If you’re like most people, chances are you consider yourself to be a fairly reasonable, level-headed person who makes wise decisions based on the facts. But, if you are in fact anything like most people, it turns out that the opposite is true: many of your decisions are impulsive, biased, and sometimes even irrational.
To prove the point, let’s play a quick game. I’ll share brief story then ask you to fill in the blank:
I recently went to a fantastic vegetarian restaurant and the food was delicious! I had a salad and a sandwich, both of which I would recommend.
Now fill in this blank:
Now let’s do that one more time, but let me tell you another brief story first:
I recently stocked up on cleaning supplies but I forgot to buy both dishwashing and laundry detergent at the store! Dirty dishes and clothes are piling up quickly.
Now fill in this blank:
If you saw SOUP the first time and SOAP the second time, you just fell prey to one of our many cognitive biases known as priming: conscious and subconscious exposure to an idea “primes” us to think about an associated idea. If we’ve been talking about food we’ll fill in the blank SO_P with a U, but if we’ve been talking about cleanliness we’ll fill in the blank SO_P with an A. Fascinating!
It turns out that we are prone to dozens of these cognitive biases (AKA powerful thinking traps), and while some are fairly harmless, others can produce significant errors in thinking and strongly influence our decision making every day.
Certainly not all of our decisions are impulsive and automatic– indeed, some are thoroughly explored and carefully determined. In his groundbreaking book Thinking Fast and Slow, Psychologist Daniel Kahneman describes these two types of thought processes as distinct characters in our brains:
- System 1 who operates automatically, intuitively, involuntary, and effortlessly—like when we drive a familiar route without having to think about directions, read an angry facial expression without someone explicitly articulating their anger, or fill in the blank SO_P.
- System 2 who slows down in order to concentrate, deliberately evaluate a variety of data and reason through problem solving– like when we calculate a complex math problem, evaluate the stock market and decide where to invest, or fill out a complicated tax form.
At first glance, it might appear that System 2 has significant advantages over System 1: when we take our time to think things through, we are less prone to making poor judgments, detrimental errors and dangerous mental shortcuts. But, thinking is actually quite taxing to the system, depleting our mental and energetic resources. Subsequently, we naturally and frequently default to System 1 where our cognitive biases are lurking in the dark.
To clarify, cognitive biases aren’t necessarily harmful. In fact, they are largely a result of our brain’s attempt to simplify information processing; they serve as rules of thumb that help us to make sense of the world and reach decisions with relative speed.
That said, cognitive biases are largely rooted in thought processing errors that arise from mental mistakes like problems with memory, attention and attribution. Such mistakes can result in consequences like perceptual inaccuracies (seeing things that aren’t really there), nonsensical interpretation (being illogical), inaccurate judgments (being just plain wrong) and irrationality (ignoring or being out of touch with reality). Ultimately, the outcomes of decisions that are influenced by cognitive biases can range from the frivolous (buying an unflattering outfit) to the severe (getting married to the wrong person).
In order to improve our ability to notice when we’re getting hooked by faulty thinking in real time and avoid such detrimental consequences, we must first deepen our knowledge and understanding around the most common, harmful cognitive distortions.
To that end, here are 10 common cognitive biases that could be influencing your thinking right now!
- Confirmation Bias: Favoring information that conforms to your existing beliefs and discounting evidence that does not conform.
- Availability Heuristic: Making judgments about the likelihood of an event based on how easily an example, instance, or case comes to mind. Placing greater value on information that comes to your mind quickly and overestimating the likelihood of similar things happening in the future.
- Halo Effect: The tendency for an impression created in one area to influence opinion in another area. (This especially applies to physical attractiveness influencing how you rate one’s other qualities.)
- Self-Serving Bias: Attributing one’s successes to personal characteristics, and one’s failures to factors beyond one’s control.
- Attentional Bias: Paying attention to some things while simultaneously ignoring others; resulting in failure to examine all possible outcomes when making judgements.
- Actor-Observer Bias: Attributing your own actions to external causes while attributing other people’s behaviors to internal causes.
- Functional Fixedness: Seeing objects as only working in a particular way (i.e. failing to see that a big wrench can drive a nail into a wall in the absence of a hammer).
- Anchoring Bias: Relying too heavily on the very first piece of information you learn (the “anchor”) when making decisions.
- Misinformation Effect: The tendency for post-event information to interfere with the memory of the original event.
- Optimism Bias: Believing that you are at a lesser risk of experiencing a negative event compared to others.
Deeping your awareness about these biases is important, but it’s only step one. Going forward, how will you use this information to improve the quality of your thinking and decision making?