Know Your Cognitive Biases

01.11.2017 |

Episode #5 of the course How to have breakthrough ideas by Eileen Purdy


Have you ever bought a new car and then started seeing the same make and model everywhere you look? Or have a favorite number, and it catches your eye multiple times a day?

This effect of suddenly noticing things we didn’t notice much before makes us wrongly assume that their frequency has increased. But it’s not that these things are appearing more frequently, it’s that we’ve selected the item in our mind and, in turn, are noticing it more often. The psychological reason is that it is triggering one of our cognitive biases, our “observational selection bias.”


What Are They?

Cognitive biases are inherent and subconscious ways our brains shape how we process, interpret, and store information. They also influence what and how we recall things, and they definitely impact how we make choices. There are 188 known cognitive biases!

“With all these flaws, how in the world did the evolution of our brains go so wrong?!” you might find yourself asking.

Well, in the defense of cognitive biases and our brains, I have to say they also help us in ways that aren’t often recognized. These biases are shortcuts that allow us to quickly identify important information, make sense of it, and decide what to remember—which is significant, given the deluge of information our brains are exposed to each day. Roger Bonn of the University of California San Diego has estimated that amount of information to be around 34 gigabytes. That’s enough to overload a laptop in a week! Granted, with so much information and relying on shortcuts, this can sometimes be a flawed system, but for the most part, it works quite brilliantly.

Cognitive biases are inherent in all of us; there’s no way to opt out of them, and there is no “cure” for them. The way we are best served, then, is to know what they are and anticipate when and how they might show up in our day-to-day. When these are in place, we can learn ways to make sure we are introducing the right questions or challenges to them so we don’t get tricked by them.


Top Three Cognitive Biases

I’ve identified a list of the top three biases to put on your radar as you pursue breakthrough ideas.

1. The Anchoring Bias is our tendency to rely heavily on our first impressions or a certain piece of information when making a decision—often the first piece of information mentioned—without any reasoning for doing so. Once the “anchor” has been set, we use that initial piece of information for all subsequent decisions. Anchoring makes it difficult to see all the potential choices on the table, so when you are working toward your breakthrough idea, make sure you question whether you are anchored to your first idea.

2. Confirmation Bias is our brain’s tendency to look for information or evidence to confirm our own existing preconceptions, beliefs, and opinions. It influences the type of information we expose ourselves to, who we hang out with, and and what we hear.
We like to think all our thoughts as rational, logical, and unbiased. But it turns out that most of us believe what we want to believe. When we are looking for our breakthrough ideas and encounter something a different view, know your confirmation bias is going to be pulled on strongly. It is important to continually seek out counter opinions and feedback so you don’t get lulled into missing critical pieces. And then, listen to them!

3. The Sunk Cost Fallacy is particularly powerful when pursuing breakthrough ideas. This bias influences people to justify increasing their investment in a decision because they’ve already invested time and resources, regardless of its actual merit. Another way to look at it is, “Because I’ve already worked hard at it, it’s a good idea to keep going.” Not falling into this trap is critical. As you pursue your breakthrough idea, constantly ask yourself if it’s moving your goals in the right direction. If the answer looks like “no” for too long, don’t keep going. Cut your losses and move on!

Cognitive biases are a fact of life. For those of us wanting to have breakthrough ideas, we must learn to recognize them and not get fooled by them.

Tomorrow, you’ll learn about a strategy that naturally works to offset some of our biases; I call it cross-pollinating.


Recommended book

Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman


Share with friends