​​Cognitive Bias: A Feature, Not a Bug

Bias are a feature

Sometimes people think something is a design flaw, but it’s really a design feature.

Let’s pretend that you are new to Gmail. As a new user, you find yourself complaining about the five-second delay in sending email messages and you call it a bug–a flaw in the software. However, after using Gmail for a few days, you realize that you used the recall email feature several times a month. After using the recall feature, you think to yourself, “Wow! I love Gmail’s feature that allows me to recall my email!”

The Google engineers had an objective in mind: they wanted users to have the ability to recall incomplete and embarrassing emails, and they intentionally designed the app to have that feature.

The Gmail five-second delay might look like a design flaw, but it is a design feature.

Something analogous is true of cognitive biases. 

Cognitive biases are judgment shortcuts that predispose us to belong to a group and to act decisively when we have gaps in our information. People think that they’re design flaws in human thought—and with good reason: cognitive biases can damage us and the people around us. They can lead to poor decisions like judging someone based on their religion, school, or background. But, in fact, cognitive biases aren’t design flaws but instead design features of human thought. 

Think back to our Gmail example. We can easily get fooled into thinking that Gmail’s five-second delay is a design flaw, but in reality, it is a design feature to give us time to recall an email. We can easily think that cognitive biases are design flaws, but in reality, nature designed these features to enhance our chances of survival and reproduction. 

To understand this idea, you need to understand how we evolved the cognitive biases we have.

The Evolution of Cognitive Biases

Imagine that nature is an engineer. For nature to make sure that each species thrives it has two objectives:   

1. Members of the species must survive;

2. Members of the species must reproduce. 

Because nature has these two objectives, natural selection equips organisms with adaptations that increase the likelihood of (1) and (2). Cognitive biases are among the adaptations that natural selection equipped humans with. 

The species that adapt to their environment get to survive and reproduce. For example, when an asteroid hit the earth about 65 million years ago and the conditions on the earth dramatically changed, about 50% of the animals, including dinosaurs, went extinct because those species could not adapt to the new environment. The species that adapted got to survive and reproduce. 

Cognitive biases are features that enhance humans’ ability to survive and reproduce. They can be understood in terms of two kinds of dispositions:

1. A disposition to live in groups;

2. A disposition to make snap judgments.

A disposition to live in groups is a feature designed by nature for us to stick together to survive and reproduce. This disposition is one of the reasons why people want to be part of racial, national, religious, sports, city, or hobby groups. A larger group gives us more eyes and ears to spot danger. Also, living in a larger group gives us more chances to find a mate since a larger group has a larger pool of mates. 

The disposition to make snap judgments, on the other hand, is a feature designed by nature for us to fill in the blanks when we lack information. This feature enabled humans to survive in hostile environments, so they could act decisively in life-and-death situations with very little information. For example, if you were living in the savannah and you met someone outside your tribe, then with very little information, you labeled them friend or foe. Your whole tribe’s survival depended on your decision to label the outsider correctly without adequate information. Humans that learned to make snap judgments based on facial features, clothing, or other superficial attributes had a better chance of surviving and reproducing.

Since these two dispositions allow humans to survive and reproduce, these are design features. They can nevertheless look like flaws because there are many situations in which they lead to errors in judgment. For example, imagine you’re interviewing an overweight guy who’s poorly dressed. You judge him to be lazy and incompetent based on his looks. It turns out that this man is like a younger Winston Churchill, and you miss out on a great hire. 

Managing Cognitive Biases

Many people go a long way to get rid of cognitive biases by reading books, going to seminars, or spending years in meditation. The reality is that we can never get rid of cognitive biases because they’re features that we have as a result of natural selection. 

So what do we do then? The best option for us is to accept these design features and learn to manage them. I wrote about 4 steps to manage cognitive biases here. I outline them briefly below.

Step 1: Look for snap judgment warning signs: 

  • Do you feel very confident about a judgment you’ve just made? 
  • Are you making any decisions because of your disposition to join a group? 
  • Ask yourself your real reason for arriving at that judgment. 

Step 2: Evaluate your reasons for making the judgment: 

  • If your reason for making the judgment is X, then ask yourself, “Is it possible for X to be true, and yet for my judgment to be false? Can I imagine any circumstances in which X is true and my judgment is false?” 
  • If the answer is yes, then ask yourself a further question, “Is it likely for X to be true and the judgment false?” If the answer is no, then you need to withhold judgment till you get better evidence.

Step 3: Seek reasons that actually establish that your judgment is accurate or inaccurate: 

  • In step 2, you are making sure your initial reasons actually support your judgment. 
  • If you find that those reasons don’t support your judgment, then you need to collect more evidence to make an accurate decision. 

Step 4: Continue to withhold judgment until you get more evidence: 

  • If the evidence that you have available is not sufficient to support the conclusion, default to withholding judgment. 

How Free Thinkers Approach Cognitive Biases

Free thinkers are committed to knowing and understanding what’s true. Free thinkers accept that they have cognitive biases, and since there is no way to eliminate them, free thinkers take steps to manage them instead. 

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