Cognitive Bias: Definition, Examples & Common Types of Bias

Cognitive Bias

We all crave sugar.

Humans need sugar to live, so evolution gave us the craving for it. Sugar was relatively scarce in the environment in which humans evolved, so our metabolism adapted to convert excess calories from sugar quickly and efficiently into fat. 

Fast forward 100,000 years: sugar is now abundant in our environment. But human metabolism hasn’t changed. It still quickly and efficiently converts sugar into fat. Since sugar is now abundant, people have gotten fatter and unhealthier. 

Something analogous is true of human thought.

Humans need to survive and reproduce, so evolution gave us the desire for group membership. 100,000 years ago, we had many reasons to join a group: protecting ourselves from predators and competing tribes, finding food and other resources, finding potential mates, and so on. So our brains evolved tendencies to think, feel, and act in ways that enabled us to live successfully in groups. Those tendencies include filling in the blanks with guesses, making snap judgments, stereotyping people on character traits, seeking approval from our tribe, searching to support our existing beliefs, and wanting to be right. 

Just like sugar cravings, we have these cognitive cravings because at one time they enabled members of our species to survive and successfully reproduce. 

Fast forward 100,000 years: Our environment is safe, we have laws, we are protected from predators and other people, we have abundant information at our fingertips, and we have access to abundant food and potential mates. But human cognition hasn’t changed. We still have the same cognitive cravings. 

There’s a more familiar term for these cognitive cravings. In psychology, they’re called “cognitive biases,” or “cognitive illusions,” or “cognitive distortions.”

Cognitive biases are judgment shortcuts. They help us to fill in gaps in our information and act decisively despite those gaps. That ability to act decisively helps us act quickly in life and death situations. But let’s be frank: for most of us, these situations are as rare as seeing a shooting star.

We all have cognitive biases. Here are some common cognitive biases:

  • Confirmation bias: A tendency to filter information in a way that confirms what we already think. 
  • Optimism bias: A tendency to be over-optimistic, and to underestimate the probability of undesirable outcomes. 
  • Self-serving bias: A tendency to claim more responsibility for successes than failures. 
  • Availability bias: A tendency to overestimate the likelihood of events based on recent and emotional memories.
  • Anchoring bias: A tendency to rely too much on one trait or piece of information. 

How Cognitive Biases Damage Us

We now recognize that these cognitive cravings can damage us and the people around us. 

Imagine you just walked into a job interview. You might think that you can impress the interviewers with your experience and problem-solving skills, and you rehearse a number of things to say in response to the questions you expect from them. It turns out, however, that the interviewers make a snap judgment about you: they make their decision in less than a second based on your facial features–a scar on your face, your eye color, the distance between your eyes, and the shape of your mouth–features that reveal nothing about your qualifications.

Princeton University psychologist Alex Todorov did a study about trustworthy faceswe are wired to make a snap judgment about a person within 100 milliseconds of meeting them. 

Snap judgments helped our prehistoric ancestors survive when they saw a new face on the savannah, but it doesn’t help us in the modern world. Today, the negative impact of snap judgments has spread across the world. People make snap judgments based on sex, race, accent, age–the list goes on. 

For example, in a study by Cornell University’s Justin Gunnell, unattractive people tend to get longer and harsher prison sentences than attractive people–on average 22 months longer.

There are many examples of how cravings to make snap judgments impact our society for the worse. So how do we manage these cravings?

How To Deal with Cognitive Biases: First Know, Then Manage

We all have these cognitive cravings because they are byproducts of human evolution. We can’t eliminate them any more than we can eliminate our craving for sugar. The best we can do is take steps to manage them and the effects they have on our lives. 

How do we manage them? There are 2 steps:

Step 1. Accept that cognitive biases are dispositions of the human brain. We can’t eliminate them but only manage them. 

Step 2. Stop acting on them blindly. Instead, reflect carefully on the judgments you make. Understand exactly why you make them before acting on them.

Think back to the interview example. If you’re interviewing a candidate you might not be able to help make a snap judgment about them. But try to understand the basis of that judgment: Is it a facial feature? Is it something about the way the person dresses or talks? Is it something that is in any way relevant to evaluating the person’s qualifications for the job? If not, then put the judgment aside and focus on what matters. 

In addition, be open to other people’s evaluations and criticisms about your judgment. Other people might have had the same initial impression, and may have been able to judge the candidate’s qualifications more clearly in the moment.

The Free Thinker Approach to Cognitive Bias

Free thinkers are committed to knowing and understanding what is true. Free thinkers accept that they have cognitive biases since there is no way to eliminate them. Free thinkers understand that having cognitive biases and acting on them are two different things. 

When it comes to important decisions–accepting a job offer, voting for a political candidate, deciding on your new home, choosing a life partner, etc.–free thinkers approach decisions based on evidence to avoid the blind spots that biases cause. Finally, when there isn’t enough evidence in the decision-making process, a free thinker withholds judgment till more evidence becomes available. 

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