UG5: Cognitive Biases

“Nothing is so difficult as not deceiving oneself.” Ludwig Wittgenstein


Cognitive Biases are the instinctive ways that people, including us, think. They can be traced to our evolutionary history when our distant ancestors lived constantly in the presence of animals and plants out to kill them, and lived in small communities where if you didn’t get on with others and know your place you were likely to be kicked out to die in a cruel and uncaring world. Certain tendencies and instincts increased the chance of survival, and over millions of years our brains have been shaped every bit as much as our bodies. In today’s environment however, very different to that which gave rise to them, our cognitive biases often lead us astray.
'Actor-Observer Bias or Fundamental Attribution Bias'
We see ourselves as flexible and responsive to circumstances but we see other people as fixed in their ways. When we stumble it is because we were distracted or there was something in our way. When others stumble it is because they are clumsy.

Accept without question that other people are no different to you in terms of responding to particular circumstances albeit influenced by personality traits. People make mistakes for the same reason as you do. When you think negatively about why someone has behaved or done something imagine it was you that had done so. Would you feel the same way about yourself?
'Availability Bias'
People are strongly influenced by information that is readily to hand. People overestimate probabilities based on the fact that they can bring particular examples to mind.

Don’t rely on your instincts when it comes to probabilities or statistics. Seek out objective information, particularly base rate statistics. Whilst it may not conform to your own experiences, accept that your own experiences are very limited, and are as they are purely by chance. The nature of real world probabilities is that small samples will vary widely.
‘Belief Bias’
Our judgement of the strength of an argument is very strongly influenced by whether we are for or against the conclusion. We start with our beliefs and then decide whether or not to accept the argument. As such we learn nothing.

In assessing an argument we would be much better looking for a reason to reject our beliefs. Only by moving from a poor belief to a better belief do we learn. Thus judge the strength of an argument on the basis of whether or not it gives us an excuse for rejecting the beliefs we have rather than whether or not they support our beliefs.
‘Benefit Bias’
Something of benefit is viewed as less risky than it would be if it were neutral or disadvantageous.

Our subjective views of risk are very often biased, and if the assessment of risk is important we should seek as objective a view as we are able, by making use of any available statistics or looking to get other people’s viewpoints.
‘Blind Spot Bias’
People see themselves as ‘better than average’ when it comes to having positive traits and ‘less than average’ for negative traits. But in truth, as far as your instincts go, and as far as your ability to be objective goes, you are no different to everyone else.

Your instincts are not magically better than everyone else’s, even though you believe they are. You are as prone to biases as everyone else and you will only get better at countering them by learning about them, by regularly reminding yourself about them, and consciously working at overcoming them.
‘Confirmation Bias’
We all give far greater weight to information that confirms our existing beliefs and ignore evidence that is contrary to what we believe. Yet if we want to have beliefs that are as close to the truth or to reality as we can, then we must let go of the pretense that we already have such beliefs. We have no magical insight into the world, which means we must make the best of the information that is available to us.

Accept that your current beliefs are merely the best you have at the moment, and actively seek to find weaknesses in them so that you can move towards better beliefs. Information that contradicts what you already believe is thus to be welcomed and to be seen as of far more value than information which supports them.

People who use terms such as never, or always, are often exhibiting confirmation bias. Whilst we are all prone to confirmation bias to some extent, some are more so than others, and tend to see the world in black and white terms.
‘Control Bias’
People underestimate risks if they believe they can control them.

Be wary of your instinct about risks. You are not omnipotent. Things happen unexpectedly whether you like it or not. And the longer the period the greater the likelihood of things varying from the way you think they will turn out.
‘Expectation Bias’
People see what they expect to see even when it is not there. We only really notice a tiny fraction of what is going on around us, that which we are very explicitly paying attention to. The rest of what we think we see we unconsciously make up, largely based upon what we expect to be there. Thus people describing a car accident after the event will often give contradictory reports of what they think they saw.

Unless you very explicitly remember something in particular be wary of your memory, and certainly don’t assume that something must have been as you believe it was simply because you believe it must have been. Similarly just because someone else is certain about something they saw does not mean it was unquestionably so.
'Familiarity Bias'
We notice and are more positively disposed to things we recognize or are familiar with. Simple repetition leads to familiarity which then leads to an increased readiness to believe.

Be aware of being influenced in this way. Just because something is familiar this does not make it right. And if you want to get someone more positively disposed towards something simply make them more familiar with it.
'The Halo Effect Bias'
We very often view a person or thing favorably, or unfavorably, based on a single incident or trait. Thus physically attractive people are often judged more positively and given the benefit of the doubt more often than are others. Those with a physical deformity are often judged negatively.

Be conscious of your instinctive biases towards and against other people. Any instinctive feelings you have about someone, positive or negative, are the result of prejudices and biases. You don’t have some magical ability to know how people are simply be looking at them, you just think you do.
'Hindsight Bias'
Given any event, after it has occurred most people seem to have ‘known it all along,’ even though few of them seem to have been so definitive prior to the event occurring. After an event has occurred people will readily claim it was obvious that it would.

Remember that hindsight is easy. You’ve got it. And everybody else has got it. After the event you remember anything you said thought or did that is complementary to what happened and forget the things you said thought or did which were compatible with some alternative that by chance didn’t turn out.

If something goes wrong beware of looking for excuses or assigning blame based upon what is only obvious in hindsight. Look to understand on the basis of the circumstances at the time and what could reasonably have been known at the time. Imagine today that in 6 months time there will be a problem that needs to be urgently addressed. Is it obvious today which one it is of all the potential problems that might come about? It will do once the problem has occurred.
‘Ingroup Bias’
People are strongly biased towards those who are like them or share the same views as they do, or who are part of the same groups to which they belong. We more readily recognize and are far less forgiving of misdemeanours by those who do not belong to the groups to which we belong, to a far greater extent than we generally realize.

Be conscious of this bias and seek to make some allowance when you find yourself disapproving of the actions of those different to yourself. In particular recognize that people of different cultures are individuals, just us you and the people you know well are individuals. It is as individuals they behave as they do, not as some slave to group behavior, any more than you are slave to the behavioral tendencies of the groups to which you belong. If someone does something you disapprove of, ask yourself whether or not you would make excuses had it been done by someone you know well.
‘A Just World Bias’
Many people implicitly believe that the world is essentially fair, and that as a result those who are poor or are suffering or are victims, have only themselves to blame.

Did you chose to be born with the characteristics you have and in the circumstances you were? Did you plan out your education, your career opportunities? It may be well be that you have worked hard to get where you are. But much of where you are is as a result of chance and there are many people who will have worked as hard or harder than you but not had the advantageous circumstances that you have had. There is no inherent ‘fairness’ in the world. Things happen by chance, and whilst we have some influence over how things turn out, it is limited. Yes, there are some people who ‘bring it on themselves’ in terms of their problems. But this is a relatively small number. The vast majority of people are doing the best they can in the circumstances that by sheer chance they find themselves in.
‘A Negativity Bias’
We pay more attention and give more weight to negative information or experiences than we do to positive ones. We notice risks or threats more readily than we notice opportunities.

This is the way we are, and for the most part it serves us well as we avoid or work around issues that might cause us problems. You can and should however develop a habit of looking out for opportunities. Get into the habit of asking yourself: ‘how can I make the most of this?’
‘Omission Bias’
People see harmful actions as being worse than equally harmful inactions. We have far stronger emotional reactions to something that results from an action than we do from the same outcome that results from inaction.

Remind yourself, whenever it occurs to you that you could do something, that deciding not to do so is a decision you are making. Whatever you are doing there is invariably an option that you could be doing something else. You are implicitly choosing to carry on doing whatever it is you are doing rather than doing the something else.
'Optimism Bias’
We tend to overestimate the likelihood of positive events and underestimate the likelihood of negative events.

This is a continual problem when planning complex projects. If getting a good estimate for a project is important to you, seek objective evidence about past projects to form a baseline where possible and also get options from those not involved and without any vested interest in the project. Rather than simply seeking a particular estimate seek to identify bounds, an estimate if things go well, and an estimate if things go badly. Once you’ve bound the estimate, remind yourself that there is far more likely to be a skewing towards the worse case estimate than the best case estimate, unless you have very strong grounds for believing otherwise.
'Overconfidence Bias’
People are overconfident in their own judgments, including in their ability to accurately assess risks. Over 90% of drivers rate themselves as better than average.

Don’t rely solely on other people’s judgement about themselves, no matter how insistent they are. Of course there may be some evidence and examples to support their confidence, which is fine, though of course you want to be sure they are not being selective about their examples. Better to get other people’s viewpoints.

Be wary of your own confidence in yourself. Recognize that the overconfidence bias applies every much to you as it does to others. Is there objective evidence to support your confidence, and what gives you confidence it is genuinely objective?
'Pattern Bias'
We see patterns even where they don’t exist. Thus we readily see images of faces or animals in clouds.

There is nothing mysterious about patterns being visible in seeming random phenomenon. With even a most basic appreciation of randomness we should appreciate that there are billions of chances for patterns to emerge so we shouldn’t be surprised when occasionally we notice them or have them pointed out. Of course sometimes a pattern will reveal some truly hidden information, however this will become apparent through a deeper investigation. The superficial appearance of a pattern should never be taken as proof of a deeper meaning.
'Personal Validation Bias’
A person is more likely to consider information to be correct if it has some personal meaning or significance to them. People will give far more weight to personal experiences and anecdotes than they will to objectively measured probabilities.

Countering this bias is a question of recognizing it exists and accepting that where people have personal experiences of something, including yourself, they are likely to have unrealistic views of the true probabilities and likelihoods.
'Recall Bias’
We estimate as more probable things we find interesting or memorable. Chance events that are memorable are judged to be far more common than they really are.

Again, you need to simply recognize this, and accept that your experience of events, particularly relatively rare events, is almost by definition atypical. Do not relay on your personal experiences as a measure of likelihoods.
'Risk Framing Bias'
People tend to be more risk adverse when faced with positive options, but more likely to take risks when faced with negative options. Thus people are less likely to take chances when looking to gain something than when faced with losing something.

When looking to make decisions in the light of risks it is important to seek to calculate, as best you are able, the calculated rate of return. Where this is positive then on average, if you were to repeat the choice many times, you would gain. If negative, you would lose. Thus an optimum strategy is to go for positive rate of return options, with the higher the return the better. This needs to be tempered by considerations of the consequences should chance go against you, which may be unacceptable irrespective of the calculated rate of return.
'Secrecy Bias’
We give greater weight to information that we believe is restricted and not openly available in some way.

Recognize this as a technique frequently used to influence or deceive. Sometimes there genuinely is ‘restricted’ information which will give us a greater insight into something that we might otherwise have. However for the most part ask yourself how if something is secret is it that the person sharing it with you knows about it, not a very good secret is it, and why are they sharing it with you. And don’t be deceived by a pretense of their supposedly not wanting to share it with you.
'Unconscious Bias’
We make unconscious assumptions about another person based upon a single characteristic, such as their gender, race, place of origin, state of their shoes, etc. It is a natural process and the fact that we are subject to it does not make us prejudiced. What makes us prejudiced is accepting our assumptions without questioning them, and behaving in response to them without compensating for the bias.

Whenever we find ourselves having reservations about someone that we don’t have personal experiences of interacting with or have only had a very brief interaction with, then there is likely to be unconscious bias at work. In such circumstances we need to explicitly remind ourselves that our instinctive feelings are the result of bias. And we need to guard against any stereotyping views we have, and see other people as individuals rather as a member of given gender or race etc.
'A few more biases'
There are large numbers of named biases. The following are a few more just to give you a taste:

Authority Bias: We tend to believe, agree with, and follow instruction from, authority figures

Attention Bias: We notice far less of what is going on around us than we realize, and we only really notice that which we are explicitly paying attention to.

Distinction Bias: Two items will seem more dissimilar when evaluated together than when evaluated separately. Our mind exaggerates the differences as a means of distinguishing the items.

Early Reward Bias: Given two similar rewards, we show a preference for the one expected to arrive sooner rather than the one expected to arrive later. We ‘discount’ the value of the later reward; the more so the longer the delay.

False consensus bias. People overestimate how much other people agree with them, and often consider themselves as part of a silent majority.

The Normalcy Bias: When we are experiencing extreme circumstances we tend to significantly underplay the seriousness of the situation, seizing on any ambiguities as signs that things aren’t really as serious as they are.

Restraint Bias: People overestimate their self-control, and thus they are more likely to put themselves in the way of temptation.

Selective Outcome Bias. We tend to focus only on what supports the viewpoint we already have and ignore or dismiss as irrelevant that which contradicts it.