What is Cognitive Bias?

What is Cognitive Bias? (aka Psychological Bias)

Cognitive biases are systematic patterns of deviation from rationality or norm in judgment.

In other words, cognitive biases drive us to make decisions that don’t make rational sense.

They affect us all, every day.

We often don’t know when we are subject to such biases, and that causes problems.

Loss aversion is an example of cognitive bias: we would rather avoid losing something than gaining that same thing.

Cognitive biases like these have been studied by people like Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman (Thinking, Fast and Slow), and Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson (Mistakes Were Made (but Not by Me)).

Becoming familiar with cognitive biases is critical to understanding our thinking and improving how we make decisions.

Distinctions Between Biases

The most common use of the word ‘bias’ is in the context of someone being biased towards one thing or another.

The general definition of ‘bias’ is a preference for or against something, often unfairly.

We often talk about bias in the context of issues like sexism, racism, or other prejudice against a group or person, but this is not the bias we are referring to.

We will focus on cognitive biases that have been proven to exist across populations of many different types of people and apply to everyone.

We’ll place a particular emphasis on those which are known to affect our decision-making.

Cognitive Biases and Cognitive Dissonance

Another term you’ll hear associated with cognitive biases is the term cognitive dissonance.

From Mistakes Were Made (but Not by Me):

“Cognitive dissonance is a state of tension that occurs whenever a person holds two cognitions (ideas, attitudes, beliefs, opinions) that are psychologically inconsistent.”

Cognitive dissonance is uncomfortable. We find it difficult to hold two conflicting beliefs in our minds, even if the conflict is obvious.

There are examples of cognitive dissonance everywhere: 

  • The former athlete who maintains the idea that he is fit despite the fact that he has put on thirty pounds and no longer exercises,
  • The person who considers themselves open-minded, but has held the same opinions for a decade, or
  • The person who believes themselves generous, yet never gives to charity.

The reason that cognitive dissonance and cognitive biases are so tightly linked is that many of our biases exist to ease cognitive dissonance.

We perform many mental tricks to make ourselves feel better — to reduce our own cognitive dissonance.

The Importance of Understanding Cognitive Bias

To recap:

  • Cognitive dissonance is the tension that exists when new information conflicts with one of our previously held beliefs.
  • Cognitive biases are the mental tricks our mind plays to ease cognitive dissonance, often leading us to think and do things that don’t make sense.

Understanding our cognitive biases is the only way to understand when we are likely to make mistakes in our thinking and decision-making. 

It’s very difficult to constantly watch out for these biases.

Knowing they exist is the first step. Later we can learn methods to counter their effects. 

Most of all, though, you need to know when they’re likely to happen.

Carol Tavris said it best:

“We cannot avoid our psychological blind spots, but if we are unaware of them we may become unwittingly reckless, crossing ethical lines and making foolish decisions.”

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