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Cognitive Biases

If you’ve never been exposed to the idea of Cognitive Biases, you are probably under the impression that people are typically rational. Sure people are misinformed or uninformed or may have a different value system, but you assume that they probably make decisions consistent with the facts that they have.

Unfortunately that’s just wrong.

The human brain is the most complex known object in the universe, the pinnacle of billions of years of evolution, but it has some…quirks. Maybe our brains evolved too many cognitive ‘shortcuts’ to save on processing power, or perhaps the way our reasoning works still has some bugs in it, but for whatever reason humans have some issues with purely rational thought.

While our brains are fantastic for out-competing other species (and other humans) when it comes to living on the savanna, they fall prey to what are termed Cognitive Biases. These are tendencies for the brain to think in certain ways that result in irrational behavior. Let’s look at some examples:

  • The Illusory Truth Effect: Ever notice when a politician repeats false or misleading information over and over again? They’re taking advantage of this effect. When you’re exposed to information multiple times, even false information, you are more likely to believe it to be true.
  • False Memories: It is entirely possible for you to remember doing something that never happened, or remember something happening in a different way than it actually did. The Innocence Project, which helps overturn old legal convictions by using improved DNA testing, has reported that 73 percent of the wrongful convictions they overturned were based on eyewitness testimony. In addition, the Columbia Human Rights Law Review published an investigation in May 2012 reporting that Texas almost certainly executed an innocent man, Carlos DeLuna, based on eyewitness testimony. Read this and never fully trust an eyewitness again.
  • Hindsight Bias: This is when we believe that past events were easily predictable at the time. While the chain of events looks easy to see in hindsight, we overestimate how easy it would have been to predict in the past. The 2008 financial crash looks like it should have been obvious to predict, but we have the advantage of knowing what happened, and few people caught it at the time. Falling prey to their Hindsight Bias is why a lot of people think they can speculate on the stock market. The reality is hindsight really isn’t 20/20.
  • The Zeigarnik Effect: Incomplete tasks are better remembered than complete tasks. If you’re finding yourself in the evenings stuck in a mental loop remembering your work day, chances are you’re trying to keep in mind details of an unfinished task or project. Unload all those ideas at the end of the work day and enjoy your evening.

To be clear, that is nowhere close to an exhaustive list. This handy website lists many of them if you’d like to browse through others yourself.

Why You Should Care

There are two big reasons why studying Cognitive Biases and learning how to manage them are so important.

First, it’s great internal introspection. If you are really focused on improving yourself, knowing your own faults is vital. Understanding when and how you will make irrational decisions is the first step in becoming a rational thinker. Increasing your own rationality improves your decision making process, and thus every decision you make.

Second, you can use it for external action. Use these deficiencies in rational thinking to manipulate the world to suit your goals. Take advantage of these faults of logic in others and get your competitors to act irrationally. But please don’t use them to take over the world, that would be bad.

In future articles I’ll cover some of these biases in greater detail and hopefully discuss some strategies for dealing with them in your own life.