Did you know that your everyday decisions are influenced by biases of which you are completely unaware? But we don’t want to be robots, milling through life making decisions automatically; we want to be rational, free-thinking individuals capable of taking all factors into consideration before making a decision!
If you want to make sure your decisions are rational and free of all unwanted biases, keep reading. The following article illustrates several common cognitive biases using relatable examples and provides advice on how to reduce their effects on your life.
What is cognitive bias and how does it affect our lives?
Cognitive bias can be defined as a systematic pattern that deviates from normal, rational judgment; this way of thinking often results in illogical inferences about situations and people.
Mental biases cause a person to create his or her own type of social reality, a subjective reality created from that person’s perceptions. This construction of the real world is not objective and may lead the individual to behave irrationally. This state of thinking can lead to:
- Perceptual distortion
- Inaccurate judgment
- Illogical interpretation
Where does cognitive bias originate?
Biases are the result of various processes that can be hard to distinguish. They include:
- Mental noise
- Heuristics (information processing shortcuts)
- Limited information processing capacity of the human brain
- Moral/emotional motivations
- Social influence
Two psychologists, Israeli-American Daniel Kahneman and his colleague Amos Tversky, developed the idea of cognitive bias in the early 1970s while studying mankind’s inability to intuitively understand huge numbers. They used heuristics to explain mankind’s differences in decision-making and judgment, focusing on situations in which a person’s decision differs from rational choice theory.
A heuristic is a practical method of problem solving not intended to produce a perfect result. Examples include:
- Educated guess
- Rule of thumb
- Intuitive judgment
- Common sense
While easy for the human brain to compute, heuristics sometimes produce severe errors.
Real World Examples
There are many types of mental biases that have been scientifically defined. Below we focus on five common biases that have almost certainly played a role in your life and may have caused you to act irrationally.
Self-Serving Bias: the tendency to take responsibility for positive events, but to blame negative events on external factors.
Example: You receive an A+ on your essay and you attribute it to your hard work and skill (this is called internal attribution). Next week, you receive a C- on your essay. While you may have rushed through the assignment, you blame the teacher for your grade, saying that she didn’t explain the topic well enough (this is called external attribution).
Depressed individuals tend to flip the self-serving bias, blaming bad events on themselves.
Cause: The reason behind the self-serving bias is simple: we like to see ourselves succeed. When you make a decision or action that results from the self-serving bias, it is because you want to maintain or enhance your self-esteem and to perceive yourself favorably.
Psychologically speaking, there are two types of motivation that affect the self-serving bias: self-presentation and self-enhancement. In other words, we all want to seem and be awesome!
Effect: If you give in to the self-serving bias, it may lead you to blame others for your failures. This can cause arguments at home or in the workplace.
Observational Selection Bias: occurs when we suddenly notice something we didn’t notice before and mistakenly assume that the frequency of that thing has increased.
Example: You just bought a new car; let’s say a Mini Cooper. All of a sudden, you see Mini Coopers everywhere!
Cause: It’s not that all of your neighbors bought the same car, but that your mind is focused on the new car and has decided to notice it more than it used to.
Effect: Most people don’t recognize the observational bias for what it is. They assume that, like themselves, more people have decided to purchase Mini Coopers. This can be a disconcerting feeling.
Gambler’s Fallacy: more of a glitch in thinking than an actual bias, the gambler’s fallacy is when we consider past events when making decisions about future events in the false belief that past outcomes will have an effect on future outcomes. This bias is also called the Monte Carlo Fallacy and the Fallacy of the Maturity of Chances.
Example: You toss a coin. It lands on heads and continues to land on heads two more times. Before the next flip, you predict tails, thinking it’s about time for tails to show up. In reality, however, the odds remain 50/50. The outcome of one coin toss is statistically independent from the outcome of another coin toss.
Related to this fallacy is the positive expectation bias, which leads us to think that our luck will eventually change. This fallacy of thinking is a big player in gambling addictions.
Cause: The mistaken belief that past outcomes affect future outcomes is appealing to the human mind. It is easy to fall into a gambler’s bias mindset if you aren’t aware of it. While this bias does occur in practical situations, it is most commonly associated with gambling.
We have found examples of the gambler’s fallacy dating all the way back to an essay published in 1796. The essay, written by Pierre-Simon Laplace, explained that men believed their probability to have a son increased if their neighbors produced daughters (and vice versa).
Effect: Thinking in terms of this bias leads to bad decisions and losing bets
In-Group Out-Group Bias: also called In-Group Favoritism, this bias refers to a pattern of preference for members of your own group over members of another group. This bias is expressed in allocation of resources, evaluation of peers, and other ways. Many believe the in-group bias to be a manifestation of an ancient tribal tendency.
Example: Have you ever noticed someone look down on you after having mentioned your support of a particular politician? A common example of the in-group bias: when a group of people supporting a Republican candidate for presidency trust each other much more than they would trust a person who supports a Democratic candidate.
Cause: Commonly studied in the realm of social psychology, the in-group bias has several causes. A few of the more prominent theories are:
- Realistic conflict theory: in-group bias is the result of competition that arises within a group or between groups that vie for scarce resources.
- Social identity theory: mankind’s innate drive for positively distinct social identities causes in-group favoritism.
- Oxytocin (the love molecule): this neurotransmitter helps us forge tight bonds with people in our group, but makes us suspicious, distrustful, and fearful of those outside the group.
Effect: This bias causes us to overestimate the value and abilities of our group while fearing, undervaluing, and showing disdain for members of other groups.
Bandwagon Effect: the tendency to “go with the flow.” While we are often unaware of the bandwagon effect, it happens all the time.
Example: The bandwagon effect happens at a football game when the crowd starts cheering for a team or a player. Individual brains shut down and everyone joins together in sort of a hivemind. The bandwagon effect doesn’t just occur with large audiences; it can happen in a classroom, a family, an office, etc.
Cause: Along with the innate human desires to conform and “fit in,” social pressure is a big cause of this particular bias.
Effect: You can see the bandwagon effect in action during opinion polls. These polls are typically maligned, with the intention of steering the perspectives of participants a certain way. In addition, people vote for who they think will win (or who the media says will win) in the hope that they will end up on the winner’s side.
Can cognitive biases be good?
Yes! While many of the biases described above don’t sound positive, mental bias can be a good thing in some situations. A decision influenced by a bias is automatic. This can be a good thing in emergencies. And certainly “jumping on the bandwagon” isn’t always bad. In fact, many cognitive biases are truly neutral, such as the observational selection bias.
Here are a couple examples in which biased thinking can be a good thing:
- Von Restorff Effect: distinctive items stand out in your brain. This is why students highlight important words when studying. The marketing world takes advantage of this bias to get potential customers to notice certain things in ads and on websites.
- Framing Effect: people react to a choice depending on how it is presented. For example, a student is more likely to register for class when threatened with a late fee than enticed by an early-bird registration discount.
How to Reduce Cognitive Bias in your Life
Good news: mental bias is not arbitrary and thus can be controlled. The first step to reducing cognitive bias is to become aware and informed. And the best way to accomplish this is through education. By reading this article, you’ve already started the process! Learn all you can about the topic, and you will be more prepared to think objectively in situations when bias threatens your rationality.
More tips to de-bias your life:
- Psychologists advise using controlled processing instead of automatic processing.
- Self-compassion is a useful skill that will help reduce defensiveness and increase motivation.
- Try not to stew over past problems.
Every human being is trapped within his or her own mind, but that doesn’t mean we have to be slaves to biased thinking. Now that you have a basic understanding of cognitive bias, you can use the tips above to pinpoint when it happens to you and minimize its influence in your daily life. Click here to learn more about bias in education.