If you pride yourself on your cool head, intellect and reasoning skills, you might not like what we’re about to tell you. Although your brain is a powerful tool, it’s also prone to cutting corners and saving energy whenever possible. Since your attention and focus is a limited resource, cognitive bias—that is, errors in your cognitive functioning—can creep in and influence your perceptions of the world.
Cognitive bias can also be related to memory. Our brains remember things differently depending on surrounding circumstances. If you make decisions based on these faulty memories, your conscious processes are based on these biases.
That’s not to send you into a Matrix-style tailspin, wondering what’s real and what isn’t. Recognizing cognitive biases—your own and others’—can help you overcome them.
What is cognitive bias?
You might conflate cognitive bias with logical fallacies, but the two are quite different. While logical fallacies are problems with a logical argument, cognitive biases are errors in the brain’s memory, attribution and other functions.
It’s important to understand that everyone has cognitive biases, even when you do your best to overcome them. If you think of cognitive biases as shortcuts to save mental energy, it’s easier to understand. Conscious, logical thinking takes up a lot of brain power, so it’s natural that certain things—like simple math and directions to work—will eventually become “automated” in your brain. The problem only exists when you unconsciously rely on erroneous shortcuts.
There are all types of biases at play in our everyday lives. Here’s a look at the 10 most popular—instances that you’re likely very familiar with.
- Confirmation bias. If you’ve got a relative who sits in front of one news channel all day, every day and refuses to consider anything that goes against their already-established beliefs, that’s an example of confirmation bias. It’s so effective because it feels good, and it takes a lot of mental energy to consider all perspectives.
- Anchoring bias. This bias can occur when we use one pre-existing reference point to evaluate subsequent data. For example, if you’re offered a hamburger at $1.99, then another version priced at $15, you’ll probably think that the second option is quite expensive—but if your first frame of reference is a $23 burger, the $15 version seems like a bargain.
- Herd mentality. Wake up, sheeple! Herd mentality occurs when someone adopts a belief or way of doing things simply because others do. They’re operating on cognitive shortcuts and emotions rather than conscious logic.
- Narrative fallacy. If you’ve ever rooted for a sports team because they seem like scrappy underdogs, you might be falling for the narrative fallacy. This bias occurs when you choose an option simply because the story is better or easier to relate to—and it’s probably why a lot of people rooted for the Cleveland Browns in the 2020 NFL playoffs.
- Framing bias. You might fall prey to a framing bias when a set of facts is presented in a more desirable way than another. Is the glass 60% full or is it 40% empty? Both are correct, but the way you frame it evokes a certain emotion or feeling—a bias.
- Self-serving bias. This bias occurs when we attribute any positive outcomes to our own hard work and skill, and any negative outcomes as bad luck. It feels better. That’s why the “pull yourself up by your own bootstraps” trope is so popular—and such a difficult bias to overcome. What successful person wants to believe they got there by sheer dumb luck?
- Loss aversion. We are naturally drawn to the sure thing, which is why most people would instinctively try to avoid losing something, even if they gain something better in the process. The more losses you experience, the easier it is to fall prey to this bias.
- Overconfidence bias. This bias comes into play when you falsely believe you’re smarter, more talented or more skilled than you are. You might erroneously believe you have control over situations when you don’t, or that something will happen simply because you want it to.
- Hindsight bias. Hindsight is 20/20, so if something happens when you “knew it all along,” you might just be falling for this cognitive bias.
- Representative heuristic. This bias occurs when you look at two similar objects, concepts, people or other items and believe that just because they are similar, they are correlated.
You’ve probably experienced some, if not all of these biases in your life. They’re inevitable, simply based on the way the brain works, and there’s no need to beat yourself up about it. The real trick is to recognize them when they pop up, so that you can dedicate more conscious brain power to overcoming them.