosing who to do something with.
For instance, as someone in a position to recruit people into a job or position, you may find yourself choosing likeability and similitude over competence, which will inevitably adversely affect the productivity and value of the work.
Some people are too confident about their knowledge, opinions, and abilities, believing their contribution to a decision is more valuable than it actually is. This bias can cause them to take more significant risks than they ought to and make them belittle the ideas and opinions of others.
Experts are known to be more prone to this bias than laypeople because they are more convinced that they know better.
This bias is in effect when a person constantly takes credit for positive outcomes but distances themselves from any blame for negative ones. It is the idea that something good happened entirely because your efforts and adverse effects have nothing to do with you. This bias causes you to fail to acknowledge the contribution of factors outside of you to the success of a project or goal while blaming external factors for negative events.
When this bias influences people, they reject the validity of negative feedback and only focus on their strengths and achievements while ignoring their faults and shortcomings. Because of this, they lose out on important lessons and fail to grow.
Status quo/ zero-risk bias
This is the tendency to keep things in their current state because you want to play safe and avoid risk and loss. It is primarily driven by what is known as loss aversion — the tendency to prefer avoiding losses to acquiring equivalent gains. I.e., you would rather not gain something new than take a risk that could cause you to lose something you already had.
While this bias seemingly has its advantages in keeping you from losses, in the long run, it stifles growth by making it difficult to take the leap of faith in reaching for better alternatives and more beneficial outcomes.
As famous British adventurer, writer, and businessman Edward “Bear” Grylls said, “Without risk, there can be no growth.”
This is the idea that too much cost has been incurred in a venture, and giving up or stopping is too late. An example is refusing to sell a sizable long stock position in a rapidly falling market, thereby incurring yet further losses.
This bias simply makes people forget that one can never go too far in the wrong direction, that they can’t cut their losses and turn back in the right one.
Six steps to minimize biases?
I have earlier stated that it is practically impossible to completely eliminate biases in our thinking because our thoughts will always be influenced by factors beyond us, such as our environments and life experiences. However, the good news is that there are strategies that will help us mitigate their potency and effects. The following are six key ways through which this can be achieved.
Be aware of the bias by engaging in metacognition.
The very first step to solving a problem is knowing that it exists. Before significantly minimizing cognitive biases’ effect on your thought process, you must first realize that they exist and consciously try to identify which could influence your decisions and actions at any given time.
You might ask, “how do I recognize biases when they happen subconsciously?” Well, the answer lies in a concept known as metacognition. In layman’s terms, this simply means thinking about your thoughts. This may sound strange, but it really isn’t.
Thinking about your thoughts simply involves taking a pause whenever you’re thinking and carefully reflecting on what you’re thinking about to examine them for the possible influence of biases. By so doing, you will be able to understand how your mental processes work and recognize the flaws you previously couldn’t.
Acknowledge your mental limitations
The human brain is vulnerable to biases because of how it has evolved over the years. If you feel you know it all and are unwilling to admit that you might have some shortcomings in your thinking, then you will always be subject to the influences of these biases.
Know that even memory can be unreliable at times. Our recollection of an event isn’t always accurate, and we may often find ourselves remembering things that weren’t there in the first place. Scientists have found that simply prompting an eyewitness while they are testifying in court to remember more can cause them to generate details that are outrightly false but true to the witness as actual memories. So, always consider this reality so that you won’t become overconfident when making decisions and can get the necessary insight from others.
Question your thoughts and beliefs
Certain external factors have shaped your current thoughts and beliefs. For example, you might have spent all your life believing that the earth is flat simply because your parents and teachers believed and taught you that. But that doesn’t mean it is truly flat. Therefore, challenge your pre-existing thoughts whenever you’re thinking and making decisions.
Ask questions like, “Is my belief based on verifiable facts?” “Am I giving too much attention to certain factors while neglecting other important ones because they don’t support my point of view?” “Is my ego getting the better of me that I’m unwilling to change my beliefs?”
By thinking like this and asking yourself these necessary questions, you will be able to more quickly detect the underlying factors driving your biases and ultimately become a more critical thinker — an attribute essential for better decision-making.
Seek the opinion of others
Thinking in isolation will limit your ability to consider all relevant factors. By having a diverse group of people around you and seeking their opinions and points of view about a situation or a decision you want to make, you will get better insight and see that which you couldn’t see alone.
Also, they will help give your thoughts and decisions the necessary scrutiny and help expose whatever bias could be influencing you. When they give the opinions you’ve sought, ensure you don’t allow pride to cause you to ignore or belittle them, even if they are not what you want to hear. Listen carefully so that you will be able to get all they have to offer.
Take your time before making decisions.
Good thinking takes time. Rash decisions are made hastily. If you’re forced to decide on the spot, you will naturally default to certain pre-existing biases. But by allowing yourself enough time to carefully consider the situation and put into practice the earlier given suggestions, you will be able to make more responsible and reliable decisions.
This point is really as simple as it sounds and requires no further explanation. Simply give more time to your thinking process, and you will be able to better prevent them from being influenced by biases.
Consciously learn about cognitive biases.
This article has provided you with some substantial information on cognitive biases. You can further help yourself by consciously getting more materials to broaden your knowledge on the topic and better equip you to recognize them in your own life with tools to counteract them effectively.
Some books include Daniel Kahneman’s ‘Thinking, Fast and Slow,’ Magnus Mcdaniel’s ‘How Our Brains Betray Us,’ Rolf Dobelli’s ‘The Art of Thinking Clearly,’ Albert Rutherford’s ‘Neuroscience and Decision-making’ and so many more.
In a previous episode on free will, I showed you just how much of our actions and decisions can be influenced by factors we are unaware or unconscious of. This article has shown how imperfect our decisions can be due to the biases that influence them. The aim has been to enlighten you on these flaws in thinking so that you can be better equipped to recognize the situations where you’ll be vulnerable to them and take the necessary steps to minimize them.
Cognitive biases are inherent in the way we think, and many of them are unconscious. It is unlikely that you will get to eliminate them entirely. However, by using the provided steps in this article, you can significantly improve your chances of keeping them away from most of your thought processes to make better and more informed decisions.
Always remember the power of choice and know that you can train your mind to think as accurately and effectively as possible. Take that responsibility today and go on to make the best decisions you can.
This article is based on an episode of Passion Struck with John R. Miles.
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