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What is Cognitive Bias?

A cognitive bias is a ‘systematic error’ in thinking that occurs when people are trying to process information, in a sometimes confusing world.

Cognitive biases often occur when your brain is trying to simplify information processing. Biases often occur to help you make sense of the world and reach decisions with relative speed.

What are cognitive biases?

Biases can develop for a couple of reasons

  • Some of these biases are related to memory. The way we remember an event may be biased for a number of reasons and that can lead to biased thinking and decision-making.

  • Other cognitive biases might be related to problems with attention. Attention in the brain is a limited resource, people have to be selective about what they pay attention to.

Because of this, subtle biases can creep in and influence the way we all see and think about the world.

Cognitive bias is particularly relevant now as it can affect how we vote and our views on world issues, for example Coronavirus.


Signs

All of us exhibit cognitive bias. It might be easier to spot in others, but it is important to know that it is something that also affects your thinking. Some signs that you might be influenced by some type of cognitive bias include:

  • Only paying attention to news that confirm your own opinions

  • Blaming outside factors when things don't go your way

  • Attributing other people's success to luck, but taking personal credit for your own accomplishments

  • Assuming that everyone else shares your opinions or beliefs

  • Learning a small amount about a topic and then assuming you know all there is to know about it

When we make decisions about the world we all like to think that we are objective, logical, and capable of absorbing and evaluating all the information that is presented to us. Unfortunately, biases sometimes trick us, leading to poor decisions and bad judgments.


Type

There are many types of cognitive bias in existence:

  • Actor-Observer Bias; This is when you attribute your own actions to external causes while attributing other people's behaviours to internal causes. For example, you may attribute your high cholesterol level to genetics while you consider others to have a high level due to poor diet and lack of exercise.

  • Anchoring Bias: This is the tendency to rely too heavily on the very first piece of information which can result in your views being quite narrow.

  • Attentional Bias: This is the tendency to pay attention to some things while simultaneously ignoring others. For example, someone may be presented with facts but they may choose to ignore those facts and focus their attention on something else.

  • Confirmation Bias: This describes leaning towards information that conforms to your own existing beliefs and discounting evidence that does not conform and ultimately, challenges your beliefs, which is not comfortable for some people. This is probably the most common bias in society at the moment.

  • False Consensus effect: This is the tendency to overestimate how much other people agree with you and can lead ultimately to someone not questioning their own views and feeling that they are right all of the time.

  • Misinformation Effect: This is the tendency for post-event information to interfere with the memory of the original event. It is easy to have your memory influenced by what you hear about the event from others.

  • Optimism Bias: This bias leads you to believe that you are less likely to suffer from misfortune and more likely to attain success than your peers.

  • Self-Serving Bias: This is the tendency to blame external forces when bad things happen, instead of taking responsibility for actions and giving yourself credit when good things happen.

  • The Dunning-Kruger Effect: This is when people believe that they are smarter and more capable than they really are. For example, when they can't recognise their own incompetence or their own flaws.

At times, multiple biases can play a role in influencing all of our decisions and thinking. For example, someone can misremember an event (the misinformation effect) and assume that everyone else shares that same memory of what happened (the false consensus effect).


Causes

If we all had to think about every possible option when making a decision, it would take a huge amount of time and energy, to make even the simplest decision. The world is complicated and there are huge amounts of data and information available, so it’s sometimes necessary to rely on mental shortcuts that allow you to act quickly, which is where cognitive bias comes into play.

Cognitive biases can be caused by a number of different factors, but it is these mental shortcuts, known as heuristics that often play a major contributing role. While they can often be surprisingly accurate, they can also lead to errors in thinking.

Other factors that can also contribute to these biases:

  • Emotions

  • Individual motivations

  • Limits on the mind's ability to process information

  • Social pressures

Cognitive bias may also increase as people get older due to decreased cognitive flexibility.


The impact of Cognitive Bias

Cognitive biases can lead to distorted thinking. Conspiracy theory beliefs, for example, can be influenced by a variety of biases. However, cognitive biases are not necessarily all bad. Psychologists believe that many of these biases serve a purpose by allowing us to reach decisions quickly. This can be vital if we are facing a dangerous or threatening situation and need to use cognitive bias to quickly work out that we are in danger. For example, by using biases to assess dangerous neighbourhoods, for example.

Tips for overcoming Cognitive Bias

Research suggests that cognitive training can help minimise cognitive biases in thinking. Some things that you can do to help overcome biases that might influence your thinking and decision-making include:

  • Being aware of bias: Consider how biases might influence your thinking and challenge your biased thinking.

  • Considering the factors that influence your decisions: Are there factors such as overconfidence or self-interest at play? Thinking about the influences on your decisions may help you make better choices.

  • Challenging your biases: If you notice that there are factors influencing your choices, focus on actively challenging your biases. Are you giving too much weight to certain factors? Are you ignoring relevant information because it doesn't support your view? Thinking about this and challenging your biases can make you a more critical thinker, which in turn leads to less cognitive bias thinking.

It’s a big world out there with lots of views and opinions, that invariably, we will all disagree with at some point. We all come from a different place and our views are largely formed from our own personal view of the world and our own situation.


For example, Coronavirus has affected us all differently, there have been winners and losers on all sides. If your life has been adversely affected by Coronavirus then it’s reasonable to expect that you might be more sceptical about Coronavirus as your life has been negatively impacted. Conversely, if your life has been generally ok through Coronavirus, then you don’t have any reason to be sceptical. Your status quo has been just fine, so why question it. The key is to have an open mind about your views and the views of others and more importantly, try to understand why some people have differing views to yourself. Offer them empathy and whilst you might not agree with them, try to see their point of view and listen. You might find that listening is all it takes for them to see another viewpoint. Good luck x


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