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Cognitive Biases

19 Aug 2016   Shanti Gowans
Formal Stages of Cognitive Development can be recognised as follows:
0-2 years: Sensory and Motor
- Sensory curiosity about the world.  
- Coordination of senses with motor responses, 
- Language used for demands and cataloging
- Object permanence developed.
2-7 Years: Preoperational
- Use of proper syntax and grammar to express full concepts.
- Symbolic thinking.
- Imagination and intuition are strong, but complex, abstract thought still difficult.
- Conservation developed.
7-11 years: Concrete Operational
- Concepts attached to concrete situations.
- Time, space and quantity are understood and can be applied, but not as independent concepts.
11+ Formal Operations
- Theoretical, hypothetical and counterfactual thinking.
- Abstract logis and reasoning.
- Strategy and planning becomes possible.
- Concepts learned in one context can be applied to another.
The human brain is a natural wonder. Studies show that it produces more than 50,000 thoughts each day and 100,000 chemical reactions each second. With this amount of processing power, you would think our judgment would be highly accurate. However, this is far from the case.
Our judgments are often inaccurate because the brain relies on, and favours cognitive biases over hard evidence. Cognitive bias is the tendency to make irrational judgments in consistent patterns.
Researchers have found that cognitive bias wreaks havoc by forcing people to make poor, irrational judgments. Here are some examples:
• A Queensland University study found that blonde women earned, on average, 7% higher salaries than redheads and brunettes.
• A Duke study found that people with “mature” faces experienced more career success than those with “baby” faces. “Baby” faces were defined as those with small chins, wider cheeks, and bigger eyes. “Mature” faces were those with bigger chins, narrower facial features, and smaller eyes.
• A Yale study found that female scientists were not only more likely to hire male scientists but they also paid them $4,000 more than female scientists.
It’s highly unlikely that the people in these studies actually wanted to pay blondes more money, enable people with mature faces to succeed at the expense of those with baby faces, or hire male scientists disproportionally and pay them more money. Yet, our unconscious biases are often so strong that they lead us to act in ways that are inconsistent with reason, or our values and beliefs.
Let’s explore some of the most common types of cognitive biases that entrench themselves in our lives. Awareness is the best way to overcome these biases, so pay careful attention to how they influence you.
The decoy effect
This occurs when someone believes they have two options, but you present a third option to make the second one feel more palatable. For example, you visit a car showroom and consider purchasing one of two cars: one is listed for $30,000 and the other for $40,000. At first, the $40,000 car seems expensive, so the salesperson shows you a $65,000 car. Immediately, the $40,000 car seems reasonable by comparison. This salesperson is preying on your decoy bias, the decoy being the $65,000 car that s/he knows you won’t buy.
Affect heuristic
Affect heuristic is the human tendency to base our decisions on our emotions. Here is an example: In a study conducted at Shukutoku University, Japan, participants judged a disease that killed 1,286 people out of every 10,000 as being more dangerous than one that was 24.14% fatal (despite this representing twice as many deaths). People reacted emotionally to the image of 1,286 people dying, whereas the percentage didn’t arouse the same mental imagery and emotions.
Fundamental attribution error
This is the tendency to attribute situational behavior to a person’s fixed personality. For example, people often attribute poor work performance to laziness when there are so many other possible explanations. It could be the individual in question is receiving projects they aren’t passionate about, their rocky home life is carrying over to their work life, or they are burnt out.
The ideometer effect
This refers to the fact that our thoughts can make us feel real emotions. This is why actors envision terrible scenarios, such as the death of a loved one, in order to make themselves cry on cue and activities such as cataloging what you’re grateful for can have such a profound, positive impact on your wellbeing.
Confirmation bias
Confirmation bias is the tendency to seek out information that supports our pre-existing beliefs. In other words, we form an opinion first and then seek out evidence to back it up, rather than basing our opinions on facts.
Conservatism bias
This bias leads people to believe that pre-existing information takes precedence over new information. Don’t be quick to reject something just because it’s radical or different. Great ideas usually are.
The ostrich effect
The ostrich effect is aptly named after the fact that ostriches, when scared, literally bury their heads in the ground. This effect describes our tendency to hide from impending problems. We may not physically bury our heads in the sand, but we might as well. For example, if your company is experiencing layoffs, you’re having relationship issues, or you receive negative feedback, it’s common to attempt to push all these problems away, rather than to face them head on. This doesn’t work and simply delays the inevitable.
Reactance is our tendency to react to rules and regulations by exercising our freedom. A prevalent example of this is children with overbearing parents. Tell a teenager to do what you say because you told them so, and they’re very likely to start breaking your rules. Similarly, employees who feel mistreated, or “big brothered” by their employers are more likely to take longer breaks, extra sick days, or even steal from their company.
The halo effect
The halo effect occurs when someone creates a strong first impression and that impression sticks. This is extremely noticeable in grading. For example, often teachers grade a student’s first paper, and if it’s good, are prone to continue giving them high marks on future papers even if their performance doesn’t warrant it. The same thing happens at work and in personal relationships.
The horn effect
This effect is the exact opposite of the halo effect. When you perform poorly at first, you can easily get pegged as a low-performer even if you work hard enough to disprove that notion.
Planning fallacy
Planning fallacy is the tendency to think that we can do things more quickly than we actually can. For procrastinators, this leads to incomplete work, and this makes up the types who overpromise and underdeliver.
The bandwagon effect
The bandwagon effect is the tendency to do what everyone else is doing. This creates a kind of groupthink, where people run with the first idea that’s put onto the table instead of exploring a variety of options. The bandwagon effect illustrates how we like to make decisions based on what feels good (doing what everyone else is doing), even if they’re poor alternatives.
The Snow ball affect 
This is where one adds all the tiny problems of the day/week together and it snowballs getting bigger and bigger and feels unstoppable and insurmountable when in reality we are just massing together a lot of smaller problems which are unrelated to one another and if tackle individually can be addressed successfully.
Bias blind spot
If you begin to feel that you’ve mastered your biases, keep in mind that you’re most likely experiencing the bias blind spot. This is the tendency to see biases in other people but not in yourself.
Bringing It All Together
Which of these biases have you experienced? 
Owning up to being guilty as charged on all counts permits you to recognise and understand your bias. This is invaluable because it enables you to think more objectively and to interact more effectively with other people. Thus, although this article focuses on the negative effects these biases can have on your judgement, the flip side of course is that understanding these tendencies and incorporating them intentionally into your daily interactions with people can make you a more effective and happier person.


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Shanti Gowans is the globally recognised author and founder of Shanti Yoga™, Meditation and Ayurveda for the self, family and community.

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