How Cognitive Biases Influence How You Think and Act

Innate Mental Shortcuts in Information Processing and Interpreting

A cognitive bias is a systematic error in thinking that affects the decisions and judgments that people make. Some of these biases are related to memory. The way you remember an event may be biased for a number of reasons and that in turn can lead to biased thinking and decision-making. Other cognitive biases might be related to problems with attention. Since attention is a limited resource, people have to be selective about what they pay attention to in the world around them. Because of this, subtle biases can creep in and influence the way you see and think about the world.

How Do Cognitive Biases Work?

A cognitive bias is a type of error in thinking that occurs when people are processing and interpreting information in the world around them. The human brain is powerful but subject to limitations. Cognitive biases are often a result of your brain's attempt to simplify information processing. They are rules of thumb that help you make sense of the world and reach decisions with relative speed.

When you are making judgments and decisions about the world around you, you like to think that you are objective, logical, and capable of taking in and evaluating all the information that is available to you. Unfortunately, these biases sometimes trip us up, leading to poor decisions and bad judgments.

Causes

If you had to think about every possible option when making a decision, it would probably take a lot of time to make even the simplest choice. Because of the sheer complexity of the world around you and the amount of information in the environment, it is necessary sometimes to rely on some mental shortcuts that allow you to act quickly.

Cognitive biases can be caused by a number of different things, 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. Social pressures, individual motivations, emotions, and limits on the mind's ability to process information can also contribute to these biases.

How Heuristics Help You Make Quick Decisions

These biases are not necessarily all bad, however. Psychologists believe that many of these biases serve an adaptive purpose—they allow us to reach decisions quickly. This can be vital if we are facing a dangerous or threatening situation. If you are walking down a dark alley and spot a dark shadow that seems to be following you, a cognitive bias might lead you to assume that it is a mugger and that you need to exit the alley as quickly as possible. The dark shadow may have simply been caused by a flag waving in the breeze, but relying on mental shortcuts can often get you out of the way of danger in situations where decisions need to be made quickly.

Types

Learn more about a few of the most common types of cognitive biases that can distort your thinking.

  • Confirmation Bias: This is favoring information that conforms to your existing beliefs and discounting evidence that does not conform.
  • Availability Heuristic: This is placing greater value on information that comes to your mind quickly. You give greater credence to this information and tend to overestimate the probability and likelihood of similar things happening in the future.
  • Halo Effect: Your overall impression of a person influences how you feel and think about his or her character. This especially applies to physical attractiveness influencing how you rate their other qualities.
  • Self-Serving Bias: This is the tendency to blame external forces when bad things happen and give yourself credit when good things happen. When you win a poker hand it is due to your skill at reading the other players and knowing the odds, while when you lose it is due to getting dealt a poor hand.
  • Attentional Bias: This is the tendency to pay attention to some things while simultaneously ignoring others. When making a decision on which car to buy, you may pay attention to the look and feel of the exterior and interior, but ignore the safety record and gas mileage.
  • Actor-Observer Bias: This is the tendency to attribute your own actions to external causes while attributing other people's behaviors to internal causes. You attribute your high cholesterol level to genetics while you consider others to have a high level due to poor diet and lack of exercise.
  • Functional Fixedness: This is the tendency to see objects as only working in a particular way. If you don't have a hammer, you never consider that a big wrench can also be used to drive a nail into the wall. You may think you don't need thumbtacks because you have no corkboard on which to tack things, but not consider their other uses. This could extend to people's functions, such as not realizing a personal assistant has skills to be in a leadership role.
  • Anchoring Bias: This is the tendency to rely too heavily on the very first piece of information you learn. If you learn the average price for a car is a certain value, you will think any amount below that is a good deal, perhaps not searching for better deals. You can use this bias to set the expectations of others by putting the first information on the table for consideration.
  • 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. Knowledge of this effect has led to a mistrust of eyewitness information.
  • False Consensus Effect: This is the tendency to overestimate how much other people agree with you.
  • 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.

Cognitive Bias vs. Logical Fallacy

People sometimes confuse cognitive biases with logical fallacies, but the two are not the same. A logical fallacy stems from an error in a logical argument, while a cognitive bias is rooted in thought processing errors often arising from problems with memory, attention, attribution, and other mental mistakes.

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