The power of the brain … and the mind … can create things that don’t necessarily help us.
The human brain is an amazing organ: it produces more than 50,000 thoughts every day and about 100,000 chemical reactions each second of every day. With that kind of power and processing power, you’d think our judgment would be highly accurate. Unfortunately, that’s far from the truth.
Our brain trusts cognitive biases over hard evidence. Cognitive bias is the tendency to make irrational judgments in consistent patterns.
Studies conducted around the world have found cognitive bias creates so much confusion in the brain, that people make poor, irrational judgments because of it. For example, people with a certain hair color had higher salaries than other people with the same education and experience; people with “mature faces” had more career success than people with “baby faces,” and female scientist bosses were more likely to not only hire male scientists, but to pay them an average of $4,000 more than female scientists.
It’s unlikely that people in these studies consciously paid people with a certain hair color more money, or that they enabled mature-looking people, or that they believed male scientists are worth more than female scientists. Our unconscious biases are often so strong that they lead us to act in ways that are inconsistent with reason, as well as our values and beliefs.
Cognitive biases have a tendency to become engrained in our lives, and awareness is perhaps the best way to beat them. With that in mind, here are some of the most common types of cognitive biases, as published recently in Entrepreneur magazine.
> The Decoy Effect. This occurs when someone believes they have two options, but a third option is presented to make the second one feel more palatable. For example, you visit a car lot to consider two cars; one listed for $30,000 and the other for $40,000. At first, the $40,000 car seems expensive, and the salesperson senses your hesitancy, so a third car is shown to you, but this car lists for $65,000. Suddenly, the $40,000 car seems reasonable by comparison. The salesperson is preying on your decoy bias – the decoy being the $65,000 car that the salesperson knows you won’t buy.
> Affect Heuristic. This is the human tendency to base our decisions on our emotions. For example, a study in Japan showed that 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’re burnt out.
> 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; information that is radical or different is quickly rejected in order to maintain pre-existing beliefs.
> The Halo Effect. This 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 the high marks on future papers even if their performance doesn’t warrant it. The same thing happens in work and personal relationships.
> The Horn Effect: This effect is the exact opposite of the halo effect. People who perform poorly at first can easily get pegged as low-performers even though they work hard enough to disprove this notion.
Maybe you’ve experienced one or more of these biases; if you’re human, you have! Recognizing and understanding bias is instrumental in being able to think more objectively and to interact more effectively with other people. Now that you know, you can use this information to make changes in your own thoughts… and decisions.