Everybody sees the world differently and navigates through it accordingly. People develop their sense of self in childhood and their world-view through knowledge and experimentation. But cognitive biases affect their perspective as well – little glitches in their mental functions. I am making this clear from the beginning: cognitive biases are not signs of mental illness and they don’t threaten your health. Let me elaborate on this.
What are Cognitive Biases?
To put it simply, they are shortcuts in information processing. They occur when the input is incomplete or when the brain doesn’t have enough time to analyze the entire situation. The thinking distortions affect decision-making, behaviors, and social interactions. Of course, there are some benefits of cognitive biases, such as having quick reactions in crises.
There are many ways to classify cognitive biases, but this article focuses on the mental domains they alter. According to these criteria, there are three main types of cognitive biases:
I. Belief, decision-making, and behavioral biases alter the way people form their convictions, their reasoning processes, and the way people act in general.
II. Social biases influence the way people react in social situations, how they view themselves, and the group in these interactions.
III. Memory biases affect the accuracy of the memory or the time needed to retrieve a piece of information from long-term memory.
There are at least 50 conceptualized cognitive biases, but I will describe some common examples from each category discussed above.
I. Common Belief, Decision-Making, and Behavioural Biases
1. The Continued Influence Effect represents the tendency to believe previously learned misinformation even if the fact has been refuted. Most people believe what they are told by a relative or somebody with authority and without checking the facts themselves. Once the idea is internalized (like the belief that you will catch a cold if you go outside with your hair still wet), it can’t be changed easily.
2. The Dunning–Kruger Effect occurs when individuals overestimate their ability in a certain domain they don’t know much about. We all had that neighbor who thinks he can fix everything, from electrical devices to furniture. He makes things worse, but he’s blissfully optimistic about his abilities. This probably happens because they lack the expertise that makes him see the problem from a superficial point of view. He believes it would be enough to fix the broken pipe, without thinking to check the entire plumbing installation.
Conversely, the effect manifests in experts who underestimate their ability despite their extensive knowledge. A highly educated person is aware of the multiple outcomes of a certain event, so they hold back from offering a definitive answer. This self-sabotaging tendency can have a negative impact on their self-esteem and their reputation.
3. The Risk Compensation Bias, also known as The Peltzman Effect, manifests as the tendency to take greater risks when perceived safety increases. For example, a driver speeds up on an empty road because he feels he is safe as long as there isn’t another car to hinder him. This also happens with gamblers who bet larger amounts of money every time they win, thinking their luck will last the entire game.
II.Common Social Biases
1. The Bandwagon Effect is the tendency to follow ‘the herd’ in terms of actions and beliefs. Let’s take political manifestations or sports events for example. A large number of people act as one and become aggressive, even if normally they would not engage in such behavior. Another example is the spreading of a rumor that is taken as a fact because people want to be accepted in the group, so they don’t question its truth value.
2. The Fundamental Attribution Error differentiates how people explain their own behavior versus other people’s behavior.
Let’s say Lucy is late for work the third time in a week and she blames it on the heavy traffic. This is a situational explanation over a certain behavior, an excuse that is meant to protect the individual’s self-esteem. Lucy doesn’t see herself as an idle person; unforeseen things just happen to her!
Now let’s say Lucy sees Bob coming late to work and she rolls her eyes. ‘He’s so lazy, he never gets things done!’ she thinks. This is a personality-based explanation for the behavior observed in others. Lucy thinks that Bob is a rotten guy who doesn’t try to improve himself, without knowing what is her colleague’s reason for being late.
3. The Intentionality Bias means that people tend to judge somebody else’s actions as intentional rather than accidental. The most common example is when a person bumps into us in a hallway or on a bus. `Couldn’t they at least try to avoid us? They did it on purpose! Why did they pass past us in this exact moment, didn’t they see it was crowded?`
It’s easier to blame somebody, especially when we need the pretext to let off some steam after a hard day.
III. Common Memory Biases
1. The Negativity Effect manifests as the tendency to better recall unpleasant events from the past compared with positive ones. For example, a person remembers the year they lost their pet even if some good things happened during that time as well. We, as a species, learned to pay attention to the harmful stimulus to improve our survival chances. Another reason might be that a negative situation requires many resources and efforts to overcome it, so it imprints differently in our memory than a gift or a holiday.
2. The Zeigarnik Effect was first observed at waiters who were able to retain long orders without jotting them down but forgot about them after the clients left. This effect states that a person remembers uncompleted or interrupted tasks better than completed ones. It also applies to actors who memorize their lines and can say them perfectly when they are promoting their movies or stage plays, but then forget them to be able to concentrate on the new project.
3. The Self-generation Effect states that people recall their own actions and ideas better than others’ actions. This might explain why police interrogate every crime witness separately. They want to see if any of them is lying, of course. But this technique also helps them establish what each one of them had done or said at that moment.
For more examples of cognitive biases, I suggest this list.
Most people are prone to cognitive biases, but like many other habits, they can be unlearned. Firstly, take your time to assess the information you receive from more than one source and to verify its veracity.
Second, compare your view with the objective reality and stick to the facts. When you are unsure of something, test it, then draw your conclusions. It might be hard at first, but do yourself a favor and remove the negative patterns of thinking and relating that held you back.
If you want to learn more about how your mind works, I recommend this article about the apparition and the use of the internal monologue.