4 Steps to Manage Cognitive Biases

4 Steps to manage cognitive biases

People always said I was a calm guy. I never got angry or raised my voice. But it all changed when my daughter turned 3. 

Like many 3-year-olds, she was testing her limits. She would flat out ignore me when I told her to do something, or she would look me in the eye and start drawing on the furniture. I started getting angry at her. I’d shout at her, she’d cry, and I’d feel sick to the stomach. But I couldn’t stop myself. 

“I better look for anger management books,” I thought. 

Anger is an emotion, and emotions, in general, belong to a rapid response system that helps us respond to changes in our environment that could impact our survival or well-being. Anger, in particular, is a natural response to threats. It’s a rapid response that helps us defend ourselves from an attack. Emotions like anger evolved to enable us to survive. It’s natural for us to experience them, but they need to be managed correctly or else they can have a negative impact on us and the people around us.

What Cognitive Biases and Emotions Have in Common

Cognitive biases are similar to emotions. They belong to a rapid response system that helps us to fill in gaps in our information and act decisively despite those gaps. We all have them. We have evolved to have both anger and cognitive biases to survive and reproduce.

The concept of cognitive bias was first introduced by Daniel Kahneman in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow. Kahneman distinguishes two cognitive mechanisms for decision making: fast thinking, which uses mental shortcuts, and slow thinking, which uses reasoning. 

A brain has only a limited amount of processing power. To make the most of that processing power, natural selection favored mental shortcuts for information processing. For example, when I ask you what 2 + 2 equals, you can answer with minimal effort. You are using a mental shortcut: instead of adding (1 + 1) and (1 + 1), you are simply using your past experience with numbers to come to the shortcut answer of 4.

Cognitive psychologists estimate that we make around 80% of our decisions using these mental shortcuts. These shortcuts enable the brain to save energy, so we can focus on really important decisions.

The problem is that many people–myself included–make important decisions using these shortcuts. Even though I’d spend hours deciding where to take my wife for dinner, or reading dozens of reviews to buy a tech gadget, or debating which basketball player is the greatest of all time—I’d decide which politician to vote for in less than a minute. 

Because fast thinking is more prone to errors, we can make mistakes, those mistakes can hurt us and the people around us. Just as acting impulsively out of anger can be damaging, making judgments impulsively based on, say, a first impression or someone else’s gossip can be damaging as well. 

4 Steps to Managing Cognitive Biases

Psychologists have developed techniques for managing emotions. It’s possible to construct analogous techniques for managing cognitive biases. Here are steps to manage cognitive bias which are based on the anger management strategies outlined by the American Psychological Association:

Step 1: Look for fast-thinking warning signs: Do you feel very confident about a judgment you’ve just made? Relax and ask yourself your real reasons for making the judgment. What reasons have you considered to arrive at that judgment? If your goal is to know and understand what’s true, making a snap judgment is not going to help you achieve it. Snap judgments are, by definition, decisions made quickly on the basis of very little information. 

Suppose, for instance, that you are interviewing someone for a job. If you make your decision to hire or not within the first two minutes of meeting the candidate, then you’ve made a snap judgment based on a superficial trait like the way they dress, or speak, or look. Know that your first impression probably reflects a mental shortcut that is not going to help you make an accurate judgment. This will be harmful to the candidate, to you, and to your company. 

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.

For our interview example, ask yourself, “Why am I making this judgment about this candidate?” Is your hiring decision based on the candidate’s ability to get the job done, or is it based on some other factor such as their appearance?

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. This is an essential step for any worthwhile decision that has a long-term impact. 

Thinking back to the interview example: To collect more evidence to make your hiring decision, you need to ask the candidate a series of questions or ask them to complete a series of tests that will reveal whether they have the needed qualifications. You might need to schedule a second interview or get feedback about them from your co-workers to form a more complete picture of their performance. 

Step 4: Continue to withhold judgment until you get more evidence: A free thinker’s goal is to know and understand what’s true. If the evidence that you have available is not sufficient to support the conclusion, default to withholding judgment. 

On this point, our interview example poses a challenge because you have to decide on a candidate. If you’re having trouble making a decision based on the information you’ve gotten so far, then maybe you have to schedule a second interview to get more. If you find that your interviews often leave you with inadequate evidence to make a decision, then you need to rethink your interview process. You need to re-engineer the process to secure better evidence in the future.

Withholding Judgment: The Free thinker Default

This technique is an important tool for free thinkers to make accurate decisions and to minimize cognitive biases. Understanding that our cognitive biases interfere with our decision-making helps us to minimize their effects. Withholding judgment as a default helps us avoid fast thinking and make more accurate decisions.

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