Cognitive Bias
Survival Guide

Manage the Mind to Make
Better Decisions

Manage the Mind to Make Better Decisions

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What are Cognitive Biases?

You know the feeling: Every day you get flooded with new ideas and information. You barely have enough time to process it all. Sure, you’re a smart and rational person that puts a lot of thought into the decisions you make. But the brain still takes decision-making shortcuts all the time. It especially happens when you need to act quickly, there is too much information, or limited memory.

Here’s the deal: Research suggests that there are a number of intellectual stumbling blocks which can get you entangled in wrong judgment without you even noticing. They are called Cognitive Biases. The result is errors and irrational decisions that can hold you back. To help all of us escape this mental quicksand we’ve put together this real-world Cognitive Bias Survival Guide. It’s designed to reduce wrong conclusions and bad choices, plus protect you from charlatans trying to exploit ignorance. Think of it as anti-virus software for the brain!

Decision-Making Biases

This type of cognitive bias can affect how we judge situations, form beliefs, and behave. In short, it has a huge impact on our lives. So it’s worth watching out for them so that you make it unscathed through the daily intellectual wilderness. Plus, they make for fun dinner party conversations. Let’s go!

Ambiguity Effect

When you make decisions, a lack of information (ambiguity) can affect you. People tend to avoid options where the outcome seems unknown. Instead, they favor choices that seem more predictable. For example, investors tend to put their money into predictable but lower return assets like government bonds instead of the potentially higher-return but uncertain stock market. It’s very human to dislike uncertainty.

How To Avoid It

Since the effect is based on a lack of information, figure out what pieces you’re missing and try to fill that gap. When the time comes to make a call, take a step back and judge all options more balanced.

Availability Heuristic

We overestimate the importance of events that are more readily available in our memory. We make decisions based on immediate examples that come to mind, which is often efficient. However, the issue is that we remember recent and emotionally charged events better, which can bias us. For example, you might overestimate the probability of losing your job after seeing a report about high national unemployment.

How To Avoid It

It’s not easy to avoid Availability Heuristic. Here’s what you can do. Actively try to preoccupy yourself less with the topic, whether it’s desirable (win the lottery) or scary (an airplane crash).

Bandwagon Effect

We’re social animals, so we have a tendency to prefer what’s popular. It’s easy to conform to popular ideas without checking the evidence, especially when we get our information from others. For example, because of time zone differences, election results on the East Coast are published while voting is open on the West Coast. Research shows that this can influence western voters who unconsciously back the perceived winner.

How To Avoid It

The best way to avoid this bias is to take a step back and ask yourself “Is this simply popular or actually good for me, based on facts?” Practice being aware of trends and social pressure.

Bias Blind Spot

This is one of the most devious biases. We can easily see how biases affect others, but often overlook how much they influence us. After all, we like to see ourselves in a positive light, right? For example, doctors can underestimate how friendly pharma reps influence their medication prescriptions. Teachers can fool themselves into thinking that grades are only based on objective performance and not student behavior.

How To Avoid It

While confidence is great, try to be honest about how you may be influenced to make irrational decisions. Ask yourself: “In what situations have I made a biased call and how did I deceive myself?”

Confirmation Bias

We often search for and listen to information that confirms what we already believe. Not only do we disregard contrary ideas but we also interpret ambiguous ones to fit our beliefs. Confirming our preconceptions feels good. We like to be right. In reality, we can become blind to the truth (biased). For example, people with low self-esteem might constantly feel ignored, even if it has nothing to do with them.

How To Avoid It

A great way to reduce this bias is to actively argue both sides of an idea. What are the logical and rational facts for each position? Practice with an emotional topic like gun control or global warming!

Declinism Bias

Remember the good old days? Well, we may be wrong! Declinism is our tendency to think that society is in decline and the future looks bleak. Why do we do this? It’s better for survival to be prepared than ignorant of impending disaster. For example, in surveys, a majority agrees that “things are worse than they used to be” when in reality quality of life has improved. On average, we’re actually healthier, richer, and live longer.

How To Avoid It

You want to improve society, that’s great! But when looking back, remember that nostalgia is emotionally magnetic. It’s better to compare measurable data. Try it with a topic you care about.

Ostrich Effect

You may know the expression “Bury your head in the sand like an ostrich.” While that’s actually not true for ostriches, it illustrates this bias perfectly. Research shows that we tend to ignore negative information and bad news. Why is that? While the brain is wired to survive it also tries to avoid pain. A perfect example is that people check their investment accounts less frequently when markets are in a downturn.

How To Avoid It

Bad news won’t change by ignoring it, in fact, it may get even worse. So take that long, hard look at the elephant in the room. It may be difficult, but you will have a much better chance of success.

Outcome Bias

This is an interesting one. Outcome Bias is our preference to judge decisions based on the outcome, rather than how we made the decision. In short, we weigh a one-time result more heavily than the decision-making process itself. The best example to illustrate this bias is gambling. Say you went to Vegas, bet all your money, and won. Congrats! But that doesn’t prove that gambling is a smart financial decision.

How To Avoid It

When making a decision, think of potential positive and negative outcomes. Then double check if a positive result in the past is likely to repeat itself. If it doesn’t is the decision really still worth it?

Stereotyping

You’ve heard of this one. We irrationally expect a member of a group to have certain characteristics based on a quick look, even though we don’t know any actual information. We all do it because it’s a quick and survival-based way to judge situations. Say you walk down a foggy street at night, and a group of men in hoodies approaches. Friend of foe? Better safe than sorry? The problem comes from overuse and abuse.

How To Avoid It

Stereotyping begins in our childhood, so it’s a deeply-rooted bias. Try to recognize generalizations in your thinking and question them. Is it really “everybody,” only a majority, or just a single person?

Survivorship Bias

All of us have a tendency to focus on the winners, the outliers, the visible successes. In turn, we often overlook the majority that didn’t succeed at something and therefore lacks visibility. The result is that we misjudge probabilities and situations. For example, we might think that becoming a wildly successful Hollywood actor or music star is easy because we simply haven’t heard of all the people that tried and failed.

How To Avoid It

Optimism and pursuing your dreams is great. It’s still smart to stay grounded, though. Consider the probabilities of both outcomes, if luck was involved, and which other success factors you may overlook.

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Social Biases

Social biases rear their ugly heads when we interact with people. Essentially, they are systematic errors the brain makes when evaluating ourselves or others and their actions. Check out the list below, we’re sure you’ll find many examples in everyday life.

Actor-Observer Bias

We always look for explanations behind our and other people’s behavior. But when judging ourselves, we tend to attribute results to the situation, rather than our character. For others, we do the opposite, underestimating the influence the situation had on their behavior. For example, if something negative happens to us, we blame outside influences. If the same thing happens to strangers, we tend to blame their choices.

How To Avoid It

Research shows that we succumb to the actor-observer bias less with people we know. So ask yourself how you would judge the behavior if a loved one did it. Could external forces have played a role?

Authority Bias

This bias shows our tendency to give more weight to the opinions of authority figures, independent of the actual content. So no matter if they are right or not, we are influenced by authoritative opinions. Starting with our parents, we are trained to respect authority, and that continues later in life. For example, employees can feel like they shouldn’t correct an experienced employer, which can lead to group think.

How To Avoid It

People with authority and power should encourage constructive criticism and publicly praise it. On the flipside, it’s smart for everybody else to suggest improvements in private and explain the reasons why.

Barnum Effect

This is a fun one. We tend to think of vague personality descriptions as highly accurate. Even if they could apply to a wide range of people, we think of them as being tailored to us. The best example is horoscopes. Let’s try it: You are an independent thinker and want others to admire you. Sometimes you are extroverted and sociable, while at other times you are introverted and reserved. Is that you? Same here!

How To Avoid It

From psychics to horoscopes to TV psychologists, it’s important to protect yourself from the Barnum Effect. Ask yourself, is the information presented to many or just me? Could it apply to anybody?

Group Attribution Error

Another very common bias. Group Attribution makes us think that the behavior and characteristics of an individual are representative of the entire group. Moreover, when a group makes a decision, we assume that every member agrees (think business teams). For example, some politicians use single, emotional events to demonize entire groups. Can you think of recent examples involving race, religion, or nationality?

How To Avoid It

The best way to reduce this bias is to take a step back and evaluate if a particular opinion should really be generalized for an entire group. Turns out, the vast majority of people are fundamentally decent.

Halo Effect

The Halo Effect occurs when we let a single personality trait spill over so that it influences our overall perception of a person. In other words, traits in one area affect our general view. For example, studies show that we instinctively think that physically attractive people also have other desirable personality traits, without any evidence for that. By the way, the Halo Effect works for negative traits, too.

How To Avoid It

When you think about people, brands and ideas make sure to evaluate the bigger picture and not just one example of a good or bad trait. In other words, don’t judge a book by its cover – read it!

In-Group Bias

We unconsciously give better treatment to people perceived as members of our group. This applies to how we evaluate them, how we distribute resources, and more. It’s prejudice. An example is political party members. When Democrats and Republicans pick their candidates in primaries, they form groups and can perceive their own party members as inferior, though they're in the same larger group.

How To Avoid It

No matter if you belong to a sports team, ethnic group, or nation, check your assumptions about outsiders. Do they really deserve hostility or are they actually similar to you?

Naïve Realism

You always see reality exactly for what it is, objectively and without bias, right? Well, that’s not really true, and this is where Naïve Realism starts. It’s the incorrect assumption that facts are always plain for us to see, all rational people agree with us, and that people who disagree are uninformed, irrational, or less intelligent. For example, if your cousin votes for a different party, does that really prove that he is misinformed?

How To Avoid It

Opinions that are different from ours don’t have to be the result of irrational thinking or being less informed. Subjective experiences and the fact that reality isn’t black and white play a role.

Self-Serving Bias

This is our tendency to claim responsibility for successes while doing the opposite for failures. It’s a distortion and caused by our brain’s preference to maintain and enhance self-esteem. Success is our achievement, failure is caused by external factors. It’s very human and understandable. For example, students may attribute a good grade to their studying while a bad one was caused by unfair test conditions.

How To Avoid It

This bias pops up all the time, for example in the workplace and in relationships. Try to take your ego out of the equation to evaluate what actually caused the outcome. You will grow a lot as a person.

Shared Information Bias

When we’re in groups, we discuss common, shared information with more time and energy. In other words, we like to talk about topics everybody is familiar with and therefore avoid new information. Consensus feels good. The result is that everybody is less informed, leading to worse decisions. For example, we may prefer that other people like us and agree with us. In turn, we only bring up agreeable topics.

How To Avoid It

There are several strategies to avoid this bias. Actively bring up new, unusual ideas. Introduce controversial ideas as a question. Take more time discussing topics to leave room for all points of view.

System Justification

Ahh, status quo – you feel so good, so familiar and safe. We all like order and stability in our lives, so we instinctively resist change. Therefore, we justify that we hold on to opinions about ourselves, our groups, and the larger system. This defends the status quo. For example, many great ideas are initially ridiculed and disparaged, often at the expense of our own self-interest. The result is cognitive dissonance.

How To Avoid It

Try to separate high self-esteem and a positive image of your group from the ideas behind them. Improvement and progress come from new thoughts, so let’s double check if we resist change.

Memory Biases

This type of cognitive bias messes with how we form memories and recall them. For example it can affect the chances of particular memories being remembered and even change the content of a memory. If we can’t trust our own recollections, it’s bad, so let’s find out how to reduce these biases.

Bizarreness Effect

If you see a pink dragon in a tuxedo running down the street, would you remember it forever? Yeah, we would, too. That’s the Bizarreness Effect. It shows that we remember unusual situations better than common ones. It’s unclear if this comes from better memory storage of bizarre events or better recall. For example, investigators might ask questions to get to unusual parts of a story to help witnesses remember.

How To Avoid It

There is no harm in remembering unique events. Our brain would be flooded if we recalled all small details of daily situations. To remember common events, take photos or write a journal.

Choice-Supportive Bias

This cognitive bias lets us retroactively think that our choices were more informed than they actually were. We also assign positive attributes to the choices we made, after the fact. That’s an issue, because how we remember decisions influences our future choices. If we mask regret, we may make a bad call twice. For example, car buyers often ignore and downplay issues with their vehicle when recommending it.

How To Avoid It

Try to prevent distorted memories by thinking hard about the different reasons why you made a choice. Is it possible we remember decisions as better than they actually were to feel good about ourselves?

Consistency Bias

Everybody likes to think of themselves as a rational, consistent thinker. That’s where this bias sneaks in. It lets us incorrectly remember past attitudes and behaviors based on what we believe now. We assume things haven’t changed, when in fact they did. For example, a study collected political opinions from people with a 10-year difference. Many participants had actually changed some of their views without noticing.

How To Avoid It

Realize that it’s normal to put a personal spin on things and that our opinions evolve. It’s fun to test if your views and convictions stay consistent or change. Write them down and check in a few years.

Egocentric Bias

Like many biases, this one comes from the brain’s tendency to be self-serving. Egocentric bias is when we recall past events as more favorable than they actually were. When in doubt, we recall a reality that allows for a better opinion of ourselves. For example, we remember getting an A instead of a B on a test or that the fish we caught was gigantic. The result is skewed self-awareness, which impacts how fairly treated we feel.

How To Avoid It

When you remember events, double check if your brain may be inflating your role and contribution to make them more personally relevant and to satisfy the ego. No worries, you’re still awesome!

Google Effect

Here’s a very modern bias. The Google Effect is an inclination to forget information which we can easily find online. Hence the name. It’s also called digital amnesia. Early research shows that we don’t remember facts that we think can be looked up quickly online. For example, study participants remember trivia which they are told cannot be easily found much better than trivia which can be Googled.

How To Avoid It

The same study shows that information we learn while offline tends to be better recalled, so it’s smart to download or print important things before studying them. Make a point of not relying on search.

Hindsight Bias

This is our tendency to see past events as much more predictable than they actually were. While it’s often hard or impossible to actually predict certain things, after the fact we get an “I knew it all along” feeling. This leads to us misjudging our own and others’ abilities. For example, historians can overestimate that they can predict the outcomes of battle. The same goes for doctors and clinical trial results.

How To Avoid It

While hindsight bias can be positive for our confidence, it affects rational thinking negatively. Keeping notes and letting others know can help us recall decisions truthfully and avoid bad decision-making.

Positivity Effect

This bias shows up when we evaluate people we like or dislike. For people we like, we tend to attribute negative behavior to situations and positive behavior to their character. For folks we dislike, it’s the other way around. Doesn’t sound very fair and unbiased, does it? For example, if we see a good friend hit somebody, it’s natural to assume that the unknown person did something bad and had it coming.

How To Avoid It

It’s hard to prevent this bias in its positive or negative form. A good strategy is to always hear both sides of a story independently and double check other’s motives before judging.

Rosy Retrospection

As the name implies, this bias makes us remember past events as having been much better than they actually were. The affect is stronger with marginally positive events since we tend to forget small annoyances easily. We stop recalling the negative aspects of what happened and end up wearing rose-colored glasses. For example, people rate events worse right after they occur, compared to months later.

How To Avoid It

Like all memory biases, you can reduce it by taking notes and asking others about their view. To be honest, though, this bias isn’t all that bad and if anything makes life more pleasant.

Spotlight Effect

This happens when we think other people are noticing us much more than they actually are. We feel that others evaluate our appearance and behavior intensely, when often it’s not true at all. In other words, we feel in the spotlight. For example, if you have a stain on your shirt, you think people are staring. In reality, everybody is at their own center of attention and nobody at the center of everyone else's.

How To Avoid It

Realize that we drastically overestimate our effect on others. Could it be that everybody thinks about themselves and how others perceive them? So it can’t be true that we’re all in the social spotlight.

Suggestibility

Suggestibility is our tendency to take ideas that are suggested by somebody and misattribute them as real memories. As a result we are inclined to accept the recommendations of others, for better or worse. Our brain takes plausible information and fills in the gaps. For example, police officers can mistakenly influence witnesses’ recollections by asking leading questions that distort their memories.

How To Avoid It

Suggestibility actually decreases with age. However, some studies show that low self-esteem can increase it. So the best thing you can do to actively prevent it is to realize how wonderful you are.

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