You are a rational, logical being who sees the world as it really is. Right?
You are in control of your life and make your own decisions. Right?
Your opinions are the result of years of rational, objective analysis. Right?
Well . . . maybe not. Your “hidden brain,” your unconscious mind, exerts more control over than you realize.
Psychologists have uncovered about 150 cognitive biases that most people share. A Cognitive Bias is a predictable pattern of thought and behavior, taking place in your unconscious, that may lead you to draw incorrect conclusions. It is like preloaded “software.”
Some examples include:
- the confirmation bias - paying attention to information or data that agrees with what we already think and ignoring or discounting the rest
- the anchoring bias - being overly reliant on the first piece of information heard
- the recency bias - being overly reliant on the most recent information that you have received, discounting information that you received earlier
Cognitive biases influence how we think, can lead to poor decisions and judgments, and are very difficult to recognize in ourselves.
For example, there is the Blind Spot Bias, that is, the tendency to see oneself as less biased than other people, or the ability to identify more cognitive biases in others than in oneself.
We can see the biases and mistakes others make, but our own, even if we are aware of them intellectually, are still almost impossible to see in action.
One of the reasons it is hard for us to see our own biases, and that we overlook errors that we make, is that It feels good to be right, so we don’t dig too deeply when we come up with an answer that seems to work. Being right activates the brain’s reward circuitry which creates a positive emotion, and this reward encourages us to stop seeking for another answer. The reward does not come just when we are right, but also when we believe that we are right and when we have the feeling of being right, whether or not we are actually right.
Conversely, it feels bad to be wrong. Making mistakes and errors is painful and distressing and activates brain regions associated with processing pain and negative emotion, even when there are no material consequences.
Seeking pleasure and avoiding pain are two of our most ingrained of human behaviors.
By now, I suspect you are saying to yourself, “I’m sure Biases, Heuristics and Logical Fallacies exist, BUT I don’t really think that I need to be concerned about them, because, well, I’m pretty smart.”
Undoubtedly. It is true that you are smart. You wouldn’t be reading a blog on cognitive bias if you weren’t smart.
However, one of the qualities that make smart people smart is that their brains process information a little faster than others – it’s nanoseconds faster, but in the world of thought, nanoseconds count; and answers that come to us quickly appear to us to be correct. In fact, the quicker the answer comes to us the more convinced we are that the answer is correct. Even when it isn’t.
Robert Burton said, in A Skeptic’s Guide to the Mind (St. Martin’s Press, 2013): “. . . even if we are very smart and have a superfast brain, the quicker the arrival of a potential answer to a problem, the more likely we will be to overestimate our correctness. The implication is stunning: the smartest among us also have an inbuilt mechanism favoring overestimation of our reasoning skills and the correctness of our thoughts.”
Although it is devilishly difficult to recognize unconscious biases when they are in action, there is an interesting way to discover some of your own biases. I encourage you to go to the Project Implicit website - https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/.
The site describes itself this way: “Project Implicit investigates thoughts and feelings that exist outside of conscious awareness or conscious control. Visit the research or demonstration websites to try out some tests and learn more about the research and yourself.”
I guarantee that you will find things out about yourself that will surprise you – and may even dismay you!
Based on my APICS 2016 Conference presentation, When Being Smart Isn't Good Enough: Conquering Cognitive Bias in the Workplace, we will look at some additional cognitive biases that most of us share and some of the tactics that help us to mitigate their effects in upcoming blogs.
More posts in this series
When Being Smart Isn’t Enough: Shephard’s Tabletop Illusion - Part 2
When Being Smart Isn’t Enough: Texas Sharpshooter Fallacy and Seeing Patterns in Data - Part 3