We navigate through our lives, having created a set of specific ideas, perceptions and ideologies. We mostly believe we are right in the way we think, and this is emphasized by all the research we do to confirm those beliefs and ideas, to prove to the best of our ability how we indeed were right to think this way. Psychologists call these ‘false’ views we have of life ‘cognitive biases’. They tend to manipulate and alter the way we comprehend and explain the things around us. They are systematic errors that predispose our thinking in favor of a certain viewpoint over others.
How do we recognize cognitive biases, and what can we do to transform them into a more realistic point of view to more objectively influence our decision making? Awareness is the first step, of course.
By being aware of the biases our brain applies, we can recognize and mitigate their effects. There are over 70 types of cognitive bias, and here are 9 of the most significant.
1. We ignore facts that don’t agree with our beliefs (Confirmation Bias) :
It is a natural human tendency to always try our hardest to look for information that confirms or supports our points of view, while, at the same time, we ignore pieces of information that do not agree with them. We are very ‘choosy’ in the data we collect , making sure that it doesn’t go against our beliefs or way of thinking. We do that because it is simply easier!
Confirmation bias is a very common error that could have damaging consequences to our lives as we take serious, important and/or even everyday decisions based on false or inadequate information.
2. We overestimate the degree to which others agree with us (False Consensus Bias) :
We all want to be accepted by our peers and fit in. Most of us tend to assume that everyone else shares our own opinions, values , preferences and beliefs. We believe that our habits are normal and that other people think the same way we do.
‘False consensus effect is the overestimation of the level to which other people share our beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors. False consensus is more likely when we attribute the causes of our beliefs and behaviors to external factors, since these factors are also presumed to affect others.’
Asch, (1948; 1952), pointed out that people often interpret the same situation in different ways. Another study by Thomas Gilovich of Cornell University, concluded that ‘when trying to make a choice a person must first interpret what the alternatives mean. The interpretation will influence not only the person’s own choice but – unless he or she is keenly aware that other people might construe the same alternative quite differently – his or her estimates of the number of other people who would choose similarly.
As the present results make clear, a full awareness of the possibility of such alternative construal is apparently lacking, and this lack of awareness plays a key role in the false consensus effect’.
3. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” effect (Status-quo Bias):
‘The status quo bias is a cognitive bias that leads people to prefer that things remain the same, or that they change as little as possible, if they absolutely must be altered. By being aware of the role that the status quo bias plays in their own lives, people can take steps to reduce the influence of this bias on their decision making.’
‘One implication of loss aversion is that individuals have a strong tendency to remain at the status quo, because the disadvantages of leaving it loom larger than the advantages’, (Samuelson and Zeckhauser,1988).
We prefer things to stay the same and we go through the same daily routines. We follow the same route to work, we talk to the same people, we do the same things; familiar circumstances make us feel safer and better. Little changes, we surely enjoy but when the changes are radical, we are not so keen. Sticking with the familiar though, could cost us emotionally, mentally and psychologically. Try to try something new every week. It doesn’t have to be something big at first, as long as you escape your daily routine even that one time.
4. We underestimate the time needed to complete a task (Planning Fallacy):
Women do that a lot; we tend to overestimate our rate of work while underestimating how long it will take us to get something done. People come up with a prediction of the time they need to do something, only by thinking the particular unique task features without considering how much time it took them to complete similar projects in the past.
Eliezer Yudkowsky, of the Machine Intelligence Research Institute, concluded that ‘when you want to get something done, you have to plan out where, when, how; figure out how much time and how much resource is required; visualize the steps from beginning to successful conclusion. All this is the “inside view”, and it doesn’t take into account unexpected delays and unforeseen catastrophes. Asking people to visualize the “worst case” still isn’t enough to counteract their optimism – they don’t visualize enough Murphyness.
5. The ‘I knew it all along’ effect! (Hindsight Bias):
‘The term hindsight bias refers to the tendency people have to view events as more predictable than they really are. After an event, people often believe that they knew the outcome of the event before it actually happened’, (About.com).
Fischhoff (1982) believed that when people try to understand past events , they test the rules they use both to explain and to anticipate the world around them. If, in hindsight, they repeatedly underestimate the surprises that past events held for them or even still holds for them now, they are subjecting those thoughts to weak tests, therefore finding little reason to change them.
For example, someone wakes up in the morning and notices that the weather seems a bit dull. He thinks to himself that it might actually rain later. When it does rain he convinces himself that he said it all along when he saw the clouds rolling in.
6. Self-fulfilling Prophecy:
‘A positive or negative prophecy, strongly held belief, or delusion—declared as truth when it is actually false—may sufficiently influence people so that their reactions ultimately fulfill the once-false prophecy.’ (Wikipedia)
Examples of this can be found everywhere due to this bias being very common. For instance, you expect your new roommate to be shy so you don’t speak or socialize much with him after he moves in, and he therefore does seem shy. Or your professor expects you to do well in the final exams and so she spends extra time with you preparing you for the exam – you get an A.
The most common, negative version of this bias is setting yourself up for failure. “I’ll never lose that weight”, “She’s going to look prettier anyways” and “I’ll never be able to compete with that” are negative, self-fulfilling prophecies. Ladies, life is hard enough: you don’t need to help it knock you down!
7. We are mostly responsible for our successes but not our failures! (Self-serving Bias) :
This bias refers to our tendency to take personal credit for various successes while we blame others or external factors for our failures. Surely, you will think that you are not one of those people. However, we have all done it at some point and more or less than others. Many times we believe that when something goes wrong or we fail at a task, we were not to blame. Our failures are simply caused by outside variables which are out of our control.
I fondly remember some of my fellow students’ mothers to blame the nature of the exam paper or even the examiner for their children’s failure to pass but praise their hard work and intelligence when they succeeded.
Why does this happen, though? In most cases this cognitive bias ‘allows people to protect their self-esteem. By attributing positive events to personal characteristics, people get a boost in confidence. By blaming outside forces for failures, people protect their self-esteem and absolve themselves from personal responsibility.’
One of the negative outcomes of self serving bias is that people tend to overestimate their skills and capabilities. Schneider et al. (2012) stated, ‘Often, students believe that they are quite prepared for an exam until after they have taken the exam. This type of experience is likely due to self-serving bias, as students overestimate how well they know the material beforehand’.
8. The urge to do the opposite of what someone tells us to do (Reactance) :
Is there a better feeling than boundless freedom? Freedom of choice is vital to most of us and we always want to be like we are in control of our own life. Psychological reactance is all about that; we tend to do exactly the opposite of what someone else wants us to do because we feel like someone is trying to constrain our freedom of choice
‘Reactance can occur when someone pressures you to accept a certain viewpoint. It can cause you to actually strengthen your stance. For example, do teens drink in excess in an environment of prohibition when they wouldn’t do so in a more permissive culture.’
Knowing the type of this bias and its effects could be very beneficial in the way we make choices and exhibit behaviors. Many people who are aware of what ‘reactance’ is capable of, they use it against people in order to influence the, to choose the opposite of what they request!
9. We rate past events more positively than we rated them when they actually happened! (Rosy Retrospection) :
‘It refers to the finding that subjects later rate past events more positively than they had actually rated them when the event occurred, which comes from the Latin phrase memoria praeteritorum bonorum (“We remember the good things of the past”).
When the event took place, we expressed disappointment or anger at the time but much later on we remembered the same event with more pleasant feelings and thoughts. In our remembrance of events, we often minimize the bad and amplify the good.
Norman in 2009, explains the phenomenon of rosy retrospection: ‘We remember events differently when we are at a distance from them, whether the distance be time or space. We anticipate and evaluate the future, remember and reflect upon the past. Both are at a distance in time from the event itself. In the anticipation of events, we review the past in order to make choices for the future. In the memory of events, some things fade from memory faster than others. Details fade faster than higher-level constructs. Emotions fade faster than cognitions.’
Mindful awareness is, as ever, the key to a better life.Being aware of cognitive biases, and how we allow our brain to proceed on such flawed autopilots is the first step in making better, more informed decisions.
I get it, thinking straight and carefully considering every step of our lives can be exhausting, and we all need our coping mechanisms. That’s no reason to settle, however, and go with these canned, self-destructive ways of letting your life drift away from what makes you happy.
Be aware, be conscious and above all be honest with yourselves on the reasons for your choices, and you’ll see that you’ve automatically defeated 10 out of those 9 biases. Well done!