What are cognitive biases?
How often does it occur to make decisions, perhaps hastily, that we regret immediately afterwards? How often do we make choices that we think are correct, but which are actually the result of errors of judgement and interpretation, leading to more or less serious consequences? All of us are subject to the influence to pursue certain behaviours, referring, on an unconscious level, to ideologies and to personal and distorted perceptions of reality.
This depends on thought processes called cognitive biases, which come into play whenever we think, interpret and draw conclusions based on the reality around us.
What is a cognitive bias?
Cognitive biases, as termed in psychology, are unconscious distortions of thought in the assessment of facts and events. More specifically, it indicates people’s tendency to create a completely subjective reading of reality which does not necessarily reflect the evidence.
This distorted version of reality develops on the basis of the interpretation and combination of information and experiences possessed, even if they are not necessarily logically and semantically connected: this distortion, which affects us all, obviously leads us to make decisions based on errors of judgement or assessments that are not objective.
What creates cognitive biases and why do we incur in them?
The brain’s three parts operates, according to the theory of Noble Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman, according to two different systems: System 1 (proto-reptilian and limbic brain) and System 2 (neo-cortex). The oldest and most instinctive way of thinking of our brain, System 1 is represented by the proto-reptilian and limbic brain. It guides our choices and motivates our behaviours, taking sensory and emotional stimuli and the individual’s experiences into consideration.
This happens in a completely unconscious way and with a view to making the most effective decisions with the least possible effort. In the same way that, millions of years ago, our ancestors were forced to make quick decisions in order to survive in the savannah, System 1 still tends to favour quick and instinctive decision-making, but this leads to errors of judgement such as cognitive biases and heuristics.
Our approach to making choices is often referred to as heuristic, a process that uses mental shortcuts to enable us to formulate judgments in a very short time by exploiting memories, mental associations and feelings, including cognitive biases.
What are the most common biases?
We can encounter numerous cognitive biases, as many as two hundred.
The best known and most common, however, are:
- Anchoring bias: as explained in this article, our brain prefers a rapid decision-making process, but runs into several errors of judgement. Anchoring bias indicates one such problem, emphasising how we often tend to make decisions based on a comparison between a limited set of elements and factors that can influence choice, very often the first ones presented to us and which we unconsciously use as a yardstick for comparison with the information that follows. As Daniel Kahneman explains, anchoring occurs when people who have to assign a value to an unknown quantity do so starting from a certain available value. Estimates remain close to the number from which the people had started. A well-known example of anchoring in action concerns the presentation of Apple’s iPad: on the stage at the Apple convention, Steve Jobs presented the product to the audience with an initial estimated market price for the iPad: 999 dollars. Shortly afterwards, the former Apple CEO revealed the final price the company had chosen for the product: 499 dollars. With this mechanism, the final price of the iPad seemed extremely affordable and advantageous, even though the initial value presented by Steve Jobs should have had no relevance for Apple customers, as it was never actually applied to the product during the launch phase.
- Negativity bias: this bias leads us to pay much more attention to mistakes and negative feedback than to successes and proven skills. This bias has a lot to do with the beliefs we have about our own skills and performance.
- Peacock effect: it is much easier, more satisfying and desirable to share our successes than our failures. This bias, which by no means originated with the advent of digital platforms, encourages us to convey a better or positively filtered image of ourselves to others so that people focus on the positive aspects of our lives.
Salience bias: this bias leads us to overestimate the frequency with which an event, detail or action is repeated in our daily lives. It indicates our tendency to be influenced by the most relevant – or salient – inputs we encounter. If we buy a yellow car, for example, we will more easily and more frequently notice other cars of the same colour, deluding ourselves into thinking that information similar to that which concerns us or which is important to us will recur much more often than usual, precisely because it is relevant to us.
- Projection and false consensus bias: projection bias leads us to believe that most people think and have views similar to our own, while false consensus bias leads us to believe that others agree with us and our view of reality.
- Confirmation bias: we all like to agree with others and find support for our opinions. Confirmation bias refers to an unconscious mechanism we employ to confirm our pre-existing opinions or views, referring to and endorsing sources, perspectives and ideas that are consistent with our own, while effectively ignoring or discrediting what does not fall into these categories.
- Hyperbolic discounting bias: a very common bias according to which we tend to make decisions and act in favour of immediate gratification over a future and possibly more advantageous reward. This bias is also called present bias because it indicates how hard it is for us to plan and pursue farsighted decisions.
- In group bias: this bias, which is similar in dynamics to confirmation bias, leads us to assess the achievements, views and values of the social “group” to which we belong – family, friends, work colleagues – more positively. According to this bias, the successes of other social groups are attributed to chance or to external factors that do not depend on the quality of the people who belong to them.
- Planning Fallacy bias: this bias indicates our proverbial optimism in relation to the success and timing necessary to carry out actions, fulfil intentions and pursue goals that we tend to put off until later. We experience this bias because it is natural for us to compare the time and effort required to perform future actions based on similar tasks we have completed in the past. The interesting thing about this bias is that it is only reflected in personal tasks and actions: people are very optimistic about their own abilities, but not about the abilities of others, exhibiting an inherent pessimism in this case.
- Status quo bias: change frightens people, and because we generally tend to prefer simple, effortless choices, we prefer the status quo to innovation, even when the current situation is not beneficial to us. This bias has to do with our innate fear of the unknown, leading us to believe that making a different choice from those made so far may not only generate no benefit, but may even jeopardise the “status quo” we have established. This bias is closely related to omission bias, which explains why people prefer to be “passively” affected by other people’s decisions or by the reality around them rather than acting without being sure of the success of their own decisions.
How do we overcome cognitive biases?
As mentioned, at unconscious level all of us are subject to the influence of prejudice, partial and often inaccurate readings of objective reality: precisely because heuristics and biases are mechanisms that intervene in our decision-making process at an automatic level, it is almost impossible to avoid running into one or the other from time to time.
Knowing how they work and what conclusions they lead to, however, is as simple as it is effective in activating timely countermeasures and correcting attitudes, behaviours and thoughts influenced by biases: reflecting and pondering our choices well – maybe even reviewing some of them that have turned out to be wrong over time – is an important first step to defend ourselves from cognitive biases and make better decisions.