Cognitive Biases

What exactly are cognitive biases?

and why we are destined to live with them

According to cognitive psychology and behavioural economics, cognitive bias refers to systematic patterns of deviation from rationality or objective judgment, which occur due to the limitations and heuristics of human information processing. These biases influence the way people perceive, remember, and interpret information, leading to distortions in their thinking and decision-making processes.

Cognitive biases can be understood as mental shortcuts or rules of thumb that the brain uses to simplify complex information-processing tasks. While these shortcuts can be helpful in many situations, they often introduce systematic errors and irrationalities into our thinking. These biases can affect various aspects of cognition, including attention, memory, perception, reasoning, and decision-making.

It's important to note that there are numerous cognitive biases identified and studied by researchers. Some well-known examples include confirmation bias, availability heuristic, anchoring bias, and framing effect. Each bias represents a specific pattern of deviation from rationality and has been documented through empirical research.

Different people may indeed 'own' a different collection of biases in their 'brain armoury', but many biases are so common that we see them in almost everyone. The strength of the expression of biases may vary significantly and depends on individual and contextual factors.


Can we get rid of biases?

No. We can't, and we probably shouldn't. Biases are an essential evolutionary feature of our brain. However, some biases have clear negative consequences in certain contexts and we can attempt to minimise such effects.

A notorious difficulty with biases is that when trained, people can usually spot a bias at play when they observe it in others, but most of the time our own biases remain a blind spot to ourselves.

Building awareness of biases can help with improving communication, teamwork, conflict resolutions, arguments and debates, decision-making, prejudices and stereotypes. Bias awareness promotes critical thinking.

When do biases occur?

While each bias has its own set of conditions in order to manifest, here are some common situations that may trigger a biased reaction:

  1. We are overwhelmed by too much information, and our brain needs to decide what to discard
  2. We are in possession of too little information, and our brain has to guess and fill in the blanks
  3. We are pressed for time, and the brain needs a quick and relatively reliable process to make a decision
  4. We encounter ambiguous or uncertain situations
  5. We are in a situation that is surprising and unexpected, one that is different from what our brain has predicted
  6. We seek to confirm our existing beliefs
  7. We are affected by social influence

Should I really be concerned?

There can be a number of positives and negatives arising from the occurrence of different biases and in different contexts. So, should you really be concerned? Check for yourself, here are just a few examples:

POSITIVES | Thank your brain for these!

  1. Cognitive biases provide a mechanism for ultra-fast decision-making and can make us very efficient
  2. They prevent cognitive overload and allow us to function in both predictable and unpredictable situations
  3. In unfamiliar situations, biases help us make judgements based on previous experience and similarities
  4. Bias awareness can help understand or predict behaviour and diffuse tensions or conflicts

NEGATIVES | Be aware and stay alert for these!

  1. Quick decisions may be sub-optimal and ill-informed
  2. We may jump to conclusions before considering all the facts
  3. We can treat others unfairly and we can be treated unfairly by others
  4. We may be heavily influenced or outright manipulated by others
  5. Biases can seriously distort communication - the same message may be decoded and interpreted in many different manners
  6. Biases are one of the principal impact vectors of disinformation and can be weaponised by malevolent actors

Related resources

Biases which frequently come into play with disinformation and help it influence our opinions and behaviours:

  • Authority bias
  • Bandwagon effect
  • Bias blind spot
  • Confirmation bias
  • Continued influence effect
  • Curse of knowledge
  • Dunning-Kruger effect
  • False consensus effect
  • Halo effect
  • Identifiable victim effect
  • In-group bias
  • Reactive devaluation
  • Selective perception
  • Semmelweis reflex

Suggested use in training

Biases are a complex concept and depending on factors like time available for a training intervention, group size, level of education and age of participants, you may have to use fairly different teaching methods and activities. What we can guarantee, though, is that this is a remarkably engaging topic and your learners will be thrilled to dive into the world of biases!

To get the fun going, you must absolutely pick a handful of biases from our resources and use them to build awareness and understanding of this thought process. Did you know that there are some 200 biases? A challenge to your learners may be to look for them and to report back to the group those biases that they found most intriguing!