What is Cognitive Bias?
A cognitive bias is a systematic fault in thinking and decision-making that can affect our judgments and perceptions. These biases can arise due to our limited mental capacity, the complexity of the environment, and the influence of our prior experiences and beliefs.
A human brain is a powerful tool. But it is also subject to limits of attention, individual motivations, heuristics, social pressures, and emotions. These factors can all contribute to cognitive biases. Many of them are attempts to simplify information processing.
Biases can stem from rules of thumb that help you understand the world and reach decisions quickly. But they can also lead to errors and distortions in thinking. For example, limits of attention can lead to incomplete information processing. Individual motivations can circumvent logic, producing biased interpretations. Heuristics, or mental shortcuts, can be helpful in some situations but can also lead to errors if applied inappropriately.
Social pressures can also influence decision-making, with individuals often conforming to the opinions of those around them. Finally, emotions can play a significant role in developing biases. Individuals frequently make decisions using feelings rather than logical analysis. Understanding these factors and their potential impact on thinking can help individuals recognize and mitigate cognitive biases’ effects.
These biases can cause us to make inaccurate or irrational judgments and decisions, often without our awareness. The study of cognitive biases is a crucial area of research in psychology, neuroscience, and behavioral economics. It provides insights into how the human mind works and how we can improve our decision-making processes.
Cognitive Bias in Research
Cognitive bias can significantly impact a study’s participants and its researchers. It can cause participants to alter their behavior or responses, potentially affecting the validity of the study’s results. Meanwhile, cognitive bias can lead researchers to perceive and analyze data inaccurately, leading to incorrect or false findings.
Our brains tend to seek confirmation of our beliefs and expectations, creating a challenge for objective researchers. These challenges are especially prevalent in high-stakes fields, and pressure to produce positive results can be considerable. Because of this challenge, researchers need to recognize and account for cognitive biases to maintain the integrity of their work.
Cognitive Bias Examples
Numerous types of cognitive biases can affect our thinking and decision-making processes. This list provides some key examples:
The propensity to find, interpret, and recall information that supports our existing beliefs and ideas while disregarding information that contradicts them.
Consider a person who believes that a particular alternative medicine is effective. They might seek out and accept only positive testimonials and ignore negative scientific evidence suggesting otherwise.
Learn more in depth about Confirmation Bias Definition & Examples.
The tendency to generalize impressions of a person or entity based on a single positive or negative trait or experience.
Thanks to this cognitive bias example, someone might assume a physically attractive teacher has superior teaching skills even when that is not true.
For more information, read my post about the Halo Effect.
The tendency to overestimate the likelihood or importance of events that are readily available in our memory or experience.
A person with this type of cognitive bias might be more afraid of flying in an airplane because they have heard news stories about plane crashes. However, driving a car is statistically much more dangerous.
Read more about the Availability Heuristic.
The inclination to count too heavily on the first piece of information encountered when making subsequent judgments or decisions.
A car salesperson might list a very high price for a car initially so that when they later give a lower price, the buyer thinks they are getting a good deal thanks to this cognitive bias example.
Learn more about Anchoring Bias.
The tendency to be swayed by how information is presented or framed rather than the content itself.
Marketers might take advantage of this type of cognitive bias by advertising a product as “95% fat-free” instead of “5% fat.” The former sounds more positive and attractive to buyers.
Read about the Framing Effect.
The tendency for people with low ability or expertise in a domain to overestimate their competence and knowledge, while those with higher ability or expertise may underestimate their own.
Imagine a software developer who has just learned a new programming language and written a few simple programs. They might believe they have a comprehensive understanding of the language and feel confident enough to start working on complex projects because of this infamous cognitive bias example.
However, their limited knowledge and experience may result in errors and suboptimal code. They may not even realize they lack a deeper understanding until receiving feedback from more experienced developers.
Learn more in depth about the Dunning-Kruger Effect.
The belief that random events will “even out” over time, leading to an expectation of a particular outcome based on previous results.
A gambler who has not won anything on a slot machine in a while might experience this type of cognitive bias. The gambler starts to believe that they are “due for a win.” They continue to play, thinking that the machine must eventually pay out. However, the odds of winning on the slot machine are still the same for each individual spin. The previous outcomes do not influence current or future results.
Learn more about the Gambler’s Fallacy.
The tendency to believe, after an event has occurred, that you could have predicted or expected the outcome, even if you had no prior knowledge or information. After the fact, some events might feel inevitable.
After a reading an unusual earnings report, an investor might believe they could have predicted it due to this cognitive bias example. In reality, they would not have had enough information to make an accurate prediction before reading the report.
Learn more about Hindsight Bias.
The tendency to focus on negative or threatening information over positive or neutral information.
A person receives feedback on a presentation they gave at work. Although most of the feedback is positive and constructive, the person focuses solely on the one negative comment and feels discouraged and upset. This type of cognitive bias leads them to disregard all the positive feedback they receive.
The tendency to attribute our successes to our abilities and efforts while attributing our failures to external factors beyond our control.
Thanks to this type of cognitive bias, a student who did well on an exam might attribute their success to their intelligence and hard work. Conversely, they’ll attribute any mistakes to external factors such as a poorly designed test or the teacher providing inadequate study materials.
Learn more in-depth about the Self-Serving Bias.
The tendency to make judgments based on how well an individual or event fits into a prototype or stereotype.
A person might assume that someone wearing a white coat and carrying a stethoscope is a competent doctor, even if they are not, simply because they fit the “prototype” of what a doctor looks like.
Learn more about the Representativeness Heuristic.
Cognitive biases can affect our thinking and decision-making processes in various ways, often leading to inaccurate or irrational judgments and decisions. These biases can also affect experimental results, leading to invalid or misleading findings. By being aware of them and taking steps to mitigate their influence, researchers can improve the validity of their research.