Exploring the Effects of Cognitive Bias and How They Affect Us
By Dr Becky Spelman
While the human mind is capable of some truly astounding feats of innovation and problem-solving, it is also highly susceptible to outside influence. The way that we analyse and interpret information often results from preconceived ideas and expectations. When we allow our opinions to be influenced by these, it creates what is known as a cognitive bias. This can see us looking to confirm pre-existing beliefs and even distorting events to make them more palatable or present ourselves in a better light.
What Is Cognitive Bias?
In essence, a cognitive bias is any thought process that leads the thinker away from the truth and/or making rational decisions.
The primary motivations for this are most commonly rooted in:
Trying to process information more quickly
An inability of the brain to process all the necessary information
Emotional investment in a specific outcome
The ability to properly recall events as they happened
The 12 Forms of Cognitive Bias
Here are the twelve primary forms of cognitive bias and how they affect us.
Actor-Observer Bias: This is characterised by the tendency to be hypocritical in your judgments of others when comparing similar circumstance. You see your own actions as the result of causes beyond your control (external factors). While you see others falling down to their own poor choices (internal factors). For example, you may have suffered a heart attack due to poor genetics. But for the opposite person, it may be due to their poor diet. Although the same may apply equally to you.
Anchoring Bias: This is the overreliance on the very first piece of information you come across at the expense of all others. For example, if you learn that the average price of a new appliance is a certain value, you may think anything around that price point represents a good deal. This can lead to you to not exploring any other possibilities. What this bias does more than anything else is create an expectation that then becomes your limitations.
Attentional Bias: This bias is rooted in giving more of your attention to some aspects of a situation while at the same time, ignoring other – and oftentimes more important – facets. So, for example, when you’re looking at buying a house, you may pay close attention to all of the fixtures and fittings, but not the area that it’s located in.
Availability Heuristic Bias: This is where you place greater value on information that first comes to your mind. In this setting, you tend to be more impulsively driven and will see the first thought as instinctual and therefore being the way you should go.
Confirmation Bias: This is the most common form of bias and involves the seeking out and adopting of information that confirms your belief structures and opinions. By proxy, this also means excluding any information that does not match your pre-held beliefs.
False Consensus Effect: This is the tendency to overestimate how much people agree with your actions and ideas. It is the belief that your qualities are widespread throughout society. This is often the case in people who have a very insular lifestyle or otherwise may simply project their opinions onto others through naivety and immaturity.
Functional Fixedness: This point of view sees the observer adopting a very linear form of thinking. They cannot see multiple angles and how an object may have more than one use. For example, a hammer may be used in the traditional sense to hit nails. But the backend may be used to remove those nails and even to claw away at stone.
Halo Effect: This is a common trait in which people are given credit they haven’t earned based on other non-related attributes. A prime example of this is when physical attractiveness is used to validate other qualities and personality characteristics such as intelligence.
Misinformation Effect: This occurs when you allow second-hand information to interfere with your experience and memory of an event at which you were present. This tactic is often used to weaponise information and discredit eyewitness accounts to create false testimony and false narrative.
Optimism Bias: This is based on the fallacy of ‘good vibes only.’ When you’re rooted in this mindset, you’re of the opinion that as long as you maintain a positive outlook, you’re far less likely to suffer from bad luck or misfortune. And in some cases, may even see yourself as immune.
Self-Serving Bias: This takes place when you have an about-turn in your perception of two separate, but connected events. For example, when you fail an exam because of a poor teacher, but then pass with flying colours because you studied harder for the next one – this is the essence of self-serving bias. Your failures are the fault of others, while your successes are all you own.
The Dunning-Krueger Effect: This is when people who are undoubtedly intelligent overestimate themselves, which can make them blind to their mistakes. This also means they’re less likely to seek advice on a given topic as they believe they already have all the answers.
How Does Cognitive Bias Affect Us?
Cognitive bias is often seen as a challenge to be overcome. And in many ways, it does represent a hinderance to our rational thought process. It can keep us rooted in old thought-patterns, unable to grow beyond our imagined limitations. There is a very real danger of us falling victim to our own hype.
But in some instances, these biases may actually be useful. When we have certain expectations before entering scenarios, it can provide us with a point of reference to avoid possible danger. For example, walking in the dark at night might bring fears of being mugged. And while there is a very low chance of this actually happening, it promotes vigilance.
In this sense, they’re adaptive and serve a refined purpose, that, while not exactly providing the truth of a situation, which sometimes allows us to reach decisions more quickly in what appear to be threatening situations.
About the author:
Dr Becky Spelman is a leading UK Psychologist who’s had great success helping her clients manage and overcome a multitude of mental illnesses.
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