The Way We Are: Cognitive Biases

By Maria Arango Kure
February 3, 2021
Walnuts on a blue background, reminiscent of brains.

“We do not see things as they are, we see them as we are.”

Anaïs Nin, 1961

Do you know where your opinions and beliefs come from? We all like to think they are the result of our experiences and objective analysis of information we collect throughout our lives. But in reality every single one of us, regardless of education, field of work and back ground, we share one vulnerability that comes from being human.

Even as our most primitive ancestors walked the earth, the amount of information surrounding us was overwhelming. Decisions needed to be made and quickly, it ensured our survival. Thus, selection mechanisms allowed for humans to evolve with shortcuts built into our thought processing. These shortcuts, known also as heuristics, allowed us to jump to conclusions quickly and react in times where speed of reaction was better at guaranteeing survival than accuracy.

However, as our brains, our lives and the world around us became more complicated, we didn’t move past these shortcuts and they became our vulnerability. They are known as cognitive biases, as named by Tversky and Kahneman in 1982, and are studied by cognitive scientists, psychologists and behavioral economists to understand our decision making processes and the catastrophic results that these biases can yield for our own wellbeing.

Cognitive biases tend to be as simple as the bandwagon effect or the effect of authority, by which we are more likely to believe that what the majority or an authority figure respectively state is the correct answer, regardless of the objective facts.

Attribution error: What you do wrong is an error in your character, what I do wrong is because of circumstances or the Dunner Kruger effect which shows how the more informed and knowledgeable you are on a subject, the more insecure you feel about it, and viceversa.

Confirmation bias is perhaps the most textbook case of cognitive biases; it is the tendency we all have to seek out information that confirms our previous beliefs, and measure it disproportionately against information that contradicts them. If you’ve ever heard of the frequency illusion, this is very similar. The frequency illusion occurs when you buy a new car, and suddenly you see the same car everywhere. Or when a pregnant woman suddenly notices other pregnant women all over the place.

The Gambler’s fallacy: let’s take a regular euro coin and, for the purposes of this example we will say the face with the number 2 is heads and the shield is tails. If we toss it, and it lands on heads, and we do it again, heads again. Do you think the next toss is more likely to be heads again? Do you think it’s more likely to be tails? The fact is, that it is both are wrong, there is still a 50-50 chance, but our shortcuts make us believe that previous events somehow influence current situations.

There is unfortunately no cure for cognitive biases, in fact there is even the bias by which people believe they are less affected by cognitive biases than they really are. However, knowing about these biases and considering their effects in your own decision making process as well as people around you, will help you to account for them and perhaps even make better decisions.

We are not seeing the world as it is, we are seeing it as we are.

*This blog post was originally a speech delivered in Toastmasters Contests in Northern Germany in 2017.

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