Why cognitive bias unwittingly clouds your thinking:
Can we trust our own minds to make reasoned arguments and decisions? Turns out we can’t. The human brain is as smart as a computer, but as easily-led as a lemming. Every time we think we make an informed decision, our brain is actually on power-down mode, attempting to conserve energy. When faced with a decision to make, or opinion to form, it defaults to the path of least resistance, our cognitive biases.
How your cognitive biases affect every decision you make:
We tend to only read, watch or listen to opinions which reinforce our own preconceptions, and disregard those which do not. For example, there’s enough evidence to suggest that gluten is a neuro-toxin that is contributing to the ill-health of the nation’s minds. But, if you’ve eaten bread all your life, with no ill-effects, you may not be willing to acknowledge this argument, especially if it asks you to evaluate your current eating habits. A refusal to evaluate another point of view without automatic dismissal prevents us from enjoying an alternative, and possibly, better experience. If you tell me the world is flat and deny the possibility it might just be round, who’s losing out?
Most humans are sheep who contentedly follow the status-quo of their particular flock. Sometimes it is too taxing to consider another point of view, especially if the other sheep seem perfectly happy with their lot. Why unsettle the crowd and introduce a new way of thinking? It takes time and effort to urge people to consider that their world views may be incorrect. And it almost always causes tension and animosity. Try telling a smoker they really need to quit and stand back as the stones get lobbed at your goody-two-shoes health conscious head.
It is our deep-seated desire to fit-in, conform and be liked that propagates bandwagon bias. Have you ever been in group whereby someone is brandishing their opinion on a certain subject and you choose to stay silent and not counter their waffle? Whilst bandwagon bias is most commonplace in our kids’ playgrounds, we are all still surrounded by adults who hold a steadfast opinion because their best pal, their daily newspaper, or their Nan told them so, and they’re too terrified to disagree.
Following-on from last week’s blog on managing expectations, this particular cognitive bias urges us to form the opinion that future events will somehow be better than past negative experiences, because they are ‘deserved’. For example, if we’ve had a series of terrible jobs, our new position will be ‘the one’, as it’s about time our luck changed. We deserve it. Again, this is your brain being a clown. The chances of your new job being better are, and always will be, 50/50.
Have you ever done something really stupid which solicited a fantastic outcome? Who hasn’t! But how likely are we to question the efficacy of our initial decision if the outcome went our way? For example, you may have won £2000 on scratch- cards, but it doesn’t mean blowing your week’s wages in the newsagent was a smart move.
Observational Selection Bias:
I’m a sucker for this one. My favourite is my frequent sighting of the digits 11.11. I’ve even Googled 11.11, although worryingly, so have many other people. I must take the time to see whether 10.10 has received the same attention.
If you’re considering buying a ginger cat, just wait and see how many more ginger cats you spot in the next few days. Your brain will convince you there’s billions of them, in your town alone. Everyone’s got a ginger cat! Wow! The only real negative consequence of this bias is that your rational mind will go on vacation whilst you become convinced this is all happening for a special reason and disregard the truth that it’s merely coincidence.
Remember the surge of false-widow spiders eating the faces off the people of the UK? Yep, last summer, the falsies were responsible for scaring the nation into believing these pernicious spiders were lying in wait in every dark corner of our homes; just dying to sink their teeny fangs into our arms to deliver their toxic-as-a-bee-sting venom. No one has died from a false widow bite since its arrival in the UK in the 1870s, and the few cases that made red-top headlines were as a consequence of an allergic reaction. The lips of the nation regularly swell up after eating Brazil nuts, but we don’t run away when we see one.
The shark evokes a similar irrational public panic. One shark –it matters not the species – spotted in the waters off the Cornish coast and everyone is fleeing from the beaches. Our waters are not patrolled by Great Whites intent on eating our bathers. Our fabulously sensationalist and toxic media will have you believe that, as fear sells like lollies on a hot day.
Outsmart your noodle:
Given the number of cognitive biases our brain has – and this is just a mere selection; the subject is PhD worthy – it’s a wonder we are capable of thinking rationally at all. Seems we can’t even trust our own minds when making decisions. So, how do we outsmart our own brains? Not simply, but we can start by acknowledging their presence in our decision making process. Accepting that our opinions may be knee-jerk, deep-seated and without actual evidence will go a long way in helping us think smarter and fairer.
Secondly, consider an alternative viewpoint and evaluate its credibility. This means seeking counsel from different sources, not your regular go-to newspaper, TV channel or friend. And unfortunately, both options require effort and your brain isn’t keen on working hard to consider all the facts in an argument; far quicker to default to an established fixed opinion.
However, consider the following parable the next time you are presented with a differing viewpoint: 6 blind men are asked to describe the elephant they are unknowingly facing. Each one feels only what is directly in front them and each man is adamant they are touching a snake, a fan, a spear, a wall, a rope and a tree. They all have physical evidence for their opinion, but they fail to consider the alternative, wider, life-enhancing perspective. Always review the entire elephant in any situation and take your idle brain off snooze.
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