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Cognitive Biases

Cognitive Biases: What are they, how do they work and how can you overcome them?

Human cognition is a marvellously complex process. Our minds can process huge amounts of information, solve complicated problems, and create imaginative works of art. However, these same minds, so capable in their abilities, can also be influenced by subtle and not-so-subtle biases that shape our thoughts, beliefs, and actions in sometimes unproductive or damaging ways.

A cognitive bias is a systematic error in thinking that affects the decisions and judgments that people make. In essence, these biases act as mental shortcuts—often useful, but sometimes leading us astray. Cognitive biases were first introduced by psychologists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman in the 1970s, leading to a new field of study known as behavioral economics.

There are numerous examples of cognitive biases, and the list keeps growing. Here are a few examples of some of the more common ones:

  • Confirmation bias: This bias is our tendency to look for and interpret information in a way that confirms our existing beliefs. For example, if you believe that left-handed people are more creative, you might notice and remember instances that support this belief while ignoring evidence that contradicts it.
  • Anchoring bias: Anchoring bias happens when people rely too much on the first piece of information (the “anchor”) when making decisions. For instance, if you first see a shirt that costs $300, then see a similar one for $100, you might feel the second shirt is a bargain, even if it’s still beyond your budget.
  • Halo effect: This bias can make you think everything about a person is good because you like one thing about them. An example would be considering a good-looking person as intelligent and friendly, even without knowing them personally.
  • Hindsight bias: It’s the “I-knew-it-all-along” phenomenon, where you believe that you could have predicted an event after it has already happened. For example, after a sports match, you might feel that you knew your team was going to win, even though their victory was uncertain beforehand.
  • Group attribution error: This error describes our tendency to overgeneralize how a group of people will behave based on an interaction with only one person from that group. For example, a negative experience with someone from a different group (e.g., a different culture, gender, religion, political party, etc.) might make us say that all members of that group share the same negative characteristics. Group attribution error forms part of the explanation for prejudice in social psychology.

Understanding cognitive biases requires us to delve into how our brain works. Let’s discuss this through the lens of two cognitive systems: System 1 and System 2, as outlined by Kahneman in his book “Thinking, Fast and Slow.”

System 1 operates automatically and quickly, with little or no effort and voluntary control. It’s responsible for our immediate reactions and instinctual responses. For example, if we see a snake while hiking, System 1 might cause us to jump back before we consciously realize what we’ve seen. This system is prone to biases and irrationality because it tends to rely on shortcuts and heuristics (mental rules-of-thumb) to make fast decisions.

System 2 involves deliberate thought and conscious decision-making processes. It’s slower, more reflective, and takes more cognitive effort. For example, when we decide to evaluate a business proposal or plan our retirement, we’re using System 2. This system is more rational but also more lazy, often accepting the recommendations of System 1 without much scrutiny.

Now, let’s bring cognitive biases back into the picture. These biases are essentially glitches in our thinking, often caused by the heuristics that System 1 uses to make quick decisions. For instance, the confirmation bias arises because System 1 likes to maintain consistency and coherence in our beliefs. It’s easier for the brain to accept information that aligns with our existing beliefs than to expend energy critically evaluating new information that contradicts them. Hence, System 1 would gravitate towards information that confirms our beliefs and ignore or dismiss contradictory evidence.

Similarly, the anchoring bias occurs because System 1 uses the first piece of information (the anchor) as a mental shortcut to make subsequent judgments. System 2 could step in to evaluate whether the anchor is relevant or reliable, but often it doesn’t because that would take more cognitive effort.

Therefore, cognitive biases are often a result of the interplay between the efficient but flawed System 1 and the rational but lazy System 2. By understanding this, we can be more conscious of our biases and employ strategies to counteract them. For example, we can deliberately engage System 2 by seeking diverse perspectives, questioning our initial judgments, and reflecting on our thought processes.

Recognizing these cognitive biases is the first step towards overcoming them. Here are a few strategies to mitigate their influence and increase your awareness.

  • Seek a broad range of information: Counteract confirmation bias by actively seeking out viewpoints differing from your own. This helps to paint a more accurate picture of reality.
  • Avoid relying on the first piece of information: To deal with anchoring bias, try to gather more information before making a decision and avoid relying solely on the first piece of information you come across.
  • Challenge your impressions: If you’re prone to the halo effect, challenge yourself to separate individual characteristics instead of forming a generalized opinion based on a single trait.
  • Reflect on your predictions: To prevent hindsight bias, try keeping a record of your predictions and the reasoning behind them. This can offer a more objective measure of your forecasting abilities.
  • Do not make decisions under pressure. A final way to protect yourself from relying on your cognitive biases is to avoid making any decisions under time pressure. Although it might not feel like it, there are very few instances when you need to make a decision immediately.


By Ampara Bouwens

Ampara is an experienced Clinical Psychologist with over 19 years of experience, providing mental health services in private, governmental, and corporate sectors. She specialises in complex trauma, personality disorders, and other severe disorders, using a compassionate and non-judgmental approach to help clients regain control and autonomy over their lives. Since moving to New Zealand in 2016, Ampara has been running a successful private practice, offering personalised and effective treatment to individuals seeking to improve their mental health and well-being. Ampara is also the clinical lead and founder of MindGarage – a leading provider of psychological services, treatment, and assessment, with a team of skilled therapists who provide high-quality, personalised treatment via the same compassionate, non-judgmental approach. The MindGarage team takes a holistic approach to therapy, considering all aspects of a client’s life and offering tailor-made services to meet individual needs. MindGarage believes in empowering clients with the skills and knowledge needed to make positive changes in their lives, promoting long-term mental and emotional health.

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