Cognitive biases 101

Juli Walchuk, MHC-LP January 4, 2023

A quick crash course on 10 of the most common thinking traps.

Have you ever felt like your mind was playing tricks on you? It’s more common than you think thanks to cognitive biases, or systematic errors in processing that impact your reasoning and decision-making. These unconscious mental errors are attempts by your brain to simplify and make sense of the world around you, but unfortunately, they can mess with your ability to be logical and objective. 

This term was first introduced by psychologists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman in the 1970s as they researched how people make decisions. Others have built on this concept and introduced more common biases that we’ve all likely experienced at some point. The more familiar we are with these thinking traps, the more we can catch ourselves in these patterns. Let’s review 10 of the most common cognitive biases and examples of each: 

  1. Confirmation bias

The tendency to seek out/absorb information that is consistent with your existing beliefs and to filter out information that may contradict. them. This can occur in the gathering, interpretation, or memory recall of information.

  • Only watching news networks that align with your political beliefs
  • Deciding a coworker is lazy and being on the lookout only for their lazy behaviors

  1. Hindsight bias (AKA: the knew-it-all-along phenomenon)

The tendency to exaggerate the extent to which an event could have been predicted; believing that we would have foreseen it, only after learning the outcome of something. As they say, hindsight is 20/20!

  • Stating “I think this candidate could win” leading up to an election, then adjusting that to “I knew that candidate would win all along!” following their victory
  • After hearing about a friend’s break-up stating, “I knew the relationship wouldn’t last!” 

  1. The halo effect

Using one positive trait of a person or thing as an indication that they possess other positive traits. This applies to people and larger entities like companies. 

  • Assuming that a physically attractive person must be funny, intelligent, and kind as well
  • Viewing one brand as superior to others due to one successful product 

  1. Self-serving bias

The tendency to use information to further one’s self-image, which often takes the form of taking credit for one’s successes and attributing failures to outside factors. This relates to the concept of locus of control, or the degree to which we believe we influence our circumstances.

  • An athlete attributes a win to their skill, but attributes a loss to the referee’s “bad calls” 
  • “I passed the exam because I am smart, and I studied!” On the other hand, “I failed the exam because it was too hard, and my teacher did a bad job conveying the information!”

  1. Fundamental attribution error

The tendency to judge others’ behaviors by overemphasizing personality factors and underestimating external situational factors. This one is sort of the inverse of the self-serving bias. 

  • Blaming the victim when a crime is committed, like saying they were an easy target
  • Assuming a coworker who is being short with you is just a big jerk, when in reality, maybe they had a big fight with their spouse before coming into work that day

  1. Availability heuristic 

The tendency to rely on information that most readily comes to mind. This often includes overestimating the likeliness of an extreme situation. 

  • Refusing to fly due to news of a recent plane crash…but still regularly driving despite the likelihood of a car crash being exponentially higher than that of a plane crash 
  • Spending lots of money on lottery tickets feeling you’re bound to win after hearing an acquaintance recently won a jackpot 

  1. Stereotyping

Making broad generalizations about particular groups of people and applying these concepts to all members of that group. Perhaps the most potentially dangerous cognitive bias, stereotyping can lead to discrimination and even violence. Stereotypes may be rooted in racist, sexist, classist, and heterosexist ideologies. 

  • Upholding traditional gender roles, like women must be the caregivers 
  • “Asian people are good at math,” “Welfare queen,” “Lazy immigrants” 

  1. Bandwagon effect 

The tendency to align our beliefs and actions to those around us, sometimes referred to as groupthink or herd mentality.

  • Getting a particular type of new technology because everyone else is, regardless of whether you want it or not 
  • Dressing a certain way or listening to a particular kind of music just to fit in

  1. Spotlight effect

The tendency to overestimate how much attention people are paying to your actions and appearance, often leading to feelings of anxiety or insecurity. 

  • Feeling nervous that everyone is talking about you after making a minor error
  • Feeling like everyone is staring at you when wearing an embarrassing article of clothing

  1. Dunning-Kruger effect

When someone with little knowledge or experience in a particular area overestimates their ability. This initial overconfidence is usually followed by a humbling event/period in which the newcomer realizes they don’t know anything.

  • An amateur runner deciding they are ready to run a marathon 
  • A first-time trader feeling they’re ready to take on the stock market and easily make lots of money

As you can see, our cognitive biases can lead us to draw some pretty inaccurate conclusions. But the good news is that by identifying and understanding these biases, we can better see the errors in our thinking and make better, more informed decisions. 

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