The 12 cognitive biases that prevent you from being rational

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The human brain is capable of 1016processes per second, which makes it far more powerful than any computer currently in existence. But that doesn’t mean our brains don’t have major limitations. The lowly calculator can do math thousands of times better than we can, and our memories are often less than useless — plus, we’re subject to cognitive biases, those annoying glitches in our thinking that cause us to make questionable decisions and reach erroneous conclusions. Here are a dozen of the most common and pernicious cognitive biases that you need to know about.


Before we start, it’s important to distinguish between cognitive biases and logical fallacies. A logical fallacy is an error in logical argumentation (e.g. ad hominem attacks, slippery slopes, circular arguments, appeal to force, etc.). A cognitive bias, on the other hand, is a genuine deficiency or limitation in our thinking — a flaw in judgment that arises from errors of memory, social attribution, and miscalculations (such as statistical errors or a false sense of probability).

Some social psychologists believe our cognitive biases help us process information more efficiently, especially in dangerous situations. Still, they lead us to make grave mistakes. We may be prone to such errors in judgment, but at least we can be aware of them. Here are some important ones to keep in mind.

Confirmation Bias

We love to agree with people who agree with us. It’s why we only visit websites that express our political opinions, and why we mostly hang around people who hold similar views and tastes. We tend to be put off by individuals, groups, and news sources that make us feel uncomfortable or insecure about our views — what the behavioral psychologist B. F. Skinner called cognitive dissonance. It’s this preferential mode of behavior that leads to the confirmation bias — the often unconscious act of referencing only those perspectives that fuel our pre-existing views, while at the same time ignoring or dismissing opinions — no matter how valid — that threaten our world view. And paradoxically, the internet has only made this tendency even worse.

Written By: George Dvorsky
continue to source article at io9.com

30 COMMENTS

  1. ” We tend to be put off by individuals, groups, and news sources that make us feel uncomfortable or insecure about our views — what the behavioral psychologist B. F. Skinner called cognitive dissonance. “

    When did Skinner ever talk about cognitive dissonance? I’m familiar with the term but I never recall Skinner talking about it. Talking about things like inner mental states and beliefs was totally counter to his whole behavioristic approach to psychology.

  2. In Reply to Red Dog’s perceptive comment: I think you are right there. It was a term that has sometimes been used retrospectively to describe his work, possibly with the intention of making him spin in his grave (as a response to this stimulus). My degree in experimental psychology at Sussex was many years ago so I could be mistaken. It is of course possible that the article is referring to Principal Skinner in the Simpsons, but I’m only saying that because I usually agree with what their writers say. Skinnerrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr!

  3. I don’t think some of the commenter’s in the article understand the gambler’s fallacy. A coin toss is always 50-50 right? Each toss is independent of previous tosses. The universe does not care what happened before each toss. Then people say what if it lands on its side? Does this ever happen? Any mathematicians here?

  4. Where would blindly following a leader fit in? In group bias or bandwagon effect?

    I was in a discussion recently where I, just because I was currious about what would happen, chose to take an opposite opinion on the subject we were talking about (relationships). What unfolded was amazing. Four people started harping on me as if I had just asked to repeat the holocaust. A fifth kept quiet but went along towards the end although the way he explaned himself didn´t express confidence at all.

    Lateron the leader of the discussion tried to talk me over again after explaning that he was very upset for questioning his opinion. I then told him why I disagreed which upset him even more.

    I really enjoyed myself…

  5. So a person that is conned by someone who is nice to them — Is confirmation bias?? I have heard that “niceness” is a tool of the trade for con artists because someone who is honest and blunt is off putting.

    I found that understanding biases and logical fallacies led to me chucking deism and becoming an atheist. I have always accepted evolution. History led to me dismissing the Bible at 18. When I finally dared to take a look at my precious spiritual experiences, the reality caused them to crumble.

  6. Nice article. This list of cognitive issues can be matched up with some of the steps we have discussed re talking to our friends and neighbors. I will be sending my Christian missionary neighbor a link to it (doesn’t mean he will, necessarily, read it).

  7. In reply to #11 by Quine:

    Nice article. This list of cognitive issues can be matched up with some of the steps we have discussed re talking to our friends and neighbors. I will be sending my Christian missionary neighbor a link to it (doesn’t mean he will, necessarily, read it).

    Even if he did, would it make any difference to his bias?

  8. “the often unconscious act of referencing only those perspectives that fuel our pre-existing views, while at the same time ignoring or dismissing opinions — no matter how valid — that threaten our world view”

    As for instance, dismissing Intelligent Design and Creationism??

    Am I going mad, or are some philosophers actually stupid?

  9. In reply to #13 by Nodhimmi:

    In reply to #11 by Quine:

    Nice article. This list of cognitive issues can be matched up with some of the steps we have discussed re talking to our friends and neighbors. I will be sending my Christian missionary neighbor a link to it (doesn’t mean he will, necessarily, read it).

    Even if he did, would it make any difference to his bias?

    We spend time talking about his experiences talking to tribal groups in Africa, and my experiences talking to persons of faith in the U.S. culture. Nothing we say to each other may be changing our biases, but by seeing a bit more into them, it may help us think a bit beyond them.

  10. In reply to #7 by MilitantNonStampCollector:

    I don’t think some of the commenter’s in the article understand the gambler’s fallacy. A coin toss is always 50-50 right? Each toss is independent of previous tosses. The universe does not care what happened before each toss. Then people say what if it lands on its side? Does this ever happen? Any mathematicians here?

    Actually, a coin toss is a pretty poor example of 50-50 odds: http://www.codingthewheel.com/archives/the-coin-flip-a-fundamentally-unfair-proposition

    But assuming the odds were indeed 50-50, every new flip has indeed the same chance of landing heads or tails. It’s only when you are betting on a particular combination that your odds of winning (not whether it’s heads or tails) change with every toss.
    If you bet on 2 heads and 2 tails in 4 tosses, your chances of winning are 50%. But if the first two flips are both heads, then your odds have been reduced to 25%.

    I’m not a mathematician, but that’s how I understand it.

  11. “We love to agree with people who agree with us. It’s why we only visit websites that express our political opinions, and why we mostly hang around people who hold similar views and tastes. We tend to be put off by individuals, groups, and news sources that make us feel uncomfortable or insecure about our views.”
    Was anyone else really put off by this? It’s just not true.

  12. In reply to #7 by MilitantNonStampCollector:

    I don’t think some of the commenter’s in the article understand the gambler’s fallacy. A coin toss is always 50-50 right? Each toss is independent of previous tosses. The universe does not care what happened before each toss. Then people say what if it lands on its side? Does this ever happen? Any mathematicians here?

    The mathematician and statistician Persi Diaconis used to be a professional magician and can toss a coin either side at will. Makes for a great demonstration to a class of students.

    Michael

  13. In reply to #6 by Sjoerd Westenborg:

    I think the most annoying and obstructive cognitive bias is the ‘I am completely unbiased’-bias

    There is a point where you can cancel the bias by excessivenes. I don’t feel bias or prejudice any more. I have evolved to a level of hating everyone and everything equally. LMAO

  14. I’m not sure the car and aeroplane example is just about not understanding probability. There is also the feeling that in a car we are in control and will be able to avoid danger whereas in the plane we are totally in someone elses control. Of course we overestimate how we much in control we really are on a busy highway.

    Michael

  15. In reply to #10 by JoxerTheMighty:

    In reply to #5 by ridelo:

    1016 processes per second?…

    I suppose it is 10^16 or 10.000.000.000.000.000 processes per second.

    But – can it run Crysis? :P

    Crisis? What Crisis! …. 8-)

  16. A friend of mine has noted that drawn lottery numbers tend to cluster and now when buying a lottery ticket he deliberately selects number clusters. I’ve tried pointing out to him that he can’t increase his chances of winning by picking clusters but he thinks otherwise. Does anyone know if he’s right? Seems to me he’s being influenced by a cognitive bias.

  17. “Most of us would rather experience pleasure in the current moment, while leaving the pain for later. This is a bias that is of particular concern to economists (i.e. our unwillingness to not overspend and save money) and health practitioners. Indeed, a 1998 study showed that, when making food choices for the coming week, 74% of participants chose fruit. But when the food choice was for the current day, 70% chose chocolate”.

    Eh…..what am i supposed to do with those numbers exactly?

  18. In reply to #24 by chapman:

    A friend of mine has noted that drawn lottery numbers tend to cluster and now when buying a lottery ticket he deliberately selects number clusters. I’ve tried pointing out to him that he can’t increase his chances of winning by picking clusters but he thinks otherwise. Does anyone know if he’s right? Seems to me he’s being influenced by a cognitive bias.

    He may very well be able to find “clusters” in past lottery numbers. That’s not uncommon, when you look back at any sequence of numbers chosen at random, they are seldom going to be perfectly distributed. If you have a random number generator generating say five numbers from 1 – 100, each number has equal probability every time. I.e. the number sequence [1,25,50,100] is just as likely as the sequence [1,2,3,4,5] (I’m assuming that is what he means by a “cluster” a bunch of numbers near each other). So once you have the specific numbers generated its likely that you will be able to look at them and say that some numbers ended up close together, in a “cluster”, to expect otherwise would actually be non-random, it would imply that you expect the numbers to always be evenly distributed which won’t happen if every draw is truly random and independent of the others.

    Where he is mistaken is thinking that the analysis you might do after the fact can in any way help you predict a number. A good example of this is the birthday phenomenon, even with a fairly small number of people in a room, the odds are surprisingly good that two of them will have the same birth day. You can use that information in advance, say if you want to bet someone that any arbitrary two people will share a birthday its a good bet. However, if you select any one specific person and start making bets that someone else will have THAT specific same birthday your odds are terrible.

    More info here if you are interested: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Birthday_problem

  19. In reply to #25 by Modesti:

    Why have we developed this biases?

    Yes, THAT is the really interesting question. I wasn’t going to mention the Trivers book again, I plug it so often people will think I’m getting a kick back but I can’t help myself,… Robert Trivers (a very well respected evolutionary biologist) wrote a book a couple of years ago called The Folly of Fools: The Logic of Deceit and Self Deception. Prof. Dawkins highly recommended it so I got it and its a fascinating book. He goes into examples of most of these biases in humans and he shows how they are similar to examples of deception and self deception in other animals such as birds and chimps.

    The specifics as to why we deceive ourselves (which is essentially what bias is, self deception) are complex and of course we don’t have anything near a complete understanding, but what we do know he documents very well and he is a great writer, he pops back and forth between well constructed double blind experiments and personal anecdotes where prof Trivers makes an ass out of himself trying to impress a woman! (something I can also relate to :)

  20. In reply to #18 by ApexDisorder:

    “We love to agree with people who agree with us. It’s why we only visit websites that express our political opinions, and why we mostly hang around people who hold similar views and tastes. We tend to be put off by individuals, groups, and news sources that make us feel uncomfortable or insecure about our views.”
    Was anyone else really put off by this? It’s just not true.

    No, I wasn’t put off by that at all. Its obviously true to me, even among people such as myself who at least TRY to remain unbiased and seek out alternative views, there is always going to be some bias, its unavoidable, and the only way IMO to ameliorate these biases is to be aware that they exist.

    For example, if I see an argument on this site that puts religion in a bad light I’m going to be more critical of it because I know its going to be appealing to one of my existing preconceptions.

  21. In reply to #28 by Red Dog:

    Thank you Red Dog :). I was thinking for the moment weather I have asked something foolish, but I also think that it is very interesting subject, upon I would like to know more. I will try to find this book that you are talking about.
    Those biases are really in some way a self deception aren’t they, and I would like to know did it all evolved.
    Thank you :).

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