Negating the Impact of Cognitive Biases

Back in grade school, it was easy to complain about the seeming pointlessness of certain classes; how often could trigonometry really come up as an adult? Though in hindsight, us kids were often wrong about the importance of certain subjects – I don’t know how I’d get around without physics (hehe) – there were undoubtedly gaps in our standardized core curriculum that could’ve been better been filled by subjects that were more targeted toward the real world, like finance or psychology.

Sadly, by the time we reach adulthood the question of “what if?” needs to be set aside, and the onus falls on us to fill in our perceived voids. This means making the active choice to become a life-long learner by designing a personalized program made up of concepts that will improve our aptitude and awareness of the world.

So what’s a good topic to begin with when building that personalized lesson plan? In my opinion, the smartest place to start is with the self, and specifically the brain. Since our brains are non-stop processing machines, they have a tendency to take shortcuts to save energy and to solve problems faster. Unfortunately, the more shortcuts the brain takes, the higher the chances are for blunders, leading to a higher chance of being wrong.

Due to the vastness of the brain’s capabilities, there are countless ways in which to work on it. Because of that, a great entry point isolates areas that could be considered “building blocks”, so that a strong foundation can be laid and subsequently built on. Enter, cognitive biases, which are unconscious mental errors that fool our conscious brain into unknowingly making mistakes.

Here’s how I see the relationship between the brain and cognitive biases:

  1. All humans are occasionally afflicted by one or more cognitive biases.
  2. No one can permanently inoculate themselves against the nature of cognitive biases.
  3. It is possible to nurture the brain so that it notices when it’s succumbing to one or more cognitive biases.
  4. The surest method for recognizing when a cognitive bias has infiltrated the brain is by learning their various definitions and warning signs.

With that in mind, I’ve taken the liberty of listing the most common cognitive biases, fallacies, and errors (as well as a quick dose of analysis) below for anyone who wants to begin the learning process straightaway.

Confirmation Bias

The tendency to search for, interpret, favor and recall information in a way that confirms one’s preexisting beliefs or hypotheses.

Analysis: “I already know everything, and here’s more proof!”

Anchoring Bias

The common human tendency to rely too heavily on the first piece of information offered (the “anchor”) when making decisions.

Analysis: “I don’t need any more information; I’ve learned it all.”

Conservatism Bias

Refers to the tendency to revise one’s belief insufficiently when presented with new evidence. People over-weigh prior information, and under-weigh new sample evidence.

Analysis: “I’m not sure how your information fits with what I already know.”

Recency Bias

The most recently presented items or experiences will most likely be remembered best.

Analysis: “Nothing is ever going to top what just happened!”

Availability Heuristic

The notion that if an example can be recalled, it must be important, or at least more important than alternative solutions which are not as readily recalled.

Analysis: “The first thing I think of when I hear that is …”

Availability Cascade

A self-reinforcing process of collective belief formation by which an expressed perception triggers a chain reaction that gives the perception increasing plausibility through its rising availability in public discourse.

Analysis: “Oh I’ve heard about this before from my cousin’s neighbor, and I think she heard it from her food delivery driver, who read it online!”

Fundamental Attribution Error

The claim that in contrast to interpretations of their own behavior, people place undue emphasis on internal characteristics of another person (character or intention), rather than external factors, in explaining other people’s behavior. The effect can be described as “the tendency to believe that what people do reflects who they are, and not the result of chance or circumstances.”

Analysis: “Only a brain-dead person would ever do such a thing.”

In-Group Bias

A pattern of favoring members of one’s in-group over out-group members.

Analysis: “You can take as much as you want, just don’t tell anyone outside this room.”

Out-Group Homogeneity Bias

The perception that out-group members are more similar to one another than in-group members are to each other.

Analysis: “They are alike; we are diverse.”

Sunk Cost Fallacy

Decision-making can become tainted by the accumulation of emotional investments (time, money, energy), and the more that’s invested the harder it becomes to abandon something.

Analysis: “But we’ve worked so hard, we can’t just give up!”

Belief Bias

The tendency to judge the strength of arguments based on the plausibility of their conclusion rather than how strongly they support that conclusion.

Analysis: “Okay, in the end that makes sense.”

Gambler’s Fallacy

The mistaken belief that if something happens more frequently than normal during some period, it will happen less frequently in the future, and vice versa.

Analysis: “Things will balance out soon, the roulette wheel can’t keep coming up red.”

Survivorship Bias

The logical error of concentrating on the people or things that made it past some selection process and overlooking those that did not, typically because of their lack of visibility. Focusing too much on what succeeded, and ignoring what failed.

Analysis: “There are so many talented British actors in Hollywood; why are all Brits so good at acting?”

Empathy Gap

People underestimate the influences of visceral drives on their own attitudes, preferences, and behaviors. Hot-to-cold: the belief that short-term goals reflect long-term preferences. Cold-to-hot: the difficulty in picturing the “hot” state, leading to unpreparedness when visceral forces inevitably arise.

Analysis: “I just ate so much that there’s no way I’ll ever be hungry again!”

Self-Serving Bias

Any cognitive or perceptual process that is distorted by the need to maintain and enhance self-esteem, or the tendency to perceive oneself in an overly favorable manner. It is the belief that individuals tend to ascribe success to their own abilities and efforts, and ascribe failure to external factors.

Analysis: “Why is everyone being so difficult with me today?”

Better-Than-Average Effect

People overestimate their positive qualities and abilities and underestimate their negative qualities, relative to others.

Analysis: I’m better than most people at most things.

Clustering Illusion

The tendency to erroneously consider the inevitable streaks or clusters arising in small sample sizes from random distributions to be non-random. This is caused by a human tendency to underpredict the amount of variability likely to appear in a small sample of random or semi-random data.

Analysis: “This problem has been happening to us all afternoon, I swear we’re cursed!”

Endowment Effect

People ascribe more value to things merely because they own them.

Analysis: “We can’t sell that piece, it’s basically priceless!”

Self-Consistency Bias

The commonly held idea that humans are more consistent in their attitudes, opinions, and beliefs than they actually are.

Analysis: “What do you mean, this is how I always act!”

Hindsight Bias

The inclination, after an event has occurred, to see the event as having been predictable, despite there having been little or no objective bias for predicting it.

Analysis: “No one but me saw that one comin’, but it was so obvious.”

Blind Spot Bias

Recognizing the impact of biases on the judgment of others, while failing to see the impact of biases on one’s own judgment.

Analysis: “You have a lot to learn before you can catch up to me.”

This list of biases, fallacies, and errors is only a sliver of what exists, but it should serve as both a manageable entry point, as well as a handy cheat sheet that can easily be referenced to improve encoding within the brain. For anyone looking to take the learning process seriously, I would suggest creating an Anki (digital flash cards) deck.

In the long-run, one of the biggest benefits that comes from internalizing these concepts is it results in less shooting from the hip with ill-formed opinions; when it becomes evident how easy it is to accidentally fall into mental traps, there’s a productive humility and self-awareness that tends to follow.

Lastly, in my view anyone who takes time to better themselves is someone who’s improving the whole of humankind; leading by example is and always will be the most powerful way to teach others. At the very least, a guy can dream.

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