Cognitive bias: What it is and how to overcome it

July 6, 2021 - 16 min read

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What is cognitive bias, and how does it impact our way of thinking?

What are the signs of a cognitive bias?

Common types of cognitive bias and examples

Why should you try to eliminate biased thinking?

10 tips to overcome cognitive biases

Overcoming cognitive biases

As we go through life, we tend to think that we make decisions based on objective information and events that have happened.

We also tend to imagine that our brains work like tiny but powerful supercomputers. We imagine they take in facts and make rational judgments.

But the truth is a little more complicated than that.

While we think we're objectively taking in information, the truth is otherwise. There are several cognitive biases that can alter how we make decisions. These biases can lead us to make inaccurate judgments. And also make us behave in irrational ways.

Let’s take a look at some common forms of cognitive bias and how we can overcome them.

What is cognitive bias, and how does it impact our way of thinking?

At their core, cognitive biases are our brain’s attempt to be efficient and make decisions quickly. They serve as mental shortcuts so that our brains can speed up information processing.

They help us more quickly make sense of what we’re seeing and move on to make a decision. In this sense, they're considered an “adaptive tool.”

These mental shortcuts exist to make our brains more efficient. But instead, they can create systematic errors in our way of thinking. This is because they rely on our perceptions, observations, and experiences and not on actual facts.

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In reality, we see the world through our own set of filters and make decisions based on them. It’s important to acknowledge that these filters aren't “factual.” Instead, they reflect our own particular perceptions and experiences.

These biases can lead us to avoid information that we don’t like or don’t want to see. Additionally, they can cause us to see patterns that don’t exist.

While many of the cognitive biases we experience are unconscious, we can take steps to avoid them. Before we can delve into avoiding cognitive biases, we need to understand these biases and where they're most likely to show up.

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What are the signs of a cognitive bias?

There are some sure signs we can tune into that help us determine if a cognitive bias is interfering with our decisions.

Although these signs might be easier to spot in others, we can work to recognize them in ourselves.

Signs that you could be experiencing cognitive bias include:

  • Only tuning in to news outlets and stories that confirm your opinions
  • Attributing other people's success to luck. But taking personal credit for your own accomplishments
  • Constantly blaming others and outside factors, if things don’t go your way
  • Assuming you're always correct
  • Assuming that everyone else shares your same opinions or beliefs

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Common types of cognitive bias and examples

Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman first introduced the idea of cognitive bias in 1972. They demonstrated that people often made judgments and decisions that weren't rational.

There is now research across the fields of social psychology and behavioral economics confirming dozens of cognitive biases.

Usually, these cognitive bias examples are due to ignoring relevant information. Or they’re due to giving weight to an unimportant but salient feature of the situation.

Let’s look at some common biases that receive the most research attention and have the greatest impact on how we navigate the world:

  1. Confirmation bias: this self-serving bias refers to our tendency to look for information that confirms what we already believe. And we ignore information that would disprove our beliefs.

    If we only pay attention to news sources that confirm our particular political or economic views, we're likely experiencing Confirmation Bias.
  2. Anchoring bias: this bias refers to our tendency to rely too heavily on the first piece of information we receive. Later information may even contradict these early facts.

    An example of anchoring would be seeing a house that costs $1,000,000 — and then seeing a second one for $500,000 and feeling as though the second house seemed inexpensive.

    If instead, we'd first seen a house that cost $200,000, we’d feel differently about that $500,000 house.
  3. In-group bias: this bias causes us to support or believe in those who are in our social group while not extending that favor to outsiders.

    Examples happen when we find out we like the same sports team. Or we went to the same university as another person. Then we automatically assume that they must be a “good person” simply because of this one factor we have in common.
  4. Fundamental attribution error: this bias (also called the actor-observer bias) refers to our belief that we ourselves act because of a situation. But others act because of a stable trait, such as personality.

    For example, if someone cuts us off in traffic, we decide it’s because of who they are. Maybe they’re rude or a terrible driver.

    But if we cut someone off in traffic, we believe it is because of the situation. We’re running late, or someone swerved into the lane in front of us. It’s a diagnostic error on our part.
  5. Hindsight bias: this bias refers to our tendency to perceive events as more predictable after they happen.

    Examples of hindsight bias occur when people see the outcome of a decision. (E.g., a business decision, a political election, the underdog winning a basketball game.) And feel they “knew it'd happen all along.”
  6. Halo effect: this bias refers to our tendency to allow our impression of others in one area to influence our overall impression.

    When it’s reported that a celebrity we admire has broken the law, the Halo Effect can cause us to believe this report is false. We just like this person too much to believe it’s true.
  7. Self-serving bias: this describes our tendency to claim success for successes but not failures. In other words, we blame external forces when bad things happen. But give ourselves credit when good things happen.

    An example of this cognitive error could be a student who credits their intelligence and hard work when they get high test scores. But, they then think their teacher is at fault if their grade is low.
  8. Sunk cost fallacy: this logical fallacy refers to a tendency to continue a behavior because of previously invested resources. Another term for this can be “throwing good money after bad.”

    Have you ever felt like you had to finish a meal just because it was expensive? Or kept putting money into repairs for a car simply because you had already put in a lot of money previously? Then you may have experienced the Sunk Cost Fallacy.
  9. Negativity bias: this bias refers to the idea that something you perceive as negative has a stronger impact on you.

    Compared to a neutral or positive event, you'll attribute more weight to a negative outcome. This could be a negative emotion, social interaction, or event.
  10. Attentional bias: this refers to the way a person's perception is affected by what they're paying attention to.

    You've probably had this experience when you buy a new car. Suddenly you're seeing the same model of car everywhere. But really, nothing has changed.
  11. Overconfidence bias: some types of bias can manifest in the form of personality traits.

You've probably met someone who thought they could do anything. That's an overconfidence bias.

This is when you hold a false idea about your level of talent, intellect, or skills. It can be quite a dangerous bias that can have disastrous consequences in some scenarios.

It could be overestimating your driving abilities on the highway. Or it could be knowledge of the stock market while investing.

This bias is closely related to an optimism bias, which is thinking that you’re less likely to experience a negative event.

An overconfidence bias is pretty much the exact opposite of imposter syndrome.

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Why should you try to eliminate biased thinking?

There are a number of reasons we should strive to eliminate cognitive biases and biased thinking.

At its core, biased thinking makes it difficult for us to exchange accurate information. It can lead us to avoid information that we don’t like and fail to recognize information that could lead to a more accurate outcome.

Biases distort our critical thinking and can cause us to make irrational decisions. And finally, they can harm our relationships. Biases can cause us to make inaccurate judgments about others and then treat them accordingly.

10 tips to overcome cognitive biases

While cognitive biases can be unconscious, there are a number of things we can do to reduce their likelihood.

1. Be aware

The first tip to overcome these biases is to acknowledge that they exist. When we know there are factors that can alter the way we see things, we're more likely to be careful as we form judgments or make decisions.

2. Consider current factors that may be influencing your decision

Is there anything in the current situation that could lead you to feel overconfident in your convictions? Or cause you to ignore certain information? Make sure not to fall victim to the bandwagon effect, or adopt attitudes simply because others are.

3. Reflect on the past

Look for patterns in how you've perceived prior situations and where you might have made mistakes. If, for example, you see that you tend to ignore facts or overemphasize intuition. Then lean into opportunities to further explore data presented to you.

4. Be curious

Being curious can help us avoid cognitive biases. Curiosity can help us pause long enough to ask questions. It stops us from assuming we're right.

5. Strive for a growth mindset

People with growth mindsets believe that cognitive ability can be developed and tend to learn from criticism. Rather than covering up mistakes, they see them as an opportunity to learn.

They don’t believe that factors are “fixed” or unchangeable. Cognitive bias modification is possible with some work and effort. A growth mindset is one of many heuristics that can help move you in the right direction.

6. Identify what makes you uncomfortable

Are there people or situations that rub you the wrong way? Ask yourself what makes you respond this way and whether you could have a bias that's impacting your perspective.

7. Embrace the opposite

Trying to understand an issue from both sides can make you a stronger critical thinker and help you see the world with more empathy. Push yourself to believe the opposite of your initial reaction and pay attention to what happens.

8. Seek multiple perspectives

Solicit feedback and perspectives from others. Asking others for their input can help us find potential blind spots and stop us from being overconfident.

9. Look for disconfirming evidence

Go out of your way to seek out information that runs counter to your existing belief.

10. Practice intellectual humility

Intellectual humility is about remaining open to the idea that you might be wrong. Rather than blindly standing by our convictions, it’s about asking, “what am I missing here?”

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Overcoming cognitive biases

We all have cognitive biases. But there are proactive steps we can take to reduce their negative impact on our judgment. Doing so will help us improve our relationships and make better decisions.

BetterUp can help your team create a more inclusive culture with less cognitive bias. See how BetterUp works by requesting a customized demo.

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Published July 6, 2021

Bethany Klynn, PhD

BetterUp Fellow Coach and PhD in Industrial/Organizational Psychology

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