What is a cognitive bias?
Cognitive biases are judgment errors that people commit due to irrational thought processes. Despite the fact that they often produce unfavorable consequences, cognitive biases are considered psychologically satisfying and convenient. Cognitive biases are often difficult to overcome because they help people simplify the world around them.
In the most general sense, cognitive bias is the product of simplified and unsound mental processes that people use to understand the complexities of the world. These erroneous judgments can arise from numerous causes, such as limited exposure to the facts of certain situations, overreliance on past precedents, overconfidence in the future, and the relentless pursuit of self-interest. People employ cognitive biases when they ignore facts that are present, see facts that are not there, or blindly discredit new evidence in favor of long-held beliefs.
A scientific example of this involves an observer using the visual clarity of an object to determine its distance from himself. To humans, blurrier objects naturally seem farther away, while clearer objects appear closer. However, the numerous factors that contribute to dynamic visibility on Earth or in the atmosphere can change from moment to moment, deceiving observers into establishing false beliefs about the true distance of objects. This can cause people to form cognitive biases about how to judge an object's distance.
This scenario is a model of how all cognitive biases work; they begin as seemingly logical and rational arguments used to understand new concepts. But the biases fail as sound reasoning when people refuse to adapt them to account for new information. This would necessitate a degree of psychological discomfort in the observer and is therefore generally avoided. If the observer refuses to alter his view that blurry objects must be farther away, even when corrected by the facts, he is preserving a cognitive bias.
The object-observer example is a type of information bias, one of two broad categories of cognitive biases. An information bias results from reliance on heuristics , or quickly acquired but inaccurate judgments based on insufficient facts. The other category is known as ego bias, which refers to seemingly sound judgments that are actually based only on emotions such as fear and anger, desires to succumb to peer pressure, and unfounded beliefs that information or advice from others must be correct.
Depending on the situation, the effects of holding cognitive biases vary. Adhering to the cognitive bias about the clarity of distant objects involves relatively low stakes, incorrect though it may be. Other cognitive biases, however, can yield more profound results, as in the case of politicians who ignore inconvenient facts and make important decisions based on their inaccurate judgments. The difference between these two examples demonstrates the great number and diversity of cognitive biases that humans can hold.
A common cognitive bias is the affect heuristic, in which people's current moods or emotional states dictate how they perceive the world. If a hungry person were quickly shown the words rake, cake, and take, the person would remember seeing cake and forget the other words because appetite has been substituted for intellect. Another common bias is confirmation bias. This involves people taking in only those facts and opinions that support their established viewpoints and ignoring all evidence to the contrary. As a result of these confirmation biases, people perpetuate their reliance on potentially untrue claims, which can form the basis of prejudice.
In the bandwagon effect, people become more likely to take up particular views as the popularity of these views increase within society. This cognitive bias can also be called groupthink , a herd mentality in which individuals are less likely to express dissent for fear of social rejection. As a result, potentially better ideas are not considered. An example of a cognitive bias created for self-interest is the choice-supportive bias. This occurs when people become prone to ascribing only positive aspects to the decisions they make while ignoring the negative aspects. For example, a woman may downplay the fact that her recently acquired dog occasionally bites people but become angry when other dogs bite her. The choice-supportive bias has produced the woman's double standard.
The clustering illusion bias can have particularly damaging effects on gamblers. Winning money on slot machines or roulette wheels is based entirely on chance. But for people under the influence of the clustering illusion, several consecutive wins on certain machines or wheel colors makes them believe that the machine or color will continue yielding success. The gamblers then risk losing large sums of money due to unsound judgment.
Some cognitive biases involve selective memory distorting people's perceptions of the truth. A common such bias is the tendency to focus on negative experiences while ignoring positive ones. When reflecting on a recently given speech, a person may obsess over a single mistake in pronunciation and forget that the rest of the speech was received well. Somewhat related to selective memory is personalizing, a bias in which people view themselves as personally responsible for all actions around them, particularly the moods of others. These people believe they have brought on the anger or irritation of others without examining possible alternative causes for these emotions.
These examples represent a small number of the cognitive biases that can affect people's judgment in many areas of life. Some of these biases, such as personalization, result in only mildly intrusive mental stresses. Others, such as the bandwagon effect and clustering illusion, can lead to compromises in decision making, which can produce negative consequences and financial losses. People can only eliminate cognitive biases by analyzing and accepting facts.
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