Cognitive Biases and Effects & How to Reduce their Influence

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
  • Stereotyping
  • Intuitive judgment
  • Common sense
  • Profiling

While easy for the human brain to compute, heuristics sometimes produce severe errors.

Real World Examples

Self-confidence1There 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.

pathological-gambling-disorder-975Gambler’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?

HighlightYes! 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.


Going Green: Myths & Facts

Reducing, reusing, and recycling are extremely important in today’s green-conscious society; however, your efforts don’t always mean as much as you may think. Have you changed your life in small ways to reduce your carbon footprint? Maybe you’ve switched to environmentally friendly cleaning supplies, purchased a filter instead of bottled water, or started using energy-efficient light bulbs. These are all great habits, but how do you know that your “green” choices are actually helping the planet?

It can be difficult to understand the facts when adopting a “green” lifestyle. While the big problems are easy to spot (think of a factory pumping pollution into the sky), it’s the little ones that can catch us off guard. Keep reading to discover the truth behind several common misconceptions regarding the environment and “going green.”

Renewable Energy

There are many myths surrounding the topic of renewable energy (RE). To name a few:

  • RE will completely replace fossil fuels
  • RE is unreliable and insignificant
  • RE is not cost effective
  • RE is actually bad for the environment
  • Wind turbines are dangerous and loud
  • Solar power is not available during winter months

wind-turbine_2780121bLet’s start with the first myth. Very few proponents of renewable energy imagine a future that is 100% dependent on reliable and affordable renewables. Electricity is the main focus. According to a study conducted by a team of researchers at the National Renewable Energy Lab, there is no reason why 80% of power in the U.S. can’t be generated from renewable sources. In fact, scientists predict this theory will become a reality by the year 2050.

Many claim that renewable energy isn’t reliable enough to, say, power a hospital 24/7. The key to acquiring a continuous supply of RE is to get it from multiple sources, i.e. solar, wind, and natural gas. As for the amount of power, many claim that renewables are insignificant. These people often forget about hydroelectric power (like the Hoover Dam). All sources considered, nearly a quarter of the power generated in the U.S. during 2014 came from renewable sources.

The claim that RE is too expensive is bogus. In fact, most renewables are already cheaper than other forms of power. Solar energy and wind energy require no input costs. One unit of electricity from an Eskom coal plant costs about 97 cents. The same amount of energy from renewable sources costs about 89 cents.

A strong argument against wind farms is the likelihood that turbines will kill birds and bats. However, such problems can be reduced if we take the time to study migratory patterns before construction begins. Plus, since wind turbines do not affect livestock, that land can be used for farming and cattle grazing as well as for power. As for the sound of wind farms – have you ever stood in one? If you have, you know that they are not loud. In fact, you can have a normal conversation standing right beneath a turbine.

Finally, many people worry about the availability of solar power during the winter. As long as there is sunlight, there will be power! The amount of power will be smaller than the amount generated during the summer, but output wont drop to zero unless you live in a part of the world that receives no sunlight at all.

Myth: Going Green Always Saves Money

GreenEnergyGoing green doesn’t always mean you have more green in your wallet. In fact, many times “going green” is more expensive than the alternative. Just think about the grocery store: organic foods are almost always more expensive than non-organic foods and environmentally friendly cleaners can cost more than twice as much as traditional cleaning supplies.

That being said, many methods of “going green” do save money. For example:

  • Driving a fuel-efficient car to save money on gas
  • Biking, walking, or carpooling to save money on gas
  • Planting trees around your house to lower the cost of A/C (long term)
  • Using energy efficient light bulbs
  • Selling instead of discarding whenever possible (old phones, furniture, clothing, etc.)
  • Utilizing a compost heap instead of purchasing fertilizer
  • Using a filter instead of buying water bottles
  • Air drying clothing instead of using the dryer

There are many people out there who practice a “green” lifestyle only in ways that save money. And that’s perfectly okay. According to Sally   Herigstad, a 51-year-old CPA from Hawaii, “$12 laundry detergent doesn’t make the cut.” So no matter how much you may love the planet, “going green” doesn’t always mean you have to spend more money.

Myth: Electric Cars are Always Better for the Environment

electric_cars_electric_vehicles_72The media leads us to believe that electric cars are always the right choice for the environment. While it’s true that electric cars do not produce tailpipe emissions, scientists remain concerned about the following:

  • The process by which EVs (electric vehicles) and their batteries are produced
  • The process by which the electricity used to power EVs is generated

A recent study conducted by a team of disappointed scientists shows that – in some cases – EVs actually have a bigger effect on global warming than traditional cars.

“The electric car has great potential for improvement, but ultimately what will make it a success or failure from an environmental standpoint is how much we can clean up our electricity grid – both for the electricity you use when you drive your car, and for the electricity used for producing the car,” said one of the scientists.

Not only does the process by which lithium-ion batteries are produced require tons of energy and raw materials, but the environmentally friendly aspect of EVs also depends heavily on the country. For example, since China generates most of its power using coal, electric cars in that country cause far more pollution than traditional cars.

In Norway, on the other hand, EVs outperform traditional cars because most of the country’s power comes from hydroelectricity.

The following are common myths regarding electric cars:

  • Plummeting gas prices will kill EV sales
  • Tesla will see competition when the 2017 Chevy Bolt is released
  • EVs are doomed unless huge changes are made to public infrastructure
  • Electric cars are not safe and the batteries won’t last
  • EV sales are failing because they do not equal sales of traditional cars

While the above claims may be common, none of them are even close to being true. Nonetheless, the decision to keep your car or to switch to an EV is complicated. The environmental effects of your new vehicle may not be clear.

“Everything has emissions, but sometimes they are just further away from the user,” says Norwegian scientist Majeau-Bettez.

To make matters worse, oil companies have been accused of endorsing fake reports in an effort to harm the EV market.

Myth: Rechargeable Batteries are Always Environmentally Friendly

eneloopDid you know that some rechargeable batters can withstand up to 1,000 recharges? Not only does this save money and resources, it also reduces the amount of toxic metals in landfill. If you live in an area with unpredictable electricity, having a backup supply of rechargeable batteries is a must. That being said, not all batteries are created equal.

It goes without saying that using one item instead of thousands is better for the environment, but not if that one item – in this case, a battery – is a million times more toxic.

Dry-cell (disposable) batteries used to be a huge concern in regards to toxic waste. These alkaline beasties contained lots of mercury. While mercury levels are much lower today than they used to be, it is still very important to recycle disposable batteries – especially considering how popular they are.

Button batteries (like the kind found in small lamps and watches) are still a problem because they contain high amounts of heavy metals like cadmium, lithium, silver, or mercury. Button batteries should always be recycled.

While rechargeable batteries used to be even more toxic than dry-cell batteries, things are improving. There are three main types of rechargeable batteries:

  • NiMH (nickel metal hydride)
  • NiCd (nickel cadmium)
  • Li-ion (lithium ion)

You can forget about NiCds; they have highly toxic components, contain less power, and will soon be obsolete. Lithium ion batteries pack lots of power, hold their charge, and do not lose power capacity over time like many other batteries. The next time you purchase a gadget, take a closer look at the product specifications, chances are they contain a Li-ion battery. Most rechargeable home use devices, like hair removal devices, use Li-ion batteries as do cell phones, computers, and digital cameras (in other words, you can’t use them to power household devices).

That leaves the NiMH battery as your best choice. The best kind of NiMH is something called a low self-discharge NiMH. These are great for backup because they don’t lose nearly as much power when in disuse compared to standard NiMHs.

If you’re looking for a charger, choose either a solar charger or smart charger. Smart charges are great because they shut off automatically when the battery is fully charged. Our recommendation for best rechargeable battery is a pre-charged NiMH called the Sanyo Eneloop.


I have one more green myth to debunk. Last but not least is the false belief “small changes don’t matter.” This is certainly untrue. At the end of the day, every little thing matters. While we encourage you to make “living green” a personal goal, it’s important to consider your health, comfort, and finances first. If overcoming prejudice is another one of your personal goals, click here to read about intolerance as a result of bias in education.

Case Study of Intolerance Resulting from Biases in Education

spreadgraphicMahatma Gandhi once said, “Intolerance is itself a form of violence and an obstacle to the growth of a true democratic spirit.” But where does intolerance start? Surely children are not born with a natural hatred of other races and other religions.

The following paragraphs will focus on intolerance as a direct result of educational bias, particularly in the Middle East. A country educates children in its own language, sharing with them a particular worldview with moral and cultural values. Therefore, education, especially religious education, is often a clear indicator of where a country is heading. Read More

Intolerance: Causes & Examples from Different Areas

05-04-05-intoleranceIntolerance can be defined as the “unwillingness to accept views, beliefs, or behavior that differ from one’s own.” Intolerance rears its ugly head everywhere, from nationalism to sexual orientation to political debates. Intolerance is often the cause behind sexist comments and religious aggression. In some cases, large-scale intolerance leads to war.

Mention that you support Donald Trump for president and some people will immediately shun you. Post on your online dating profile that you’re a Republican and a percentage of potential partners won’t even consider meeting you. Intolerance is a huge problem in today’s society and appears to be a central cause of the following problems:

• Racism
• Sexism
• Child abuse
• Domestic violence
• Religious arguments

Educational bias is perhaps the single biggest cause of intolerance. When children are taught to hate others from an early age, they have little chance of changing that attitude as adults.

Educational Bias

Biased textbooks are the root of prejudice. There are institutions and guidelines in place to prevent whitewashing, but with ineffective monitoring and enforcing, the practice continues in many parts of the world. The term “whitewashing” refers to the practice of selectively removing or reconstructing facts in order to present the story differently. A common example is the twisting of war history to make a certain country look like “the good guy.” Whitewashing can also refer to complete censorship, such as when Christians bar the teaching of evolution because it contradicts the Bible.

The Middle East is particularly infamous for its widespread educational bias. For example, most schools in Saudi Arabia teach Holocaust denial. In other words, the Nazis did not commit mass killings of Jews.
Religious education has the highest potential for bias and is most prevalent in countries dominated by a single religion. For example, Palestine teaches its students that Israel has no right to exist and that its very founding was an atrocity. Palestine’s terrorism against Israel is taught as part of a noble battle in which Palestine is fighting for religious reasons.

Reuters-Russia-anti-gay-protesters-rainbow-flag-photog-Maxim-ShemetovOther cultural and psychological factors that lead to intolerance include government action and the media.
A series of Russian laws, recently abolished, targeted the LGBT community by banning rainbow flags and forcing all LGBT groups to register themselves as “foreign agents.” Homophobia is still common in Russia, where groups like Occupy Gerontilyaj have been caught beating up gay teens.

The Russian media is anything but tolerant and portrays gay and lesbian individuals as aggressive and likely to have venereal disease. Russia’s treatment of the LGBT community has even been compared to the treatment of Jews by Nazis shortly before the Holocaust.

Real World Examples

“Collective fear stimulates herd instinct, and tends to produce ferocity toward those who are not regarded as members of the herd.” – Bertrand Russell 

The 2014 Winter Olympics were almost cancelled due to prejudice and those trying to fight it. A group of world leaders tried to boycott the Sochi Winter Olympics after Vladimir Putin passed anti-gay legislation in 2013. Under the new law, even kissing your partner could be considered illegal.

Principle #6 of the Olympic Charter states: “any form of discrimination with regard to a country or a person on grounds of race, religion, politics, gender, or otherwise is incompatible with belonging to the Olympic Movement.” Even so, many worried that the seven lesbian athletes scheduled to perform would be in danger under Russian law. The 2014 Winter Olympics went as planned, but not before the mayor of Sochi declared that LGBT individuals were welcome in his city “as long as they do not impose their habits on others.”

Despite the fact that facts fight intolerance, prejudice has even affected the scientific community. The Telegraph published an article in 2014 featuring a climate change researcher whose discoveries challenged those of the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Professor Lennart Bengtsson’s paper offered new predictions regarding the speed of global warming. It was dismissed as “less than helpful.” Bengtsson believes that scientists are getting confused, letting green activism affect their rightful role as the impartial observer.

“The problem we have now in the scientific community is that some scientists are mixing up their scientific role with that of climate activist,” he said. The professor’s paper challenged UN predictions that a doubling of greenhouse gases would cause Earth’s temperature to rise by 4.5 degrees Celsius.

The scientific journal Environmental Research Letters refused to publish the paper. Bengtsson was furious and believed wholeheartedly that his essay was rejected because it seems to advance the argument of climate change skeptics.

The Effort to Eradicate Intolerance Starts with You

mpj0430642000011-e1316520542392People often fear what they do not understand. And as the famous Star Wars character Yoda puts it: “Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.”

Education is the antithesis of intolerance. To eradicate intolerance, children must be taught the truth – not the skewed view of reality that many countries preach. Facts and a true understanding of the “other” will lead to peace, unity, and compromise.

Becoming aware of your own prejudices is the first step in reducing intolerance and should be a personal goal for everyone. Similar to addiction, the first step is admitting the problem. Acknowledge that yes, you have learned information about others that is false or prejudiced. It’s important that you confront this realization without blame or guilt. Share your desire to change with others and make a commitment.

Pay attention to cases in which you use “self-talk” when discussing other races and religions. Challenge these statements through research. You’ll be surprised how many prejudices you can disprove simply by taking a closer look at a certain group, race, or religion.

Mother Teresa once said, “If you judge people, you have no time to love them.” The best way to understand a group of people is to spend time with them. As you get to know and become more comfortable with individuals belonging to a group about which you previously held misconceptions, consider asking them how they view your demographic.