Cognitive Biases

15.03.2019 |

Episode #3 of the course Learning how to think clearly by David Urbansky


In today’s episode, you will learn what cognitive biases are, how they influence your thought processes, and what to do about it.

A cognitive bias is a systematic error in thinking that can lead to bad judgments and wrong decisions. You can think of cognitive biases as mental shortcuts. They have evolved in us to turn decision making into a quick process that can be performed with limited information using as little brain power as possible.

The best way to overcome cognitive biases is to acknowledge that you have them. After that, you should learn about as many cognitive biases as possible and check whether your thought process may be influenced by them. If you can ensure that your reasoning is free from such biases, you will have made a big stride toward becoming a more rational decisionmaker.

There are numerous cognitive biases [1]. I’ll focus on five that you probably encounter frequently in your daily life.

Anchoring: The first thing you judge influences all following judgments. For instance, let’s say that someone wants to sell you a car and names a price. This price is now the anchor for any following price you consider when it comes to that car. If the salesperson initially asked for $10,000, you’d feel like $8,000 is a steal, but had he started at $5,000, you’d think he is trying to rip you off when he suddenly asks for $8,000. Be aware of anchoring, and try to discard the first piece of information in your decision-making process. In our example, just ask yourself whether the car is worth $8,000 to you.

Availability bias: Your reasoning is influenced by whatever comes easiest to mind. Suppose that you watch the news regularly, and there have been several reports of shark attacks over the last few months. When you are asked to name the most dangerous animal, sharks come to mind very easily. However, once you start thinking about it, you’ll probably come up with animals that are far more dangerous. What about snakes? Crocodiles? Or indeed the correct answer: mosquitos! They kill 72,500 times more people in a year than sharks.

Confirmation bias: You are more likely to look for information that confirms your existing beliefs. This is a huge problem but also one that is rather easy to detect and overcome. The strategy is to imagine your current belief is wrong and try to prove it. For example, if you do not believe in man-made climate change, you should now switch your perspective and try to prove that man-made climate change is real. You will have to actively look for information that contradicts your original beliefs, and in doing so, you will become more informed and might even reach a different conclusion.

Negativity bias: Negatives outweigh positives. Humans tend to feel stronger about loss than about gain. Therefore, when trying to make a decision that may have positive and negative effects, the negative ones may unjustly outweigh the positive ones. For example, let’s say that you want to travel somewhere to relax, learn about a different culture, and have new experiences. On the downside, your plane to your vacation spot could crash. If you let negativity bias get to you, you might decide to stay at home and miss out. You can counteract this bias by making pro/con lists and adding probabilities to each effect. In our example, even if you’re scared of flying, you’d probably come to the conclusion to take that vacation.

Framing effect: How information is presented to you impacts your judgment. For example, research [5] has shown that people vote more favorably on the exact same economic policy if an increase in employment rate is emphasized as opposed to a decrease in unemployment rate. You can check for this bias by reformulating a question in your head to make sure you’d come to the same conclusion any way you phrase it.

So, you just gained powerful tools for your thinking! Being aware of cognitive biases is half the battle. Now, the next time you make an argument or decision, take the time to check your reasoning for these sneaky cognitive biases and adjust your thinking accordingly.

In tomorrow’s lesson, we’ll look at the basics of critical thinking and how you can start thinking more critically immediately.


Recommended video

Charlie Munger: The Psychology of Human Misjudgment


Recommended book

The 5 Elements of Effective Thinking by Edward B. Burger and Michael Starbird



[1] List of Cognitive Biases

[2] World Health Organization

[3] Using Credible Advice to Overcome Framing Effects by James N. Druckman


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