We like to think of ourselves as rational beings. We like to believe that our actions are decided by our thoughts and that we have full control over everything we do. However, the truth is that many of our behaviors transcend rationality and seem to contradict all of our thoughts and beliefs, sometimes even psychology itself. Think about all the crazy fads that seemingly come out of nowhere and take over the media, think about how 94% of college professors think that their teaching skills are above average (1), and think about how crazy the sports frenzy can get. Even though all these things point to the fact that not all of our behaviors are dictated by rationality or even sanity, these behaviors are not entirely unknown, and some are even familiar psychological concepts. Cognitive biases are such concepts since although they are composed of strange and baffling behaviors, they have been studied and are even predictable to an extent.
What are Cognitive Biases?
Cognitive biases are essentially mistakes in thinking, reasoning, and rationale that can lead to unexplained and unpredicted behavior (2). They change the way we perceive outside information and thus also change how we would react to it. Our brains are marvelous machines that manage to take in enormous amounts of information from the outside world and filter out anything that is unnecessary so that we only have to deal with what is important to us (3). However, it is very difficult to figure out what is important to us because a lot of the time we are dealing with something unknown or something we have not encountered before. Instead of wasting all of its energy in trying to decipher all these new things, the brain has come up with many shortcuts to break down all of this information in terms of things we already know. Whenever you see something that looks like a door, you don’t have to go inspect it to figure out what it is and what it does. However strange and unusual the door may be, the brain takes a shortcut and decides that anything that looks like a door is, in fact, a door. It is also why whenever you see a shadow in a dark alley, you start worrying and running away. It could be the shadow of anything, but your brain does not want to take any chances and assumes it is a mugger and therefore tells you to run away. Long ago, these shortcuts could have been the difference between life and death as we struggled to survive (4). Now, as most of us no longer have to worry about being chased by a lion, these “instincts” can cause us to make many mistakes. Cognitive biases are in essence mental shortcuts that we are not aware of but that have a great impact on our actions.
Examples and Effects
There are countless biases that affect everything from decision making to memory so it would be very difficult to address them all. However, there are a few that are very well known and well-studied. The confirmation bias causes us to seek out information that supports our current beliefs and ignore any information that may contradict it. The internet is filled with articles that argue both sides of an issue, but we usually only notice the ones that argue for our side. The information bias causes us to think that the more we know about something the better decision we can make, even though the information does not directly relate to the decision. There is no need to know when a park was founded when deciding when to go for a walk, but we still like to include this information in our decision making. The outcome bias causes us to judge a decision based on the outcome of the decision rather than the decision itself. Just because you won a bet one time does not mean that you are good at betting or that betting is even a good idea. As you can see, cognitive biases are very different and affect us in every aspect of our lives. The problem is that just knowing about them will not change how we behave. Our brains are hardwired to make these types of shortcuts and won’t behave differently just because of new information (5). So, what can we do?
Besides being aware of any specific bias, we have to create habits that can counter these biases and therefore lessen their effects. The best choice is the #3 rule. Whenever you are faced with a decision, are thinking about the future or just the chances of something happening, it is important to think about more than one outcome. The #3 rule says that you should make 3 estimates, one low, one high and one in between. If you take into account the worst-case scenario and the best-case scenario first, your actual prediction will be more balanced and therefore less likely to have been impacted by any sort of bias (6).
Of course, this suggestion is somewhat general as it attempts to tackle many of the cognitive biases. The best way to face them is to take concrete steps against each specific one. Therefore, as we delve deeper into each specific bias, more specific habits and actions will be made clear. Until then just keep in mind that your brain is not always working for you.
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