Cognitive Biases

Our unconscious biases are often so strong they lead us to act in ways which are inconsistent with both reason, and our values and beliefs.

Here are some of the most common types of cognitive biases which entrench themselves in our lives. Awareness is the best way to overcome them and how they can influence us.

The decoy effect. This occurs when someone believes they have two options, but you present a third option to make the second one feel more palatable. For example, you visit a car lot to consider two cars - one listed for $30,000, the other for $40,000. At first, the $40,000 car seems expensive, so the salesman shows you a $65,000 car. Suddenly, the $40,000 car seems reasonable by comparison. This salesman is preying on your decoy bias - the decoy being the $65,000 car he knows you won’t buy.

Affect heuristic. Affect heuristic is the human tendency to base decisions on emotions. For example, consider a study conducted at Shukutoku University, Japan. Participants judged a disease that killed 1,286 people out of every 10,000 as being more dangerous than one which was 24.14% fatal, despite this representing twice as many deaths. People reacted emotionally to the image of 1,286 people dying, whereas the percentage didn’t arouse the same mental imagery and emotions.

Fundamental attribution error. This is the tendency to attribute situational behavior to a person’s fixed personality. For example, people often attribute poor work performance to laziness when there are many other possible explanations. Perhaps the individual in question is receiving projects they are not passionate about, or their rocky home life is carrying over to their work life, or they’re burnt out.

The ideometer effect. This refers to the fact our thoughts can make us feel real emotions - which is why actors envision terrible scenarios, such as the death of a loved one, in order to make themselves cry on cue, and why activities such as cataloging what we’re grateful for can have such a profound, positive impact on our wellbeing.

Confirmation bias. Confirmation bias is the tendency to seek out information which supports our pre-existing beliefs. In other words, we form an opinion first and then seek out evidence to back it up, rather than basing our opinions on facts.

Conservatism bias. This bias leads people to believe that pre-existing information takes precedence over new information. We need to guard against rejecting something just because it’s radical or different. Great ideas usually are.

The ostrich effect. The ostrich effect is aptly named after ostriches, who, when scared, literally bury their heads in the ground. This effect describes our tendency to hide from impending problems. We may not physically bury our heads in the ground, but we might as well. For example, if your company is experiencing layoffs, you’re having relationship issues, or you receive negative feedback, it’s common to attempt to push all these problems away, rather than to face them head on. Obviously, this doesn’t work and it simply delays the inevitable.

Reactance. Reactance is the tendency to react to rules and regulations by exercising our freedom. An example of this is children with overbearing parents. Tell a teenager to do what you say because you told them so, and they’re very likely to start breaking your rules. Similarly, employees who feel mistreated or “Big Brothered” by their employer are more likely to take longer breaks, extra sick days, or even steal from their company.

The halo effect. The halo effect occurs when someone creates a strong first impression and that impression sticks. This is noticeable in grading, for example. Often when teachers grade a student’s first paper, if it’s good, they are prone to continue giving the student high marks on future papers, even if their performance doesn’t warrant it. The same thing can happen at work or in personal relationships.

The horn effect. This effect is the opposite of the halo effect. When you perform poorly at first, you can easily get pegged as a low-performer, even if later you work hard enough to disprove that notion.

Planning fallacy. Planning fallacy is the tendency to think that we can do things more quickly than we actually can. For procrastinators, this leads to incomplete work. For type-A’s, it can lead to overpromising and underdelivering.

The bandwagon effect. The bandwagon effect is the tendency to do what everyone else is doing. This creates a kind of groupthink, where people run with the first idea that’s put on the table instead of exploring a variety of options. The bandwagon effect illustrates how we like to make decisions based on what feels good (or what everyone else is doing), even if the decisions represent poor alternatives.

Bias blind spot. If you begin to feel you’ve mastered your biases, keep in mind you’re most likely experiencing the bias blind spot - the tendency to see biases in other people but not in yourself.

Bringing it all together

Recognizing and understanding bias is invaluable because it enables you to think more objectively and interact more effectively with other people.