Cognitive Biases: What Are They And How To Overcome Them
Cognitive biases are mental constructs based on wrong perceptions, prejudices, judgments and ideologies that lead you to make decisions that almost always turn out to be very bad for you.
How many times have you given in to an impulsive purchase only to regret it within minutes? Or have you put off a project, ending up accumulating a thousand? Or maybe you went astray at the table, developing endless feelings of guilt? In all cases, cognitive biases may be to blame.
Don’t you know what they are? Don’t worry, you’re certainly not alone. But the time has come to run for cover because it is a very important concept for your mental well-being and your psycho-emotional balance.
In fact, cognitive biases are mental constructs based on wrong perceptions, prejudices, judgments and ideologies that lead you to make decisions that almost always turn out to be very bad for you. That’s why you have to learn to know them and bypass them.
Cognitive biases are “mistakes” made by our mind. While we often think we are infallible, in reality we are not at all. Our brain, on average, makes 35,000 decisions every day: a truly impressive number. It shouldn’t surprise you, therefore, that it occasionally goes haywire: if most of these choices are correct, some are not at all.
To cope with the thousands of stimuli it receives daily, your mind uses shortcuts. In many cases these shortcuts are useful and help you to quickly and efficiently interpret situations and act promptly. In other cases, though, these shortcuts lead you down dead ends.
Cognitive biases, therefore, are intuitive and hasty mental procedures, which derive from a distorted interpretation of reality. But what do they depend on?
They are certainly related to data overload: if the mind is flooded with billions of information, it is more likely to “go ballistic”. However, a lack of detail can also be detrimental. In fact, if we don’t have indications to think about, we can fall into error and reach incorrect conclusions.
Speed is another risk factor: if we want to think and act quickly, we are more likely to follow dysfunctional mental shortcuts. But it is not an absolute dogma: the brain is made to process data quickly, so it is sometimes perfectly capable of making the right decisions almost instantaneously.
Finally, we must not forget that our memory is selective: it keeps some memories, deleting others and even distorting some facts.
Mental shortcuts are not negative a priori. On the contrary, they allow us to act quickly and make quick decisions in potentially dangerous situations. Cognitive biases, however, can generate significant consequences, so you should never underestimate them.
Some cognitive biases, while continuous and repeated, are “harmless”. Others, on the other hand, can give rise to consequences that are not insignificant, which impact not only your behaviors, but also your thought processes, causing you emotional pain. That’s why it’s essential that you learn what they are and above all that you become aware of their impact on your life.
For example, another typical short circuit is the self-serving bias, which leads you to think that the successes you have achieved are only thanks to your efforts and your skills, while the failures have been caused by external factors or by other people. It’s a negative belief because it doesn’t allow you to learn from your mistakes and grow.
The hindsight bias is a common cognitive bias that involves the tendency to see events, even random ones, as more predictable than they are. It’s also commonly referred to as the “I knew it all along” phenomenon.
Some examples of the hindsight bias include:
The misinformation effect is the tendency for memories to be heavily influenced by things that happened after the actual event itself. A person who witnesses a car accident or crime might believe that their recollection is crystal clear, but researchers have found that memory is surprisingly susceptible to even very subtle influences.
The anchoring bias is the tendency to be overly influenced by the first piece of information that we hear. Some examples of how this works:
The confirmation bias is the tendency to listen more often to information that confirms our existing beliefs. Through this bias, people tend to favor information that reinforces the things they already think or believe.
Cognitive biases, therefore, can hide various dangers and give you an emotional overload. However, you can adopt strategies to avoid harmful consequences.
For example, to counter self-serving bias, you can ask yourself questions such as: “Could I have done something different to change what happened?“, “What did this outcome depend on?“…
To prevent the confirmation bias from making you stubborn about your position, preventing you from considering other opinions that maybe could be useful to you, try questioning yourself instead.
Are you really sure that your idea is the best? And when planning a strategy, think about the ways you’ve ruled out a priori: are they really that wrong?
In conclusion, if you don’t want mental shortcuts to set you insidious traps, learn to recognize the ones you most often adopt and study moves to neutralize them. Emotional (and non-emotional) self-awareness also makes the difference from this point of view.