CRITICAL THINKING AND COGNITIVE BIASES
How does it set with you to realize that you, like all of the rest of us, have numerous cognitive biases which are built into the way your brain and body works? How does it settle to know that there are numerous experiences in which you are more likely than not to distort information and come away from the experience with false ideas and erroneous understandings?
Personally, I don’t like it. Yet it is a fact about our mind-body system. Distortion is one of the modeling processes along with generalization and deletion which is inherent in how we make our mental maps. And so I accept it and I also work to, first, be aware of the operational cognitive biases that are operational in us as human beings and then, second, take them into
account as best I can in those situations where they are most likely to be activated.
There’s something else that I also don’t like. I don’t like how many cognitive biases there are! There are a lot of them! There are dozens and dozens, maybe even hundreds. When Colin Cox began studying this subject, I asked him at one time regarding how many of the cognitive biases that he catalogued. I was hoping we could reduce them to a list of 10 or 20. But no. There were scores and scores of them. That fact alone makes it really challenging to know them all, be conscious of them, and not let them get the best of us.
What then are some of the central ones, the most common ones? What cognitive biases can you count on that you have and most of the people around you fall for on a regular basis?
This is the bias to confirm what you already know and believe. The more you know it, the more familiar it is to you, and so the stronger you believe it. The more you believe it, the more you will find even more confirming evidence for it. Talk about a Catch-22! No wonder it is so difficult to talk, and worse yet, argue, someone out of a belief.
The Patternicity Bias
This is the bias to find and invent patterns. We are biased that way. Our brains are most essentially pattern-detection machines. We think anecdotally, not statistically and so one or more incidents can convince us of a pattern when there is none! This creates all sorts of weird beliefs and understandings that can undermine a person’s effectiveness in dealing
with the real world.
Have you noticed how things are so clear to you after the event? It is amazing! In hindsight, we clearly see all of the clues that should have forewarned us about things. We see so clearly what went wrong with other people and scratch our heads wondering, “What’s wrong with them? Are they blind? All the evidence was right there in front of them?” In sports we
call this Monday Morning Quarterbacking. In psychology we talk about someone being an arm-chair psychologist. An arm-chair expert in any of these things, sports, profiling people, businesses, politics, etc. we are so incredibly insightful about things afterwards! We know how the game should have been played and what we would have done if we were the coach!
Ah, here is the bias of biases! We all come with this one-a bias to justify ourselves. We want to be right, and by God, we’re going to be right even if we have to twist the facts a bit, or a lot. Little children who are not capable of truly being “response-able” almost automatically will “explain” why they hit their brother or didn’t do his homework. Being wrong is hard. It is easier and more “natural” to tell you why I am right and you are wrong. 🙂
Like the previous one, in this one we demonstrate our built-in bias to attribute goodness to ourselves as we interpret our problems being due to the circumstances of life while we attribute character flaws to others when they have the same problems. In our case, the mistake is due to the situation, in theirs it is due to their disposition and character. We are
good, just blocked. They are bad to the bone!
This is a bias that gets us to pay far, far too much than what is realistic or needed. The bias is that once we have invested something (money, time, effort, reputation, etc.) into something, then we are biased to keep investing even though we “know” better. After all, we have sunk so much into it already! So we can’t just stop and let it go. Or can we?
Status Quo Bias
Think of this one as also the Risk Averse bias. Here we are biased to keep things the same and avoid risk in situations where there is a strong possibility of loss. Because security is so important for us as human beings, the status quo is very satisfying in that it gives us comfort, familiar, and the known.
This bias occurs because once something has been mentioned it tends to “anchor” our thinking and calculations thereafter. Mention an irrelevant number, even this will have an anchoring effect. This is the bias of first-impressions. It is what we do in priming.
This is the bias is described by the proverb, “A bird in hand is worth two in the bush.” We tend to think, process information, and calculate according to what we have available to us, information that’s available, memory that’s available, etc.
When faced with uncertainty, we are biased to make snap decisions based on various shortcuts that we use. We use these shortcuts by using whatever “rules of thumb” (heuristics) that we have developed. This reduces things to make them more simple (for us) as we judge probability. “An event is judged probable to the extent that it represents the essential features of its parent population or generation process” (Amos Tversky, Daniel Kahneman). So what and how we represent these heuristics biases us.
Inattention Blindness Bias
When we are intensely focused on one thing, we are biased to be “blind” to other things. This explains how people can not see a Gorilla in the middle of a basketball game.
We are also biased to see what we expect to see! When we expect something, we tend to notice it, look for it, and then … lo and behold, we find it. As a meta-level, our expectations set a frame which then affects our perceptual filters.
In contexts where we are new or uncertain, we tend to default to those in authority and to uncritically believe them and value their opinions. Obviously, this is a dangerous one as it actually encourages people to not think for themselves and to be too naively trusting.
This is our bias for valuing and believing what our group values and believes, also known as the “bandwagon effect.” Because we are social beings and our social relationships mean a lot to us, most people find it extremely difficult to not deferent to whatever biases their referent group holds. In highly cohesive groups this can lead to groupthink.
We have a bias to be consistent. This is good. Except when the bias is so strong we cannot tolerate inconsistency. Then when we experience dissonance, our inner psychology will work to reduce the cognitive dissonance. If our beliefs and behaviors are inconsistent with each other, there will be a natural inner bias to distort our perceptions about such
and/or to change the belief or the behavior.
Not-Invented Here Bias
When a group of people are highly cohesive or simply having been together for a long time, they will develop the tendency to discount information or ideas that do not come from the preferred group or source. What comes from outside and is “not invented here” will seem foreign and therefore wrong.
Self-Fulfilling Prophecy Bias
finally we are biased to set in motion a self-fulfilling prophecy based on our beliefs. When we believe something, our belief becomes a meta-level frame that then governs perceptions and actions. Then because we are a system, our whole system becomes organized to conform as best as it can to our beliefs.
If you have any questions about the importance of critical thinking skills- then take this short list of cognitive biases with you for a week and begin to notice them. I think you will be stunned to discover just how much we all distort our sense of reality and how much we all need to keep learning and updating our critical thinking skills.
L. Michael Hall Ph.D-Founder of Neuro Semantics.